ROME — The Vatican said Saturday it had reached a “provisional agreement” with China on the process used to appoint bishops, a breakthrough after years of contentious negotiations on the management of Catholic leadership in the Communist country.
The deal paves the way for bishops to be recognized by both the Vatican and the Chinese government, a step toward ending the current system in which some bishops are backed by only one side or the other.
The accord, signed Saturday in Beijing, is the highest-profile sign of rapprochement in decades between the world’s most populous country one of the most powerful religious institutions.
Beijing and the Holy See have long been at odds on leadership of Catholics in China. China imposed state control on Catholic affairs in the country, including authorizing which churches can operate and appointing bishops.
Some outside experts say the agreement could end seven decades of strain between the sides, opening the door for eventual diplomatic relations and a potential papal trip to China.
But Pope Francis also figures to draw pointed criticism from many Catholic opponents of the deal, who say the church is eroding its credibility by compromising with a country that restricts religious freedom, and where Catholics have long faced surveillance and crackdowns.
“The objective of the accord is not political, but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said.
After announcing the agreement, the Vatican said it was lifting the excommunications of seven Chinese bishops ordained without papal approval. That concession, a central part of the agreement, means that all bishops in China are now recognized by the Vatican — and operating under the pope’s authority.
The church in China has long been split between Catholics who swear allegiance to the Vatican and others who practice the faith in state-sanctioned churches supervised by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
Some church leaders, like Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian, have the backing of the Vatican but not of the Chinese government, meaning they operate furtively in unofficial churches.
Estimates put the number of Catholics in China between 10 and 12 million. About half are affiliated with government-managed churches.
Citing “Vatican sources,” Reuters said the deal gives the pope veto power in the naming of candidates for bishop.
“Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics,” the Vatican said in a statement.
The issue of bishop appointments has for decades been the main point of contention between the Vatican and China, who have negotiated for more than three decades to end the impasse. But those efforts have faced significant opposition, particularly from Catholics in Hong Kong, who say that Chinese Catholics have a right to practice their religion without the meddling of an officially atheist government.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, said earlier this year that “if the government is managing the church, it is not the Catholic Church anymore.”
Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican recognized some bishops appointed by the Chinese government. But the diplomatic efforts ramped up under Francis, continuing even as the church dealt with a global crisis of sexual abuse scandals. In a 2016 interview, Francis spoke about the “greatness of the Chinese people” and sent a New Year’s greeting to President Xi Jinping.
The Vatican said its agreement with China “is the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” and includes a possibility for “periodic reviews of its application.”
The Chinese foreign ministry released a statement saying that “China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications and push forward the process of improving relations between the two sides,” according to the Associated Press.