At the time, both sides said it was a starting point for deeper talks, and the Vatican praised it as leading to a rapprochement between the official churches in China and the Holy See. In China, churches for various Christian denominations, including Roman Catholicism, are either sanctioned by the Chinese government, which appoints or approves clerical leaders, or underground ones. The underground Catholic Churches have been loyal to the Vatican, and they are overseen by bishops secretly appointed by the pope.
The 2018 agreement reportedly allowed Beijing to name bishop candidates to the official churches but gave the pope final say over the appointments. This was understood to be the process moving forward after the pope recognized several bishops appointed by Chinese officials. Those bishops had been excommunicated by the Vatican.
Critics of the agreement denounced the Vatican for dealing with an authoritarian government and endowing Beijing with greater legitimacy, allowing it potentially more influence over the religious lives of China’s 10 million to 12 million Catholics. Some prominent American politicians, such as Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, have been among those urging the Vatican to refrain from dealing with the Chinese Communist Party.
Under the rule of Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, the party has tightened its control over the nation’s religious and spiritual life as part of a drive that Mr. Xi has led to increase party oversight in almost every aspect of society. Officials in southeastern China have imposed especially harsh restrictions on the practice of Christianity. From 2014 to 2016, the authorities in Zhejiang Province, where Mr. Xi once served as party chief, ordered crosses to be torn down from 1,200 to 1,700 churches, according to officials and residents there.
The Vatican has had a fraught relationship with Beijing for decades.
The two severed diplomatic ties in 1951, and the Vatican officially recognizes Taiwan, the democratic island that has de facto independence from China. In recent years, Chinese officials have increasingly pressured the handful of governments around the world that recognize Taiwan to end those relationships, with some success. If the Vatican and Beijing move to restore diplomatic ties, Chinese officials would almost certainly demand that the Vatican end relations with Taiwan.
Pope Francis had made it a goal to increase the church’s presence around the world. In China, Protestantism has been growing at a much faster rate than Catholicism.
In 2014, the Chinese government allowed the pope’s airplane to fly through Chinese airspace on its way to Seoul, South Korea, breaking with tradition. The pope broadcast via radio telegram a message to Mr. Xi, offering well wishes and blessings of peace. While addressing bishops outside Seoul, the pope said: “In this spirit of openness to others, I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all.”