VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Saturday announced it had signed a "provisional agreement" with China on the appointment of bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that for decades fueled tensions between the Holy See and Beijing and thwarted efforts toward diplomatic relations.
Beijing's long-held insistence that it must approve the appointments in China clashed with absolute papal authority to pick bishops.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, told reporters the aim 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."
He did not immediately provide details about the deal, announced at the Vatican and in Beijing shortly after Pope Francis began a four-day pilgrimage to the Baltics.
The Vatican described the provisional agreement as "the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement" following a "long process of careful negotiation," and said it allows for periodic review. "It concerns the nomination of bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the Church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level."
While the agreement could help pave the way for formal diplomatic ties and possibly an eventual papal trip to China, it was also sure to anger Catholics who vigorously advocated for the Vatican to maintain a hard line on caring for its flock in China, where Catholic clergy and rank-and-file faithful have suffered persecution and imprisonment over the years.
Since Communism took hold in China, there have in practice been two Catholic churches — one sanctioned by the government and an underground one loyal to the Vatican.
The accord was signed in Beijing during a meeting between China's deputy minister for foreign affairs, Wang Chao, and the Vatican undersecretary for state relations, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri.
In Beijing, the foreign ministry put out a statement saying "China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications and push forward the process of improving relations between the two sides."