Nonetheless, after Benedict’s surprise resignation announcement, China said improved relations were only possible if the Vatican took “a flexible and practical attitude,” switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing and, crucially, minded its own business.
“The Vatican should not interfere in China’s internal affairs, including interferences in the name of religious affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said.
The underground Church says it will stand firm on its principles under the new pope, while building on dialogue with the Chinese government.
“We will still say what we need to say and we will still do what we need to do,” an underground priest said in an e-mail to reporters delivered via the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese.
If the church allowed political considerations to override its theological mission “our loss will be very, very great,” he said, speaking anonymously because of concern for his safety.
The dispute leaves the country’s Catholics — a minority among the estimated 67 million Christians of all denominations — feeling vulnerable.
“China’s Catholics remain nervous that their situation could change at any time,” said Anthony Clark, an expert on the faith in the country, who teaches Chinese history at Whitworth University, a Christian institution in the US.
“Recent months have seen a tight government crackdown on underground Protestant churches ... and Catholics worry that more state interference might be coming their way too,” Clark added.
In Shanghai, visitors to the hillside pilgrimage site of Sheshan Basilica had divided views on prospects under Benedict’s successor.
“Everything is possible,” said Marco Ju, who converted to the faith four years ago.
However, a priest in the state-sanctioned church, who identified himself as Father Fang, said he doubted the new pope could normalize relations.
“This target will never be achieved,” he said. “The church will not give up its independence.”