Pope Francis is leading a determined push to fundamentally alter the relationship between the Vatican and China, which for decades has been infused with mutual suspicion and acrimony.
Interviews with about two dozen Catholic officials and clergy in Hong Kong, Italy and China, as well as sources with ties to the leadership in Beijing, reveal details of an agreement that would fall short of full diplomatic ties, but would address key issues at the heart of the bitter divide between the Vatican and Beijing.
A working group with members from both sides was set up in April and is discussing how to resolve a core disagreement over who has the authority to select and ordain bishops in China, several of the sources said.
The group is also trying to settle a dispute over eight bishops who were appointed by Beijing, but did not get papal approval — an act of defiance in the eyes of the Vatican.
In what would be a dramatic breakthrough, the pope is preparing to pardon the eight, possibly as early as this summer, paving the way to further detente, Catholic sources with knowledge of the deliberations said.
A signal of Francis’ deep desire for rapprochement with China came last year in the form of a behind-the-scenes effort by the Vatican to engineer the first-ever meeting between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Aides to the pope tried to arrange a meeting when both Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) were in New York in September last year to address the UN General Assembly.
The meeting did not happen, but the overture did not go unnoticed in Beijing.
While the two sides have said they are discussing the issue of the bishops, Catholic sources gave reporters the most detailed account yet of the negotiations and the secret steps the Vatican has taken to pave the way to a deal.
The talks come more than six decades after CCP leaders, having vanquished the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), expelled Vatican envoy Antonio Riberi from Beijing in 1951 as they banished missionaries and began a crackdown on organized religion. The Vatican remains the only Western state that does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing, maintaining instead formal relations with Taiwan.
For the Vatican, a thaw in relations with China offers the prospect of easing the plight of Christians in China, who for decades have been persecuted by authorities. It might also ultimately pave the way to diplomatic relations, giving the Church full access to the world’s most populous nation.
An official relationship with China “would crown a dream that the Catholic Church has cultivated for many centuries: to establish a regular presence in China through stable diplomatic ties,” said Elisa Giunipero, a researcher at the Catholic University of Milan in Italy who has studied the history of the Catholic Church in China for 20 years.
For China, improved relations could burnish its international image and soften criticism of its human rights record. It would also be an important step in prizing the Vatican away from Taiwan, handing China an important diplomatic victory.
Spokespeople for the two sides acknowledged the talks are continuing, but declined to answer detailed questions about them.
“The aim of the contacts between the Holy See and Chinese representatives is not primarily that of establishing diplomatic relations, but that of facilitating the life of the church and contributing to making relations in ecclesial life normal and serene,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.