BEIJING: Secret talks between the Vatican and Beijing are raising hopes of a “historic” rapprochement after six decades of estrangement, but some Chinese clergy fear that Rome will accept a Communist stranglehold over the country’s Catholics.
Since becoming head of the Holy See in 2013 Pope Francis has tried to improve relations with the Chinese government in the hope of reconnecting with Catholics in China who are divided between two denominations, loyal to either Rome or Beijing.
But opponents — among them the Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen — say the agreement risks abandoning loyal believers and amounts to a deal with the devil.
Since January, Chinese and Vatican officials have met at least four times, including in Rome, to try and resolve the delicate issue of the appointment of bishops — the heart of the dispute.
Each side has long insisted that it should have the final say on the issue — the Vatican as God’s representative on Earth, and the Communist party as the final arbiter on all issues in China.
“We’re hoping for a very important, historic agreement that we’ve been waiting for nearly 70 years,” said Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who has been involved with Chinese Catholics since the 1950s and is closely following the discussions.
“A Chinese delegation will head to Rome at the beginning of November for a last round of negotiations,” said Heyndrickx, acting director of the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute in Leuven, which studies Catholicism in China.
China and the Vatican have not had diplomatic relations since 1951. The country’s roughly 12 million Catholics are divided between the government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party — but sometimes accepted by Rome — and an unofficial church where bishops named by the Vatican are not recognised by Beijing, but sometimes tolerated.
But earlier this year the pope sent greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping and said he was an admirer of Chinese civilization. Xi responded in September with a gift of a silk print of an 8th-century stele — a nearly three-meter tall carved stone tablet — from Xian, the earliest known trace of Christianity in China.
The agreement is currently expected to see the Vatican recognize four out of the eight CPCA bishops it does not currently acknowledge, according to Father Heyndrickx. Beijing could also name two new bishops in Shanxi and Sichuan provinces with Rome’s blessing. The two sides would also agree on how to select future bishops.