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Religion in China

Both Beijing and the Vatican gain from improved relationship

A reported spirit of compromise on the appointment of new bishops will put a positive spin on China’s international image and give the millions of Catholics on the mainland a more formal connection with the Vatican

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 2:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 2:13am

Christmas is a season for reflection on the state of the religion that celebrates it, which inevitably comes round to relations between the Vatican and China. They are always going to be difficult. But hopes for an improvement were buoyed recently by the ordination, through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, of four new bishops who were also recognised by the Vatican. The exclusive right to appoint bishops, long claimed by the association, is a key obstacle to better relations. There is therefore keen interest among Vatican and China watchers of any change in the tone of public exchanges between them that would reflect Pope Francis’ overture for more constructive dialogue.

The Vatican opened them after Christmas by appealing for “positive signals” from Beijing to improve relations. China replied that it was up to the church to take a more flexible and pragmatic attitude. On the face of it that does not sound very promising. But such pessimism does not reckon with the potential for progress in discreet negotiations conducted under the radar.

Two Chinese bishops recognised by Vatican ordained on the mainland

According to foreign media, Vatican delegates and Chinese officials have come up with a draft agreement on how to select and appoint new bishops, involving a spirit of compromise on both sides. Beijing would still have the say but the Vatican would have the final right of appointment. Presumably that would lead to more frequent constructive contact, which is conducive to consultation and dialogue. While it remains speculation, it would be good for easing tensions between the underground church and the government, and for the millions of Catholics in China, to have a more formal connection with the Vatican.

Religious freedom and government control cannot easily coexist, but if Beijing’s suspicion of foreign groups can be allayed in this case, it would put a positive spin on China’s international image. Rapprochement with Beijing would spell the end of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Taiwan, but after four years of Beijing-Vatican talks and the election of an independence leaning government in Taipei, those ties might be on borrowed time.