Catholic Church

Ordination of Catholic bishops in mainland China an encouraging step

Appointments recognised by the Holy See are a sign of improving ties between Beijing and the Vatican after years of hostility

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2016, 2:19am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2016, 2:19am

The key obstacle to more constructive dialogue between China and the Vatican, 65 years after the latter severed relations with the communist state, has long come down to the appointment of bishops. Beijing has claimed the right to choose them through the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. So long as this remained the case, significant if small steps to reach out to Beijing by Pope Francis were unlikely to bear fruit.

The best hope of removing this obstacle lay in both sides agreeing on candidates who could be appointed by the Vatican as well as the association. Hopefully the ordination on the mainland last week of two Chinese bishops also recognised by the Holy See is a sign of improving ties after years of hostility, and therefore a small step towards normalisation of relations.

Two Chinese bishops recognised by Vatican ordained on the mainland

The background is fraught with political and diplomatic factors. The Vatican is arguably the most important of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies. During the eight years until this year of a Beijing-friendly government in Taipei, China did not push hard to win them over. Under the previous pope, Benedict, Vatican officials known to be hawkish towards relations with China were in charge of Asian affairs. And in Beijing the government’s fear of well-organised foreign groups like the Catholic Church made officials very suspicious. A change of government in Taipei means consideration of the island’s interests is no longer a factor.

Pope Francis is much more friendly towards China than Benedict, but in Beijing there is debate over warmer ties between foreign affairs bureaucrats who see better relations with the Vatican as positive for China’s image in the West, and officials in charge of religious affairs concerned to safeguard their turf. Internal resistance to rapprochement plays on fears the church could pose a challenge to the Communist Party. But keeping it out will drive people into the unofficial underground church which is even more difficult to control. It remains to be seen where such small steps will lead, but they are encouraging.