Talks between China and the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations have intensified in recent months, with proposals for a papal visit apparently under discussion, The Times reports.
Liu Bainian, the de facto head of the government-run Patriotic Catholic Church, has said on several occasions that he would like to welcome the Pope to China once an agreement has been reached.
Observers say Liu’s words would have been spoken only with approval from high levels within the Chinese government.
Mutual recognition between the Holy See and China and an announced papal visit would be a great boost for China’s reputation. Recent setbacks for the nation include American filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s announcement that he would not visit the 2008 Olympics in Beijing because of the nation’s policies in Sudan, where the Sudanese government has engaged in genocide.
Meetings between Vatican and Chinese representatives are reportedly taking place in government buildings in Beijing. According to the London Times, sources close to the discussions say they had reached a detailed and businesslike stage.
One Vatican official said they were “somewhat optimistic” about the discussions with the Chinese government. The official said a papal visit before the Olympic Games in August was “very unrealistic,” but an announcement of an agreement and a future visit would be a public relations gift to Chinese leaders.
There are at least 10 million Catholics in China, but they are split between the government-recognized Patriotic Association and the underground Church whose members have endured martyrdom, imprisonment, and harassment since the communist takeover in 1949.
On June 30, 2007, Pope Benedict issued a letter to Chinese Catholics praising the devotion of the underground Church, but also urging reconciliation and unity among Christians. The letter’s emphasis on obedience to the Vatican was interpreted by some Beijing officials as a sign that the Pope wanted to prepare the underground clergy for a change in policy.
Nevertheless, the director of the Holy See’s Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, explained the Letter’s intentions differently. “The Pope is not seeking confrontation with anyone. He is not launching accusations, inside or outside the Church.… The exhortation to unity, reconciliation, and reciprocal forgiveness is one of the most intense messages sustained throughout the letter.”
Further dialogue must still take place, Fr. Lombardi said shortly after the issuance of the Letter to the Church in China. “If Chinese officials tend to be worried about external interference in the life of the country, the Church for her part is concerned about undue interference from the State in her internal life,” he said.
“Thus the Pope insists on explaining the correct distinction between the political sphere and the religious sphere, between the responsibilities of civil officials and those of the Church, and he firmly declares the willingness of the Church to dialogue in order to overcome misunderstandings and disputed points, as well as in the area of the naming of bishops,” the Vatican spokesman said.
The appointment of bishops has been a point of contention between the Holy See and Beijing. Recent agreements have led to the installation of candidates who are acceptable to both parties into the episcopacy of the Patriotic Association.
In December the politburo convened for its reportedly first meeting wholly devoted to a study session on religion. President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders attended two presentations explaining Christianity and traditional Chinese beliefs.
The state news agency Xinhua issued a Chinese-language report free of its normal derogatory remarks about religion being a feudal remnant or an opiate of the people.
President Hu’s own remarks to the meeting were unprecedented and believed to have been intended for the Vatican. He recognized the constant presence of religions in China and praised their role in social stability and harmony.
“The party and government shall reach out to religious believers in difficulties and help them through their problems,” he said. “We shall fully understand the new problems and challenges to manage religious affairs so that we can do it right.”
The place of Taiwan is a key topic of Beijing-Vatican discussion. The Vatican is reportedly prepared as part of a mutual agreement to move its embassy from Taipei to Beijing.