This may be the reason why the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace invited officials of the China-based Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation to the joint consultation.
The Chinese foundation was founded in 1985. Its founder, Lu Zhengcao, was one of the leading generals of the People Revolution's Army in crucial years of the Communist expansion through China.
Ever since the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Holy See has had a reduced diplomatic presence in Beijing. The nunciature was moved to Taiwan in 1951.
China-Vatican relations have been cool, with some apparent thaws. Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Catholics in China in 2007, after which followed a series of bishops' appointments approved both by the Chinese government and the Holy See. Now, Holy See authorities are working to formalize an agreement for the appointment of bishops with China.
The Church in China is in a difficult situation. The government of the Chinese People's Republic never recognized the Holy See's authority to appoint bishops. Instead, it established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy officially recognized by the Chinese authorities.
For this reason, Chinese bishops recognized by the Holy See entered a clandestine state, thus giving life to the so called "underground Church" that is not recognized by the government.
After difficult years, the Holy See and Beijing may have reached an agreement. Under the reputed plan, a set of three possible bishops will be presented by the Chinese Bishops Conference to the Pope, who has the final decision and even the possibility of vetoing candidates. The Chinese Bishops Conference can also seek some external opinion in their choice of bishop candidates, included the government's opinion.
As a matter of fact, the Chinese Bishops Conference itself is a fictitious institution, composed by members of the government-backed Patriotic Association. In the end, the agreement might be seen as a possibility for the Chinese government to present candidates they like to the Vatican.
The possible plan is not without critics.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiung, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, disapproved of such an agreement. In a long open letter, he lamented that nothing would change in terms of religious freedom in China. He expressed his concern that this path would be a return of the "Ostpolitik," the Cold War policy put into action under Pope Paul VI by the Holy See. The Vatican made reciprocal concessions with countries on the other side of Europe's Iron Curtain in order to guarantee a peaceful life to Christians in the countries under Soviet communist domination.
Cardinal John Tong Hon, Cardinal Zen's successor as Archbishop of Hong Kong, responded to Cardinal Zen. He specified that final choice on a bishop's appointment was always the Pope's. He highlighted the fact that papal nuncios themselves can seek opinions from external lay people when they are examining candidates for the episcopate.
According to the veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has confirmed that negotiations are in an advanced stage. The cardinal confirmed this to the apostolic nuncios who were in in Rome Sept. 16-18 to celebrate their jubilee.
Cardinal Parolin reportedly explained that the dialogue with China only concerns the appointment of bishops, and does not deal with the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic ties.
Though time is needed for renewed diplomatic ties, the Holy See has silently showed its goodwill in not yet appointing a high level representative to lead the nunciature to China in Taiwan. The post has been vacant since the last chargée d'affairs, Msgr. Paul Fitzpatrick Russell, was named nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan in March 2016.
On the one hand, the Holy See has no wish to break ties with Taiwan, which is the condition mainland China requires in order to open a diplomatic dialogue with the Holy See. To mainland China, Taiwan is no more than a rebel province.
Taiwan too is an actor in the diplomatic scene. Its vice president Chen Chien-jen had a private meeting with Pope Francis Sept. 4, after Mother Teresa's canonization.
On the other hand, the Holy See wants to close the dispute about bishops. According to Magister, Cardinal Parolin explained that Msgr. Antoine Camilleri and Msgr. Tadeusz Wojda, respectively Vatican vice-minister for foreign affairs and the number three official of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, are employed in the dialogue. Even China is employing mid-rank officials for the task.
Will these talks be enough to heal the wound between the so-called "Official Church" and the "underground Church"?
According to the Vatican Year Book, there are 30 underground bishops out of 100 bishops in China. The other 70 bishops were either illegitimately ordained and later reconciled with Rome or were ordained with the twofold approval of Rome and Beijing.
There are another eight Bishops whose ordination is not recognized by Rome, and for this reason they are also excommunicated. This situation is particularly tricky.