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Expectations high for China-Vatican relations in 2017

By Jiang Jie (People's Daily Online)    13:49, January 26, 2017

(File photo of Pope Francis)

The year 2017 began with a round of interviews and news on Beijing and the Holy See, each seemingly pressing the two sovereign states to rebuild diplomatic ties. Some experts see this as a sign of upcoming breakthroughs.

Pope Francis restated his hope to visit China in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais on Jan. 21. When the pontiff was asked when would travel to China, Pope Francis replied, “as soon as they send me an invitation.” The pontiff said China is aware of the situation. “Besides, in China, the churches are packed. In China they can worship freely,” he added.

It was a wise move by the pope to speak highly of China’s religious affairs, though some did not expect him to do so. This choice showed the pope’s awareness of the fact that any kind of bilateral breakthrough is dependent on authorities, said a Beijing-based expert on China-Vatican affairs. The expert requested anonymity in this story.

“Pope Francis’s remarks carried an important and positive message. They showed the positive attitude of the pope and the Catholic Church, which have information proving that China is not as bad as other organizations report,” Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Center of European Studies at Renmin University of China, told People’s Daily Online.

Sisci, who interviewed Pope Francis for the pontiff’s first-ever interview on China, pointed out that it is now up to China to make good, fast use of this opportunity to confirm the pope’s positive attitude and “take it up to the next level.”

Thawing ties

Ties between China and the Vatican have started to gain strength, especially since new leaders took office on both sides. The relationship between the People's Republic of China and Vatican City went sour in 1951, when the two countries severed ties.

In 2014, China for the first time granted a pope the use of China’s airspace, during Pope Francis's visit to South Korea in 2014, a remarkable sign of progress that has gradually led to more interactions. Not only did Pope Francis extended Chinese New Year greetings to the Chinese people and Chinese President Xi Jinping last February, he also revealed last October that he received a gift from the Chinese president via a delegation attending a conference at the Vatican, Associated Press reported.

China has also made major and important concessions, according to Sisci.

“There has been [China’s] indirect confirmation of the religious role of the Pope in bishop appointment. [China] has also showed respect toward some religious rituals during the latest assembly of the Patriotic Catholic Association in Beijing. These elements are very important in the Church, and in the past were often ignored by Beijing. We also see a positive attitude toward Vatican relation from Beijing,” he added.

Chances of a papal visit

“China should invite Pope Francis as soon as possible. Without an invitation, the pope will do nothing. The Vatican doesn’t have an army and can’t impose trade sanctions. But the Pope would be sorry. Now why should China make this man who wants to do good for China sorry?” Sisci wondered. Beijing has been missing opportunities, possibly because it underestimated the positive impact of a papal visit on China and the world, especially in the Western countries, he added.

However, the unnamed expert pointed out that a papal visit to China is unlikely if the status quo is maintained.

“The pope may be making progress in this regard,” the expert said, but nevertheless concluded that the normalization of diplomatic ties may not be achieved so soon. Still, the expert told People’s Daily Online that a potential papal visit should involve formal meetings between the pontiff and the Chinese president and premier, as well as religious leaders.

“China's position on its relationship with the Vatican is consistent and clear. The Chinese side is sincere about improving relations with the Vatican and has made a lot of efforts to that end. There is a smooth and effective line of communication between the two sides. We would like to work with the Vatican to strive for new progress in constructive dialogues and improvement in relations between the two sides,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying at a daily briefing on Jan. 23.

Thorny issues on both sides

But it is not an easy decision to make, given the many factors to consider, including the Taiwan issue and the right of bishop ordination for the Chinese mainland. Taiwan currently maintains official ties with the Vatican, and the self-appointment and self-consecration of bishops in the mainland has long upset the Holy See.

“If the island’s 'pro-independence' movement continues to flare, the mainland may speed up negotiations with the Vatican,” the expert noted, adding that the Taiwan issue is more urgent than the bishop ordination issue, which has been at a stalemate for years.

Other issues standing in the way of warmer ties involve the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and Bishop Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) – both organizations that go unrecognized by the Vatican. These important, State-endorsed organizations may face reform if China becomes cozier with the Vatican, according to the expert.

More progress in 2017?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 19, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said he was optimistic that more progress could be made in China-Vatican ties.

“We are mostly always optimistic, but as I’ve said before, it will take a long way because there is a history behind us. It will be very, very difficult,” said the Cardinal.

After rounds of negotiation, the two sides may be close to reaching a consensus on bishop ordination, which would allow the pope to appoint and consecrate from a list of candidates drawn up by Beijing, according to the expert.

“I don’t think we can expect to see diplomatic ties rebuilt in 2017, but major breakthroughs are possible. For example, we may see a joint memorandum on the census made on bishop ordination,” the expert guessed. 

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(Web editor: Jiang Jie, Bianji)

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