Pope Francis’s papacy has been a drive to improve relations with China, with which the Holy See has had no official ties since 1951. He became pope in 2013, by coincidence just hours before Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency, and the two men exchanged congratulatory messages. The following year, on his way back from his first papal visit to Asia, Francis spoke of how much he wanted to visit China, and how he prayed a lot “for the beautiful and noble Chinese people”.
In September 2018 his efforts were rewarded, with a provisional agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops. That agreement expires this month. It is likely to be renewed, but not without resistance from those Catholics who feel that this is a very bad time to be cosying up to China’s Communist Party.
A lot is at stake. If the church saw itself in commercial terms, China would be a great under exploited market. Despite the split 70 years ago, there are still estimated to be between 10m and 12m Catholics in China. But that is a tiny share of China’s 1.4bn people, and the Catholic church appears not to be growing, even as the number of Protestants has surged to perhaps 40m-60m.
And the rift between Beijing and the Holy See presents Chinese Catholics with a painful choice. As for Protestants, there is a “patriotic” church, approved by the Chinese state.
But it is not recognised by the Vatican, and is shunned by many Chinese Catholics (about half by some counts) in favour of worship in illegal, underground churches, which have had to exist in the shadows, with some of their Clergy persecuted.
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