The head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong has said the Chinese government is willing to reach an “understanding” with the Vatican over the contentious issue of the appointment of bishops.
It comes amid unease among some Catholics who fear that a deal with Beijing may compromise the Church.
There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, but the Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1951, two years after the founding of the communist People’s Republic.
The bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, said progress was being made and defended dialogue with China.
“The Catholic Church has gradually gained the reconsideration of the Chinese government, which is now willing to reach an understanding with the Holy See on the question of the appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church in China and seek a mutually acceptable plan,” Tong said in a pastoral letter published Thursday on the Hong Kong diocese website.
Tong acknowledged there were misgivings but said Pope Francis would not accept any agreement that would “harm” the Church.
China is suspicious of religion and the “official” Catholic Church is run by the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association — but there is also an “underground” Church which swears allegiance only to the pope.
State-sanctioned bishops in China are chosen by the association, while the Vatican insists on its right to appoint all the Catholic Church’s bishops.
Tong gave no detail on how close an agreement on a new selection mechanism might be, or the possible terms.
But Anthony Lam, senior researcher at Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Study Centre — a branch of the diocese — said hammering out the final agreement was likely to be a lengthy process.
Lam said current talks were not “formal negotiations” but that senior representatives were explaining their stance in regular face-to-face meetings.
“For the last few years, two or three times a year, they talk to one another,” Lam told AFP.
“But it’s still very preliminary.”
Lam said Tong published the letter because he wanted to reassure that any agreement would be acceptable to both sides.
Tong was not immediately available for comment.
Previous attempts to restore ties have floundered over Beijing’s insistence that the Vatican must give up its recognition of its rival Taiwan and promise not to interfere in religious issues in China.
But in May the Vatican’s secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, said relations between China and the Catholic Church were “in a positive phase”.
In February, Pope Francis lavished praise on China in a move widely seen as part of Vatican moves to improve relations, pointedly avoiding any mention of Chinese restrictions on freedom of worship.