Are the Vatican and China getting closer?

July 13, 2015 10:49
Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping are leaders who are prepared to effect change, which bodes well for Sino-Vatican relations. Photos: AFP

Pope Francis recently wrote on climate change in a letter to Catholics around the world.

It is clear that he is the kind of leader who wants to bring about change, so it will be fascinating to see if there will be a breakthrough in Sino-Vatican relations.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the Vatican, Beijing and the Vatican have been in a state of hostility.

China is worried because it considers the Vatican as a headquarters of western ideology.

Also, Beijing is unhappy about the way Vatican directly appoints Catholic bishops, believing that undermines the authority of the state.

As a result, Beijing allows only the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which severed ties with the Vatican in 1958, to operate in mainland China.

However, since Francis became pope, there has been a chance for Sino-Vatican relations to improve.

In March, he told Italian media, "We are approaching China."

The pope revealed that he and President Xi Jinping had been writing to each other.

This "pen pal" relationship is in line with Xi’s approach to building personal relationships with other world leaders.

It also reflects China's attempt to adopt a pragmatic attitude in dealing with the Vatican.

At this time, the "Vietnam model" might be worth taking as a reference.

There is an unwritten agreement between Vietnam and the Vatican to smoothly handle the appointment of Vietnamese bishops.

Under this arrangement, Vietnam first selects some candidates for a bishop and hands the list to the Vatican, which picks one of the candidates.

Vietnam then confirms the candidate, and the Vatican officially appoints the bishop.

As a result, Vietnam can ensure that candidates are loyal to the country and the ruling party.

As for the Vatican, it can choose the most suitable candidate and avoid losing overall control of the process.

Will Beijing adopt the Vietnam model?

Vietnam was a French colony and thus has a strong Catholic tradition.

Among the country's 90 million people, 7 percent are Catholic, above the Asian average of 3.2 percent.

By contrast, only 15 million people out of mainland China's 1.3 billion population are Catholic, accounting for less than 1.2 percent of the population.

Given the high proportion of Catholics in Vietnam's population, relations with the Vatican are not only a diplomatic matter but have internal implications.

Many Catholics were killed during the Vietnam war, but the country has become more open to the Catholic Church in recent years.

In 2008, the Vietnamese government returned 21 hectares of land near the Church of Our Lady of La Vang to the local Catholic community.

Two years ago, Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, paid a historic visit to the Vatican and had an hour-long closed-door meeting with then pope Benedict.

On the surface, the Vatican has more problems with China.

Underground churches are one of them, and the room for freedom of speech in the country is narrowing.

China has long been criticized for its treatment of human rights by the international community, so it will not be easy for the Vatican to neglect that issue in its efforts to establish more friendly relations with Beijing.

But in the past few months, it appears China and the Vatican have come close to agreeing on the Vietnam model.

If so, it will be another important diplomatic achievement for Xi.

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal