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The Pope and the Politburo

The Vatican's Chinese Diplomacy

Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin, November 2013. Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

The pope’s eyes are set on China. Since 1951, the Vatican has had no official ties with Beijing, which bans foreign influence on religion. But the relationship might be about to change. By all accounts, a Sino-Vatican diplomatic breakthrough appears within reach this year, despite increased aggression against Christian churches in some provinces.

The main question now is whether Chinese President Xi Jinping is willing to concede some power to the Holy See. The primary dispute between the Catholic Church and China turns on the pope’s role in approving local bishops. Xi publicly insists on a government-controlled “patriotic” church, and the Vatican maintains that the pope, as St. Peter’s successor, must be able to name bishops to preserve apostolic authority and global unity.

The Holy See’s solution to the dispute seems to be a version of its relationship with communist countries during the Cold War, when it

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