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 achieved a modus vivendi with atheistic regimes regarding the appointment of bishops and limited religious freedom despite ongoing friction between church and state.

Xi, too, seems to have a solution in mind. His willingness in 2013 to extend a hand to the Russian Orthodox Church in Beijing, and to visit Patriarch Kirill in 2015 in Moscow, suggests that the Chinese leadership can bend the rules on external engagement, especially in the face of evidence that church attendance is not slowing and can’t be stopped. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s doctrinal atheism, and Mao’s brutal efforts to wipe out faith during the Cultural Revolution, Christian worship has exploded on the mainland, surging from about four million believers in 1949 to over 70 million today, of whom a miniscule 20,000 are Orthodox and about 12 million are Catholic.

Xi undoubtedly wants to restore the influence of Confucian thought as part of a national program to inculcate traditional values, but more than three decades after the Chinese government ended the worst of its Cultural Revolution­–era religious restrictions, it’s impossible to turn back the clock. The

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