BEIJING – China and the Vatican City, which broke diplomatic ties in 1951, are seeking to normalize relations, but the divide within the catholic community in China and the lack of a well-formed clergy concerns Rome and hinders the rapprochement, according to an Italian commentator in Beijing.
Francesco Sisci, a member of the Center for European Studies at the Renmin University of China, said the complex relationship between the two sides has been changing, but it is difficult to predict how it will be in the future.
“Now china is more open to have ties with the Vatican because it is becoming a superpower and wants ties with the biggest soft power in the world,” said Sisci.
As China is changing, the Vatican and the Pope have also expressed a greater will than their predecessors to project the Holy See to the world by having closer ties with Muslims, orthodox Greeks, Russians, and Lutherans.
However, there are several hurdles in the process of rapprochement between Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of whom came into power in the same week in 2013.
Issues include the current state of the Chinese clergy, where cases of married priests with children and communal divisions are often registered.
“Even in Beijing’s diocese, which is the most controlled one, there were three factions; it took a big effort to reunite them,” said Sisci, adding that Rome “is worried about the quality of its clergy.”
Sisci rejected claims in the media about the existence of a clandestine catholic church in China as opposed to the Communist Party’s official one, but acknowledged that there were differences and animosity between veteran Catholics and those who follow the regime-run church.
The expert also said the road to normalizing relations between China and the Vatican does not imply establishing diplomatic ties, and he does not foresee a visit from the Pope to China in the near future.
“It (a visit from the Pope) would be an extraordinary event, China is aware of that and everybody is very cautious,” he said.
Sisci also highlighted the importance of the Pope’s meeting on May 24 in Rome with the president of the United States, Donald Trump, in which for the first time the US and the Vatican will have discussions on China on their agenda.
He added that the Pope is also cautious about his position on Beijing, as rapprochement with China can “become a magnet of criticism” among certain sections of the Holy See.