In an unusually conciliatory gesture toward communist China, Pope Francis has reportedly agreed to accept back into the church seven Catholic bishops appointed by the Chinese government and later excommunicated by the Holy See.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Vatican hopes the move will end a long-running standoff with atheist Communist Party authorities and a newly-emboldened President Xi Jinping who keep tight reins on religious expressions in the world’s most populous land. The party is particularly sensitive about religions with foreign control.
The Journal reported:
The decision reflects the Holy See’s desire for better relations with China—where Christianity is growing fast, though mostly in the form of Protestantism—and for an end to the division between the government-controlled church and a larger so-called underground church loyal to Rome.
The pope’s apparent hope is that Beijing will then recognize his jurisdiction as head of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s all part of a decades-long delicate diplomatic dance between the two bodies.
In 1951, China broke off relations with the Vatican. Thirty years later the church and Beijing began informally cooperating with both bodies eager for the other to recognize its authority.
The Journal reported the pope’s decision has been shared with the Beijing government and is likely to be announced officially in the spring.
Some Catholic conservatives see danger in any cooperation with a totalitarian government like China, which has long imprisoned and harassed Catholics.
But the move fits with this pope’s drive for more dialogue. In 2016, for instance, Francis became the first pope in history to meet with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 2015, the World Religion Database estimated 7.3 million in the government’s Catholic church and 10.5 million outside of it.