But even as Catholics here responded to Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement with surprise, many took note that his successor is expected to be named within days of China’s own grand conclave next month, when a new generation of top leaders takes control of government.
“It’s an opportunity for the two sides to restart,” said Ren Yanli, an expert on Catholicism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
“Both sides are new,” he said. “They can move forward without historical burdens on their shoulders.”
Even those most optimistic, however, acknowledge that any rapprochement would take much time and require a breakthrough on the conflict at the heart of the rift: which side has final say over who gets ordained in China.
The Vatican maintains that the pope has sole authority in appointing bishops. China’s atheistic Communist Party — long distrustful of what it considers foreign religions — insists that only China should select its church leaders.
The fight between two of the world’s most hierarchical and authority-driven powers has become so fraught that Chinese authorities have in some cases resorted to kidnapping bishops approved by Rome, according to the Vatican, and pressured them into laying their hands upon government-chosen bishops at their ordinations — a move meant to lend such ceremonies legitimacy despite Vatican opposition.
To regular parishioners and priests caught in the middle, the choice comes down to obeying their earthly rulers or their spiritual ones.
Trying to explain the toll of that struggle, one conflicted priest at a state-run church in Beijing quoted this verse from the Bible: “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.”
Yet that is the daily reality. He, like many Catholics from both camps, spoke on the condition of anonymity, noting that reprisals against those who question the state church have grown more frequent, especially against those worshiping in churches that aren’t registered with the government.
Nearly half of the estimated 12 million Catholics in China are believed to attend such “underground churches” in remote buildings or private homes, according to foreign experts. The rest worship in official, state-backed churches overseen by a government-run body called the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.