Negotiations to broker a framework accord between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops are making quick progress towards a deal, a Chinese official said on Friday, in what would be a historic breakthrough in relations.
A deal on the thorny issue of who gets to appoint bishops could be signed within months, a senior Vatican source told Reuters in February. The potential Vatican rapprochement with Communist China sparked a war of words between Catholic officials.
"Talks are progressing at full swing," deputy head of the official Chinese Catholics association, Fang Jianping, told Reuters on the sidelines of the annual meeting of parliament when asked about the prospect of a normalisation of relations.
China's 12 million Catholics are split between "underground" communities that often recognise the pope and those registered with the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities.
Fang said the national policy was very positive towards the development of Catholicism in China. He did not elaborate.
A deal would allow the Church to care for China's Catholics and to focus on expanding a Catholic presence in a country where Protestant churches are growing quickly.
China has said it is sincere in its efforts to improve relations with the Vatican.
Last December, a Vatican delegation went to China to discuss the status of two Vatican-recognised bishops, including the possibility of allowing one prelate to retire and be succeeded by a state-backed bishop.
There is also a potential "gentleman's agreement" for seven government-backed bishops to be recognised by the Vatican after seeking a papal pardon, but this has not yet been formalised, the Vatican source told Reuters in February.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, however, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, criticised news of progress towards a deal at the time, saying the Vatican was "selling out" the Catholic Church in China and suggested that there was discord between the pontiff and Vatican diplomats doing groundwork in China.
The Vatican has said that the Church is unified in its approach to China.