Government-approved periodical quotes expert comparing possible papal visit to Nixon's historic opening to China.
News images of President Richard M. Nixon and the first lady, Patricia Nixon, walking along the Great Wall of China in 1972 stunned millions of television viewers because China and the United States had not had diplomatic relations since Mao Zedong’s victory in 1949. America was still fighting the Vietnam War, and the “Red Chinese” were still aiding the communist North Vietnamese.
An equally stunning image could be broadcast on screens around the world in the near future: the white-clad pope of the Catholic Church being welcomed on a tarmac in People’s Republic by China’s leaders.
In a small way, something surprising has already taken place that may be a harbinger for that long-awaited papal visit to the Middle Kingdom: an official newspaper of the Chinese government has alluded to the possibility of such a visit.
“Thinking about global affairs, Vatican-China relations could be the single most important relations in the world today. If Pope Francis could visit China, its significance and impacts could be bigger than President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. It will be an earth-shaking and world-changing development,” Yang Fenggang, a professor at Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, told the Global Times.
The Global Times is a daily Chinese tabloid under the auspices of the People’s Daily, a newspaper controlled by the Chinese authorities. The article had a definite slant in favor of the communist government, as it portrayed “conservative” cardinals as getting in the way of what it portrayed as Pope Francis’ desire for a deal with Beijing.
Talks between the Holy See and communist authorities have apparently resumed again, after a flurry of chatter this spring that the two were close to an agreement over the exercise of Church authority in the PRC and then a period of silence. Cardinal Joseph Zen, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, voiced opposition to an arrangement that would require certain Vatican-appointed Chinese bishops—some of them elderly—to step down from their posts to allow bishops appointed by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, without Rome’s input, to take their place.
Reuters interviewed Pope Francis June 20, and the pontiff “voiced optimism for improved ties between the Vatican and China, rejecting criticism that the Holy See may be selling out Catholics to Beijing’s communist government,” the wire service said.
“We are at a good point” in negotiations, the pope said.
Beijing created the Patriotic Association in the 1950s, as it resists authority from any foreign regime — and it considers the Vatican such a regime. There has long been a division between Chinese Catholics who belong to the government-approved churches, which fall under the Patriotic Association, and those who remain loyal to bishops appointed by the pope. In recent years, according to some reports, there has been more intermingling of the two.