The Holy See and China may be on the brink of a historic deal that could end decades of hostility and stalemate. The agreement would have unprecedented political, doctrinal and pastoral ramifications.

The stakes are so high that Cardinal Joseph Zen has argued that the accord would “betray Christ” and represent a “surrender” to the communist regime. Is the retired Bishop of Hong Kong right?

Intensive talks between the Holy See and the Chinese government have taken place all year, both in Rome and Beijing. Pope Francis had hoped to seal a deal before the end of the Year of Mercy, a deadline that has now passed. But indications are that the completion of the negotiations may not be far away.

Cardinal John Tong, the present Bishop of Hong Kong, revealed in August that Vatican and Chinese officials had reached an initial agreement on the appointment of bishops, but no official details have emerged. In November, he said that “the concrete terms of the mutual agreement have not been made public” – a hint that a deal has been made, but is being kept under wraps for now.

Last month three new bishops were ordained with the approval of both the Holy See and the Chinese government, a further sign of a rapprochement. But to complicate matters, a bishop who has been excommunicated by Rome recently took part in the ordination of a new bishop: Bishop Lei Shiyin of Leshan attended the ordination of the new Bishop of Chengdu, Joseph Tang Yuange.

At the heart of the reported deal is the question of authority over the appointment of bishops in China. The Holy See broke off relations with China in 1951, two years after the communists took power. The regime established the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which does not officially recognise papal authority. An underground Catholic Church, in communion with Rome, has existed since then, enduring severe persecution over the decades, with many of its bishops and priests jailed by the regime.

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