HONG KONG — A senior Chinese official has acknowledged that Beijing and the Vatican have been in contact about the normalization of diplomatic relations. This was the first formal confirmation of hints from Vatican officials that negotiations for the restoration of ties, broken since 1951, were going on.

Ye Xiaowen, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, confirmed earlier this month that the two sides had been talking about normalization of relations, although no date had been set for it to take place.

The Vatican is the only government in Europe that still recognizes the government of Taiwan rather than that of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing is anxious to remove Taiwan’s remaining foothold in Europe. The Vatican, too, is anxious to have normal relations with a country with over a billion souls to be saved.

In Hong Kong, Bishop Joseph Zen, who returned recently from Rome after his induction into the college of cardinals, said in an interview that the two sides were not only involved in “contacts” but were conducting “real talks,” with the Vatican engaging with the Chinese Embassy in Italy.

China has declared that the Vatican must accept two conditions before relations can be normalized: break official relations with Taiwan and agree not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

The first condition is not a problem but the second is. One of the main sticking points in the negotiations is the appointment of Chinese bishops, which Beijing considers an internal affair. The Vatican, however, takes the position that the choosing of bishops is a religious activity.

Cardinal Zen, in the interview, said the Vatican was willing to be flexible and would be willing to show China a list of candidates and allow Beijing to share its opinion, but that the Vatican should have the final say. It is unclear to what extent Beijing is willing to be flexible on the issue.

The Vatican’s condition for normalization is that China must allow freedom of religion. However, Cardinal Zen, likening religious freedom to a bird’s freedom to fly without restraint, said: “I think we can hope that the cage will become bigger and bigger, and we hope at the end they’ll let the birds fly.”

Another issue is the future of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the government-sponsored body set up in 1957, which does not recognize the supremacy of the pope.

Pope Pius XII excommunicated the Chinese bishops who joined the association, although the Roman Catholic Church recognizes that its bishops are validly consecrated through the theory of Apostolic succession — that is, that each bishop was consecrated by another bishop in a ceremony involving the laying on of hands in a chain that goes all the way back to the 12 apostles picked by Jesus.

Since the association was set up specifically to sever the Chinese church from Rome, it is difficult to see what role it can play if the Chinese government itself recognizes the authority of the pope over the church in China.

Moreover, the patriotic association supports government policies that contravene Catholic teaching on such issues as abortion and contraception.

Although in theory the Catholic church in China is divided — with an illegal, underground church that recognizes the authority of the pope and an official, patriotic church that does not — in reality many priests and bishops who are part of the patriotic association secretly proclaim allegiance to the pope.

In October, when Pope Benedict convened a synod of bishops, he invited three bishops of the patriotic association as well as an underground bishop to attend. In the end, none of them went to Rome because the Chinese government did not allow them to travel.

Perhaps the most important obstacle to normalization is something that Beijing has not articulated in public: a fear that the Catholic church might subvert the Chinese Communist Party and bring about its downfall. Beijing certainly remembers the role played by Pope John Paul II, who was widely seen as being partly responsible for the fall of the communist regime in Poland in particular and those in Eastern Europe generally.

China, with its 1.3 billion people, and the Vatican with its billion Catholics are trying to come to terms with each other. Each of them thinks in terms of millenniums, and while both clearly want to normalize their relationship, neither will act hastily. This is a courtship whose outcome, while not in doubt, may take longer than many expect.

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