A framework accord between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops is ready and could be signed in a few months in what would be an historic breakthrough in relations, a senior Vatican source said on Thursday.
An even partial resolution on the thorny issue of who gets to appoint bishops could open the way for a resumption of diplomatic relations nearly 70 years after they were cut during the Communist takeover of China.
Full relations would give the Church a legal framework to look after all of China's estimated 12 million Catholics and move on to focus on Catholic growth in a country where Protestant churches are already growing fast.
Catholics in China are split between those in "underground" communities that recognize the pope and those belonging to a state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities.
Under the formal deal, the Vatican will have a say in negotiations for the appointment of future bishops, the source told Reuters, declining to give details.
"It is not great agreement but we don't know what the situation will be like in 10 or 20 years. It could even be worse," the source said.
"Afterwards we will still be like a bird in a cage but the cage will be bigger," he said. It is not easy. Suffering will continue. We will have to fight for every centimeter to increase the size of the cage," he said.
The source rejected recent accusations by a senior cardinal that the Vatican was prepared to "sell out" the Church in China and media suggestions that Pope Francis was out of the loop on China negotiations.
He said the pope followed the China dossier very closely and had backed an offer made to two Chinese bishops loyal to the Vatican in which they would take on different positions in their dioceses in order to facilitate an overall accord with government-backed bishops.
Five out of seven very complex situations regarding "illegitimate bishops," those with government backing, had been resolved. They have asked for a pardon from Pope Francis and to be made legitimate in the eyes of the Church.
Last December, with papal backing, a Vatican delegation went to China to make an offer relating to two Vatican-recognized bishops.
One, an 87-year-old prelate would retire to make way for a state-backed bishop to succeed him. Under the scenario, the government would officially recognize the Vatican-backed prelate as "bishop emeritus."
Another Vatican-recognized bishop would become an auxiliary, or assistant, to one who had been appointed by the government. But even though he would effectively take on a lesser role, the government would grant him official recognition as part of the deal.
The source said both Vatican-backed prelates recognized they would be making sacrifices for the greater good of the Church.
There currently was what the source called "a gentleman's agreement" on seven government-backed bishops who would be made legitimate after seeking a papal pardon but that it still had to be formalized.
Dossiers on each making the case for legitimizing them have to be prepared for the pope.
The source spoke two days after Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, caused a stir with a long post on his Facebook page highly critical of the Vatican's recent overtures to China.
In his post criticizing Vatican diplomacy on Tuesday, Zen wrote: "So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months."
In a sharply worded statement the next day, the Vatican said it was surprising and regrettable that some people in the Church were "fostering confusion and controversy."
Zen, who has often criticized the Vatican's attempt at rapprochement with Beijing, suggested Vatican diplomats doing the groundwork were keeping the pontiff in the dark or even going against his wishes.
The Vatican statement on Tuesday said there was no "difference of thought and action" between the pope and his aides and the source said the pope had been fully briefed before the delegation left for Beijing in December and after it returned.