ROME – Over the weekend Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, raised eyebrows when he said the next step for the Vatican and China would be to establish formal diplomatic relations, and spoke of a possible future papal trip.

The bishop’s remarks were reported this weekend by the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, while he was visiting the world’s most populous country.

Sorondo’s words were warmly received by the Chinese government, which said it looked forward to “reciprocal exchanges” with the Vatican.

However, several experts on Asian affairs have said that while formal ties with China is something the Vatican, especially under Pope Francis, deeply hopes for, it likely won’t happen anytime soon.

“What Sorondo said is more of a hope than a reality,” Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of Asia News and an expert on Chinese affairs, told Crux, saying that in his view, it was a comment made “out of courtesy,” but “there doesn’t seem like there are many signs” anything could happen soon.

For official relations to be established, Cervellera said there are a slew of issues that would need to be resolved, including outlining the function of the Chinese Patriotic Association – which oversees the formal, government-backed Chinese Catholic Church – and the role of the so-called “underground” church, which pledged faithfulness to Rome rather than the PA.

There would also need to be discussion on how to allow churches to have space to grow and develop projects aimed at building justice and peace, he said, adding that he believes Sorondo “was pushing China a bit to take more steps.”

Similarly, Paolo Affatato, head of the Asia desk for Fides News, said that in his personal view, “I don’t see (diplomatic relations) as something eminent.”

Saying there have been a number of “encouraging signs” in the Vatican-China relationship, Affatato stressed that while diplomatic relations might not be close, what is happening now is part of “a process which, the more it goes forward, the more we can speak of diplomatic relations.”

“One shouldn’t look too far ahead,” he said, adding that there is a lot of goodwill in the process, but the real show of progress will come from the quality of daily life for Catholics in China, which Affatato said is something that will be accomplished in “small steps,” but which he believes is improving.

Currently traveling in China to participate in an organ donation and transplant conference in Kunming, the capital of southwest China’s Yunnan Province, Sorondo during the event said that “Pope Francis has love and confidence in China; and China trusts Pope Francis,” according to the Global Times.

“In this dynamic, the next step is to reach [an agreement on forging] diplomatic relations,” he said and voiced optimism for a possible visit to China for Francis, and for Chinese authorities to come to the Vatican.

Though what he said is not entirely out of the realm of future possibility, Sorondo got into hot water with experts last year for appearing to paint a false picture of China, indicating in an interview with Vatican Insider that China has no serious problems of poverty and insisting that the government is a leader in defending human rights.

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Since Francis’s election in 2013, Sorondo has had a knack for inviting controversy and at times appearing partisan in his role at the pontifical academies, issuing invitations for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and other Democrats to various conferences at the Vatican.

Francis has often voiced his desire to visit China, most recently on his way back from Japan, telling reporters during an inflight press conference that “I love China” and that he wants to visit Beijing.

Francis appeared to sidestep a question on the protests that have gripped Hong Kong for the past six months, pointing to uprisings happening in other countries around the world, including Latin America.

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“I ask for peace in these countries that have problems,” Francis said, and urged dialogue.

According to Affatato, Francis’s efforts to engage China are building on work done by his predecessors, which is “giving positive fruits,” judging by Catholic life in China, which he said is improving.

However, Cervellera had a bleaker view of the situation, saying that “nothing has changed” since the Vatican and China reached a secret agreement on the appointment of bishops last year.

Rather, “the situation for Catholics has gotten worse,” he said, but ceded that formal visits to the Vatican from Chinese officials might be possible, because the Vatican “has always welcomed anyone.”

The problem with this, he said, is that China still faces internal division on how to interact with Francis, with some saying the Catholic Church can exist as long as it is controlled, and others saying it should be eliminated altogether.

This dynamic “could create more division,” Cervellera said, adding that Francis wants to invite Chinese officials to the Vatican. At the moment “he can invite them not as the head of the Catholic Church, but as head of the Vatican.”

Both Affatato and Cervellera said they believed the recent appointment of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila as head of the Vatican’s missionary department could help negotiations with mainland China.

Tagle, 62, is the new prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, also known as Propaganda Fidei, and is also head of the international pontifical charity organization, Caritas Internationalis. His maternal grandfather immigrated from China to the Philippines as a child.

Affatato said he believes that in his new role, Tagle “might be able to help with the facilitation” of the Vatican’s China question. The appointment, he said, could provide “more open doors” given Tagle’s origin and knowledge of issues the Asian continent faces, one of which is that Christianity, though highly concentrated in certain areas, is a minority.

“In this sense an Asian cardinal guiding the missionary office…can also embrace to the Chinese reality,” he said.

Similarly, Cervellera voiced his belief that Tagle could help advance relations with China, “not so much because of the Chinese blood, but because of his intelligence and his attitude.”

“The mission in Asia has its importance inside the ecclesial world,” he said, adding that in his view, Tagle is not only capable, but has the experience to make things happen.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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