Last week more than 100 bishops, priests, nuns and lay leaders shuffled dutifully into the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. They took their seats in the Great Auditorium, under a vast ceiling emblazoned with a red star – a reminder that in China the Communist Party reigns over all. The group belonged to the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. But among them were Vatican-approved bishops who signalled subtle disapproval by not wearing their episcopal clothes. Yu Zhengsheng, a high-ranking communist official, told the audience to “ensure that the leadership of the Chinese Catholic Church is held firmly in the hands of those who love the nation and the religion” – rather than in the Vatican’s hands, that is.

The gathering marked the Patriotic Association’s 60th anniversary. In 1957, Christianity could plausibly be presented as a foreign religion. But today there are roughly 100 million Chinese Christians, more than the 89 million-strong membership of the Communist Party. Over the next three decades, the number of faithful is expected rise to 400 million, making China the country with the world’s largest Christian population.

That’s why the government thinks it is necessary to remind even Patriotic Association members to be obedient to the state. (Before we dismiss this too quickly, recall that both Britain and America also regarded Catholics as having divided loyalties until relatively recently.)

Yet, at the same time, China seems committed to talks with the Holy See. Last month its negotiators reportedly visited Rome to discuss the appointment of bishops, the greatest obstacle to reconciliation between Rome and Beijing.

It is hard to know how close the parties are to a deal. The Vatican has hardly wavered in its commitment to talks, despite grave concerns expressed within the Church. Beijing has veered all over the place, suggesting that the Holy See is the keener of the two. The Vatican has responded to provocations only when it has had to – denouncing, for example, the recent disappearance of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou.

It is difficult to see how the two sides can find common ground when Rome (rightly) insists on its authority to name bishops while Beijing argues that the state is supreme. Yet the Vatican has faced such impasses in the past and overcome them.

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