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.
An even partial resolution of 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 recognise 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 a 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 on Thursday.
"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 centimetre to increase the size of the cage," he added.
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.