Upon Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the former pontiff as “a man of action and principle, working to promote human rights and dignity in places around the globe where they are too often denied.” Kerry called for “continued collaboration in areas of common interest to our nation and to the Catholic Church.” Looking forward, as Pope Francis I settles into his role, the United States should support and root for him in his attempts to promote religious tolerance around the globe. In particular, I am thinking of the Vatican’s push to allow Chinese Catholics to worship under the Holy See, as such an effort will shine a light on the overall dismal state of religious freedom and other human rights in China.

Catholic evangelization in China dates back to the end of the thirteenth century, when Saint John of Montecorvino became the first Catholic missionary to reach Beijing. He later became Beijing’s first bishop. Catholicism in China did not begin to flourish, however, until the Treaty of Tientsin was signed in 1858, signaling the end of the Second Opium War. This treaty opened all of China to Christian missionaries and granted religious liberty to all Christians. For the next ninety years, the Catholic Church grew rapidly in China, until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao Zedong in 1949.

In 1951, the Communist Party cut ties with the Vatican, initiating serious persecution of all religious life in China. In response, Chinese Catholics established “underground” churches—loyal to the Holy See—that have persisted despite many years of persecution.

In 1957, the government established “patriotic churches” that operate under the jurisdiction of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), not the Vatican. If they wish to worship publically, Catholics must be a member of a CCPA-sanctioned church. The membership of these churches is estimated to be 12-15 million, but most observers believe that the membership of the underground Catholic churches vastly outnumbers that of the CCPA. Life for these Catholics in China has remained difficult, despite platitudes of “freedom of religious belief” enshrined in the constitution.

In June 2007, Pope Benedict reached out via pastoral letter to both the “underground” and the “official” Catholic communities in China. He said that an “underground” church was not sustainable, and that Bishops appointed by the Holy See should come out of anonymity. Still, the Pope recognized that Chinese officials naturally “would be attentive” to Bishops that were chosen by the Holy See, striking a somewhat conciliatory tone. He reiterated, however, that state control over the church was unacceptable, and a church independent from the Holy See was incompatible with Catholic teaching. The Pope called for further dialogue to iron out the issues between the Communist Party and the Holy See, but was staunch in his belief that the state should relieve its control over the CCPA. Surprisingly, for a few years, Pope Benedict’s letter to all Chinese Catholics improved dialogue between the Chinese government and the Vatican; relations seemed to be moving in the right direction.

There were a few years of “quiet negotiation and tacit agreement” in appointing bishops in China under Pope Benedict. This honeymoon did not last long, however. Since 2010, the CCPA has consecrated four bishops without the Vatican’s input. These bishops were automatically excommunicated by the Holy See.

On July 7, 2012 Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin was named Bishop of Shanghai by the CCPA, but at his inaugural mass, he announced his resignation from the association. Bishop Ma has been under house arrest since then, and the CCPA stripped him of his title in December 2012. Bishop Ma’s resignation highlighted the dangerous schism that still exists between the churches faithful to the Holy See and those loyal to the Communist Party. Observers agree that tensions are at their highest point in fifty years and many fear retribution against those who practice the Catholic faith in China.

Pope Benedict placed repaired relations with China and Chinese Catholics at the top of his agenda. He did not succeed in his efforts, perhaps because diplomacy languished under his tenure as scandals mounted within the Church. However, Pope Francis I would do well to rekindle relations with China and attempt to improve the lives of all people seeking to worship freely in China, not only Catholics.

China already has laid out its terms for renewed dialogue with the Holy See after the election of the next pope. Beijing has demanded it will not work with the Holy See unless the Vatican “severs diplomatic ties with Taiwan” and “refrains from interfering with China’s internal affairs.” Managing this relationship represents a real challenge for the new Pope, one that will take significant time and effort. One avenue would be for Pope [name] to renew high-level engagement with the CCPA and attempt to restart the informal dialogue that had succeeded to a degree before 2010.

The new pontiff must be firm yet cautious in his attempts to bring Chinese Catholics back to the Holy See. One does not have to look very far into history to be reminded that missteps could trigger the resurgence of the type of Chinese repression that the world witnessed the 1990s. The Communist Party imprisoned tens of thousands, and over 2,000 died, during the crackdown on the Falun Gong, a meditation group that protested against the government. Members of the Falun Gong still languish in forced labor camps, known as laogai, throughout China, where they receive the “longest sentences and worst treatment,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The new Pope should tread cautiously along an extremely thin line in making his case. Overtures to Chinese Catholics that are construed as stirring dissent may be met with an iron fist. Yet, the Pope’s efforts to heal the divisions among Chinese Catholics are a step forward, and have strong implications for human rights in China. The United States should support the Vatican in these endeavors.