The Vatican has put a Chinese Catholic scholar who lived nearly five centuries ago on the path to beatification.

Paul Xu Guangqi, who lived from 1562 to 1633, was a scientist, astronomer and mathematician; he was a disciple of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and converted to Christianity under the Ming Dynasty.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the go-ahead for the beatification cause from the Vatican's sainthood congregation is a "light of hope" for China. He added that Xu's life shows there is no contradiction in being both Chinese and Catholic.

The move is seen as a hopeful sign for improving relations between China and the Vatican.

Catholics in China are caught between staying loyal to the ruling Communist Party in Beijing and showing allegiance to the pope in Rome, a Church not recognized by the authorities.

The beatification announcement came shortly after the Vatican called on China to stop imposing government-backed bishops who do not have the pope's approval. China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951.