Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Paul P. Mariani, S.J.December 07, 2018

A new era for the Catholic Church in China began this past fall when Pope Francis signed off on a historic “provisional agreement” with the People’s Republic of China over the appointment of bishops in China. The accord broke a nearly 70-year impasse between Beijing and the Vatican. At the end of September the pope also gave an in-flight interview on the agreement and issued a message to the Catholics of China and the universal church explaining his reasons for making this bold step.

The exact contents of the “provisional agreement” will be kept secret. But America and other publications have reported that it was signed in Beijing on Sept. 22 by representatives of both the Vatican and the Chinese government. It appears that the Chinese government will have a voice in the selection of bishops, but Pope Francis insists he will have the final say. (The exact process for naming and vetting candidates is not clear.) As part of the agreement, the Vatican will reconcile seven “illegitimate” Chinese bishops (bishops ordained without the papal mandate). It is the first such public agreement between the Vatican and China since the Communist Party came to power in October 1949.

The agreement was hailed in some quarters as an important step toward rapprochement and denounced in others as a betrayal. In order to understand better why this agreement has incited such strong opinions, I will give some needed historical background and then outline some hopes, risks and unanswered questions about the current state of Sino-Vatican relations.

A Century-Old Issue

The situation of the church in China has come full circle. The key issue in the agreement is the appointment of bishops, the same issue that preoccupied the church in China 100 years ago. At that time all the bishops in China were foreign-born. Most held the office of apostolic vicar or apostolic prefect, because the diocesan hierarchy was not fully set up until 1946. They were almost always selected by the religious order or missionary society to which they belonged and were ratified through the French protectorate, a role France had arrogated to itself in the 1840s as the guardian of Catholic interests in China. Forward-thinking missionaries, and even the Vatican, were essentially locked out of the decision-making process. So were Chinese Catholics, who continually petitioned Rome. (These petitions are still on file in the archives of the former Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.)

The situation of the church in China has come full circle.

Finally, after World War I, the Vatican began to take the indigenization of local churches more seriously. In 1919 it sent a papal visitor directly to China. His key tasks were to give the Vatican a better sense of what was happening on the ground in China, and, ultimately, to find local candidates for the episcopacy. After years of careful diplomacy, these efforts bore fruit, and in 1926 Pope Pius XI, the “pope of the missions,” consecrated the first six Chinese bishops of modern times. (In 1685 Gregory Luo Wenzao had become the first Chinese bishop, but there had been none since then.) By consecrating these bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pius XI sent a strong signal: The indigenization of the Chinese episcopacy had begun. It would continue in fits and starts for the next 25 years, by which point perhaps half the bishops in China were Chinese.

Global events soon intervened. World War II began for China in 1937, when the Japanese mounted a full-scale invasion. This was followed by a brutal civil war, in which the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious. On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong faced the crowds from the rostrum of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing and announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China. China had “stood up.”

Mao had long promised to reverse the legacy of “colonialism.” Even before the C.C.P. came to power, soldiers killed and tortured priests, most notoriously during the Trappist “death march” of 1947. When the party came to power two years later, the Christian churches, along with other “enemies without guns,” were soon in Mao’s crosshairs. The C.C.P. soon nationalized church property and expelled both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. These developments only accelerated with the outbreak of the Korean War and the ramping up of the Cold War. Most unfortunately for Catholics, the government insisted that the church break its ties with the “imperialist” Vatican. It wanted the church to be firmly under party control. Prescient Catholics saw this as the beginning of an effort to create an independent “Catholic” church. The papal representative at the time, Archbishop Anthony Riberi, strongly protested. He felt strongly that obedience to the pope was not simply a political matter but a doctrinal one. He was expelled from China in 1951. Sino-Vatican relations were locked in mutual recriminations.

Beyond broken diplomatic ties, the situation for the church continued to worsen. By 1955 many bishops had been exiled. Others were brought to trial and imprisoned, a fate shared by thousands of faithful Catholics. But the Chinese government continued to insist on establishing a Catholic Church independent of Rome. By 1957 branches of the government-controlled Patriotic Association were established throughout the country, and in the following year, the government staged the consecration of some bishops without papal approval. It continued to do so in the years that followed. Even Pope John XXIII even briefly asked if the church in China was now in schism. Life for Catholics only got worse throughout the Cultural Revolution, when church buildings were ransacked and believers were viciously attacked. The Maoist years were not kind to the church. Chinese Catholics refer to these years as a jiaonan, a persecution without precedent. China was closing itself off—culturally, economically and politically—from much of the rest of the world.

Chinese Catholics refer to the Maoist years as a jiaonan, a persecution without precedent.

By late 1978 the political winds shifted again. Mao had been dead two years and the new leader, Deng Xiaoping, initiated an era of reform. China embarked on a modernization program and opened itself once again to the outside world. Religion was also rehabilitated. The policy was ratified by a Communist Party document in 1982 and still provides the basic framework today. Property was restored, religious leaders were released from prison, and the government professed contrition for its past treatment of believers. The government recognized that the past draconian policies had only backfired and led to great resentment, and now called on officials not to antagonize believers but to unite with them under the standard of modernization. The churches soon emerged from the shadows—as did the vicious divisions between the “underground” and “patriotic” churches.

The Chinese government recognized that past draconian policies had only backfired and led to great resentment.

Pope John Paul II saw some signs of hope. Almost from the beginning of his pontificate he took a keen interest in the church in China. In 1983 he wrote a personal letter to Deng asking for “a direct contact between the Holy See and the authorities of the Chinese people.” His overtures were not reciprocated. He never was able to visit China.

Pope Benedict XVI encountered the same hopes and frustrations. In 2007 he wrote a letter to the church in China expressing a desire for direct state-to-state dialogue with China—thus bypassing the Patriotic Association—an organization obliquely referenced in the letter as “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.” After an initial period of some openness, the Chinese government grew lukewarm about the letter. The situation soon returned to business as usual.

But such public frustrations belie the fact that, during the 2000s, the Vatican and China had back-channel contacts, especially over the appointment of bishops. In reality, many of the bishops who had been consecrated without the papal mandate in past decades sought reconciliation with Rome. In most cases it was granted. This policy made such headway that Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 letter, acknowledged that the great majority of Chinese bishops had been reconciled to Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that the great majority of Chinese bishops had been reconciled to Rome.

Some have questioned this generous policy of reconciling illegitimate bishops. This is because the government still demanded its pound of flesh. It wanted pliable tools of the state. Under fear, pressure or opportunism, these bishops were consecrated but without the papal mandate. (Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a strong critic of Chinese religious policy, called the 2007 illicit consecrations “acts of war.”) But later they would seek papal approbation and pledge loyalty to the pope. Then they would tell the government that they were committed to the principle of the independence of the Chinese church from Rome. The process of asking forgiveness, then permission, was showing its fragility.

Indeed, Sino-Vatican relations have seen many ups and downs in the 40 years since China began reforms under Deng, shifting in what sometimes looked like a 10-year cycle. Progress was made and then would rapidly deteriorate. Thus, this 70-year impasse seems to have been broken with the signing of the provisional agreement.

The end result of this was that until just before the recent provisional agreement there were about 100 bishops in China, 30 of them still not recognized by the government. Some are under house arrest or “disappeared” while others function with some freedom. The remaining 70 were recognized by both the Vatican and the Chinese government. But this left the thorny issue that there were still seven illegitimate bishops in China. They had neither sought nor were given papal reconciliation. Needless to say, this is a highly irregular state for the church. No other bishops’ conference in the world had both legitimate and illegitimate bishops in the same body. The wheat and the chaff were mixed together. In February America reported that the seven bishops asked the pope for pardon and requested reconciliation with him and the universal church. And now, after reviewing their files, the pope has legitimized them all. This was the main public fruit of the provisional accord. In the view of others, the chaff has been renamed as wheat.


By the pope’s recognition of these seven bishops, the Chinese government seems to be gaining a lot. What is the church getting? At first glance, it seems not much. Even sympathetic church leaders call it an imperfect agreement.

But there are hopes. One hope is that this agreement is simply the first step. Future agreements could clarify a whole set of secondary issues for the church in China. The fact is that normal church governance has been difficult in China for the past 70 years. There are issues with diocesan boundaries, for example. The Vatican still officially counts a total of 144 dioceses (and other ecclesiastical divisions), while the Chinese government counts 98. One reason for this discrepancy is that the boundaries and even the names of some provinces and regions in China have changed since 1949.

Beyond the issue of episcopal legitimacy, discrepancies in diocesan boundaries have led to a number of irregular situations. Sometimes the faithful did not know who the legitimate bishop was—or there were competing bishops in the same region. The situation was often compounded because even government-approved bishops would not publicly state if they had been reconciled with the Vatican. All of this was a major blow to the visibility of the church. A key principle in church law is that the faithful have a right to know who their bishop is. Yet the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican yearbook, continues to reiterate the statistics for bishops and diocesan boundaries from the early 1950s.

However, there are far greater hopes than simply rationalizing diocesan boundaries or updating the church’s annual yearbook. (This, after all, can be so much insider baseball.) The uncomfortable truth is that if a church has different dioceses and competing bishops, it is no longer one church, but two. A greater hope is that by regularizing these structures, the Vatican can help bring further reconciliation. The Holy See probably hopes that the status of the 30 bishops not recognized by the Chinese government can be normalized. Perhaps they would be allowed to function more openly and receive some kind of recognition by the government. This would be a major step forward. The Vatican has already shown good will. Perhaps the Chinese government will follow.

The uncomfortable truth is that if a church has different dioceses and competing bishops, it is no longer one church, but two.

Another hope is for full diplomatic links between the Vatican and Beijing. Perhaps a papal ambassador can be posted in China much like one was some 70 years ago. Frank discussions could then continue on a state-to-state basis between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, such an arrangement would help the Chinese side as well. It must be a source of embarrassment for China that it is one of the few countries in the world that does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. This is a dubious distinction shared with Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Even Iran has an apostolic nunciature.

Finally, direct links between the Catholic Church and China might benefit Pope Francis as well. Perhaps the pope will be allowed to visit China. Indeed, this would be a major accomplishment, even though it would be open to much misunderstanding, as it would come in a time of increasing restrictions on religious expression in China.

China it is one of the few countries in the world that does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Finally, as the Vatican has made clear, all of these efforts are designed to assist in the evangelization of the Chinese people. Despite the legacy of persecution, Catholics have grown from about three million in 1949 to about 10 to 12 million today. However, in the last few years some commentators have noted that there seems to be a leveling of Catholic growth in China. This is something that I have also been told by Catholics in China. Contrast this with the robust growth of Protestantism in China from under a million in 1949 to perhaps 60 or more million today.


The provisional agreement is not without its risks. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that the Chinese government wants any positive outcomes for the church. The Chinese government has seen the underground church as a thorn in its side for decades, and for decades it has tried to bring that church to heel. Beijing probably sees the accord as a way of further controlling the underground community. If the Vatican is willing to be co-opted into this project, then all the better.

It would be naïve in the extreme to think that the Chinese government wants any positive outcomes for the church.

So, is the pope selling out the underground church? This is a question that comes up all the time, even asked of the pope himself. The underground faithful will be hurt. They have suffered greatly at the hands of the Chinese government in the past. They will now suffer at the hands of the Vatican. These are some of the sentiments I heard during my recent summer trip to China. Cardinal Zen, with whom I had the opportunity to talk, has been vociferous in his attacks on the deal. Some Catholics are afraid they will be abandoned to the wolves.

For the pope’s part, it seems that he is counting on the continuing fidelity of the underground church. They have faced the wolves in the past, and they certainly can survive a painful agreement.

Another risk is the coherence of the Vatican’s policy. In short, if the Vatican did not recognize these seven bishops in the past, why are they suddenly acceptable now? Was there something in their past conduct that the Vatican was aware of? The Boston Pilot reports rumors that two of them were long known to have families. Then there is the case of Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin of Kunming. He is the president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference (an entity not recognized by the Vatican) and spends much time in Beijing or on the road and not with his flock. All of this raises the question: After centuries of trying to get out from under the thumb of state power, why would the Vatican return to this state of affairs. Are these the “authentic shepherds” that Pope Francis calls for?

In his letter to the Chinese faithful the pope is at pains to mention several times that he does not want “bureaucrats” or “functionaries” for the church in China. Yet there is a danger that this is precisely why many of these men were chosen by the government. They have caught the eye of the government, but have they won the hearts and minds of the people? While the Vatican has been reading their files, it is the Chinese government that has the much larger files on these men. It knows who will do its bidding and who is easily blackmailed. One is forced to ask: If these bishops did the government’s bidding in the past, why would they not continue to do so in the future?

What Remains to be Answered

Finally, the new agreement is not without its unresolved questions. A major one is finding a proper understanding of the church. In short, is the church the church of the diplomats and functionaries, or is it the church of the martyrs and prophets? Does it stand up to or does acquiesce to it. In sum, is it the church of the comfortable or of the catacombs?

Pope Francis recently canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero, a bishop known for prophetically standing up for his flock against a murderous regime. St. Romero once said: “A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth—beware!—is not the true church of Jesus Christ.”

An earlier generation of Chinese was told by church leaders to resist the Communist government and its intrusive religious policies to break ties with the pope. Many went to prison and others to their deaths. Now another generation of Chinese Catholics is told that the clandestine, unregistered church is not a normal way of proceeding. They are told to engage in encounter and not in confrontation. Where is the coherence here? By calling for engagement in China but then canonizing Óscar Romero, is the Vatican sending mixed signals? Or is it simply acknowledging a perennial issue in the church? And this is all happening in a time of increasing government restriction over religion in China. Are the prophets being sold out by the diplomats?

Are the prophets being sold out by the diplomats?

It is well known that for centuries European governments named bishops in territories under their control or influence. This was acknowledged by Pope Francis in an in-flight interview after the accord was announced. But the Second Vatican Council insisted that the church now had the “exclusive power to appoint and install bishops.” It further decreed that “for the future no rights or privileges be conceded to civil authorities in regard to the election, nomination or presentation to bishoprics.” This understanding was written into Canon 377 §5 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Is the Vatican turning its back on this policy for the sake of a greater good? Perhaps the Vatican has determined that there are strong pragmatic reasons for this decision and that it will help the faithful. If that is true, it comes at the high cost of going against the clear intent of Vatican II for the independence of the church from temporal powers.

Announcing the agreement, Greg Burke, the director of the Holy See Press Office, stated that “the objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops that are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by the Chinese authorities.”

If that is the case, then the decision to sign the “provisional agreement” might very well be a pastoral one. But it is a political one as well.

More: China / Vatican
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Phillip Stone
5 years 6 months ago

An excellent and informed brief history, thank you.

I respectfully disagree, and very strongly, that without the abject surrender by this current Pope, there would be not one but two competing "Catholic churches".
There has been only one apostolic led Christian fellowship in mainland China for the last century or more and a political abomination of a false government institution started by the Maoist communists.

I anticipate not the greater good, but a characteristic Marxist endorsed duplicity where some quite small time in the future the exposed true Christians will be rounded up and either executed or imprisoned.

Frank Pray
5 years 5 months ago

Reconciliation is not allegiance. Further, the Party is consistent and clear about who is in control of the “Patriotic” Catholic Church. I cast my vote for the “sell out” group. I generally admire Pope Francis, but this “deal” strikes me as shortsighted and naive. There no longer is a Catholic Church in China. Let us hope however that Christians will find another flock from which to gather strength. It seems the Protestant churches holding to the Word of God are more defiant.

Frank Pray
5 years 5 months ago

Duplicate post deleted.

The latest from america

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, bends down to greet Pope Francis with their foreheads touching, ahead of a working session on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Energy, and Africa-Mediterranean, during the G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia, southern Italy, on June 14, 2024.
Pope Francis met with President Joe Biden and several other world leaders at the Group of Seven summit.
Pope Francis, seen from behind, sits at a working session during the G7 summit in Borgo Egnazia, Italy. The session discusses AI, Energy, Africa, and the Mideast. The background features a blue screen with the G7 Italia logo, and several attendees and photographers are visible.
The pope addressed leaders at the G7's special "outreach" session dedicated to artificial intelligence.
Pope Francis met with comedians to discuss the importance of humor, specifically as a tool for unity in the face of darkness and conflict.
“Sister Act” embodies the welcoming spirit of a church willing to go out into the street.
John DoughertyJune 14, 2024