China and Vatican Make Preliminary Agreement on the Election of Bishops

Pope Francis is not the first pope to turn his pastoral gaze toward China, and in the long scope of the Middle Kingdom’s history, the Vatican’s overtures to China are not so unusual.


The American historian and novelist Edward Eggleston once said, “Journalism is organized gossip.” There has been a lot of journalism lately about the Church in China, but it has been extremely difficult to separate the genuine news from “organized gossip.” In June, the bishop of Shanghai, Ma Daqin, who has spent four years under house arrest for refusing to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), released an “admission of his faults,” stating that he should not have distanced himself from the CCPA. Ma’s message stressed the importance of “loving the country and loving the Church,” and emphasized the importance of independence from “foreigner influences,” and the CCPA’s positive role in the evangelization of China. This message, which many Chinese Catholics believe to be false, or perhaps forced, has been interpreted by some as a betrayal toward loyal Chinese Catholics, while others view Ma’s confession as a pastoral strategy to help preserve the Church in his native country.

After Bishop Ma Daqin’s alleged message was published, rumors began to circulate that the Vatican and Chinese government had entered into dialogue, hoping to arrive at a rapprochement after decades of severed diplomatic ties between Beijing and Rome. Critics of such an accord between the Vatican and China’s government have noted that China’s treatment of Catholics must be normalized before an agreement can be made, pointing to such recent events as China’s refusal to allow clergy and faithful from China to attend World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. cardinal john tong hon of hong kong seen in this oct. 18, 2012 file photo. (cns photo/giancarlo giuliani, catholic press)
In an article published by the Italian Catholic news source, it was reported that, “A priest from the official Church in Beijing said that if a colleague goes to Krakow unofficially, on his return he is likely to lose his pastoral office or government aid for his parish.”1 If this report is true, Chinese priests could lose the freedom to practice their ministry in China if they get too close to the pope. Still, some 2,000 Chinese Catholics are believed to have attended the recent World Youth Day events in Krakow and there are so far no reports of official retaliation against those attendees, lay or clergy.

Toward the end of World Youth Day in Poland, the admired underground bishop of Mindong, in Fujian province, Bishop Vincent Huang Shoucheng, died, which resulted in a ripple of Catholic mourning and support throughout China. The underground community around Mindong is around 90,000 strong, and Huang’s popularity is shared among both the sanctioned and unsanctioned communities. It is a testament to China’s comparative tolerance toward Catholicism in recent months that Bishop Huang’s very public funeral was attended by more than 20,000 Catholics. The streets of Mindong were filled with thousands of faithful during the Mass, with no interference from the local authorities. Such open state tolerance toward Catholics as not punishing those who attended World Youth Day and those who attended the public funeral of an “underground” bishop have left many wondering if the situation for China’s Church is on the threshold of a better era. But there are critics who harbor suspicions that no accord can, or should, be attempted between China’s communist government and the Holy See.

cardinal joseph zen, 82, retired bishop of hong kong, addresses a rally outside government headquarters in hong kong, sept. 24, 2014. (cns photo/liau chung-ren, reuters)

On August 5, South China Morning Post published what has been “big news” among China’s Catholics: “Beijing, Vatican Reach Initial Accord on Appointment of Bishops.”2 In this article, the head of Hong Kong’s Catholics, Cardinal John Tong Hon, is reported to have announced that under a preliminary agreement between the Vatican and China’s officials, the pope will choose from a list of proposed candidates for ordination to bishop by China’s bishops and state authorities, which would finally normalize how bishops are selected and ordained in China. This would be an enormous step forward in Sino-Vatican relations. Cardinal Tong’s statements derive from an 8,000-word document Tong released on the Hong Kong Catholic webpage, Kung Kao Po (Gongjiaobao 公教報), in which he described the agreement:

Fortunately, after working for many years on this issue, the Catholic Church has gradually gained the reconsideration of the Chinese government, which is now willing to reach an understanding with the Holy See on the question of the appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church in China and seek a mutually acceptable plan. . . . The Apostolic See has the right to choose from the recommended list the candidates it considers as most suitable and the right to reject the candidates recommended by a bishops’ conference of China and the bishops in the provinces under it.3

In other words, under the initial agreement, the pope would choose from a list of candidates recommended by a conference comprised of bishops from both the open and clandestine Churches.

Tong acknowledges that there are critics of the Vatican’s negotiations with China’s communist authorities who claim “that the Holy See has not openly criticized China’s policies on human rights and has not attempted to change certain political policies of the Chinese government.”4 To such criticisms Cardinal Tong responds that:

The mission of the Catholic Church is not to change the institution or administrative agency of nations. It cannot and should not intervene in political struggles. Rather, it should realize the above targets through rational thought and the awakening of spiritual power. Without giving up its principles, it should resolve problems through communication with legitimate political power and not through continuous confrontation.5

Whether the Holy See should adopt a hard line with communist governments continues to draw fierce debates, but it should be recalled that the Vatican’s proposed agreement with China is comparable to agreements made with communist Vietnam quite some time ago. In June of 2010, Pope Benedict XVI established a similar form of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and the Church there has continued to flourish under a circumstance that Pope Francis is now proposing with China.

portrait of bishop vincent huang shoucheng (anthony e. clark collection)

Among the most vocal critics of this new rapprochement between Rome and Beijing has been Cardinal Joseph Zen, and a recent post is entitled, “Card. Zen: My Concerns over China-Holy See Dialogue and Repercussions on Chinese Church”. Cardinal Zen’s concerns over the proposed Sino-Vatican agreement centers on “belonging to the Patriotic Association, which Benedict XVI called ‘incompatible’ with Catholic doctrine (and which Francis confirmed), . . . silence on the persecution of the faithful and priests,” and “ambiguities over appointment of bishops.”6 The history of mistrust and conflict between China’s authorities – communist, Republican, and imperial – is long and complex, and in my view, any dialogue and progress is a welcome benefit to the continued growth of the Church in China.

That being said, painful memories persist among China’s Catholics who have suffered for their loyalty to a papacy that has consistently condemned communism as a danger to religion and human prosperity. The diplomatic dance that follows these recent events will be a challenging one for all sides of the debate. So much is happening now in China’s growing Catholic community, and at such a quickening pace, that the present and future landscape of China’s Church is difficult to describe and predict. What is certain, however, is that when I attend Holy Mass with Chinese Catholics and meet with China’s clergy, they are a community of deep faith in Jesus Christ, and flourishing in hope for what is planned for their future as a people of God.

Pope Francis is not the first pope to turn his pastoral gaze toward China; the faith in the Middle Kingdom has been an abiding concern of the Holy See since the medieval Church, when Franciscan friars were sent to the Celestial Empire to bring the life-giving Word of God to “people of the Orient.” In the long scope of this history, the Vatican’s overtures to China are not so unusual.

Funeral Mass for Bishop Vincent Huang Shoucheng (Anthony E. Clark Collection)

On a sunny Roman winter day, February 16, 1947, Pope Pius XII welcomed the first Catholic diplomatic Minister to the Holy See in his audience hall. Dr. John C. H. Wu, who had written the national constitution for the Republic of China, translated the Psalms and New Testament into elegant classical Chinese, and had written stirring essays on the role that St. Therese the Little Flower had played in his conversion, was China’s elected Minister, and addressed the Holy Father with a poignant appeal: “I am confident that, with the wise guidance and constant encouragement from Your Holiness, the Church in China will produce ‘many a scribe steeped in the Kingdom of Heaven’ who will ‘bring forth out of his treasure new things and old’.”7 And he finished his short address to the pope with the words: “I will do my best, with the grace of God, to strengthen the good relation between the Holy See and my country.”8 Pope Pius XII responded with a beautiful expression of the Holy See’s feelings for China:

And as the Colonnade of the Vatican Basilica opens its large arms towards the East, so we now lift Our hands towards the Orient and invoke the protection of the Almighty over the rugged and arduous journey of the Chinese people from twilight to dawn, which We hope will soon shine forth in a secure internal and external peace.9

That moment was the first step of diplomatic relations and friendship between China and the leader of the Catholic Church in the modern era, and perhaps with prayerful and prudent steps that first encounter is beginning to bear new fruits of reconciliation after a long and silent distance.


1 Bernardo Cervellera, “Chinese youth and priests prevented from attending World Youth Day”,, July 17, 2016.

2 “Beijing, Vatican reach initial accord on appointment of bishops, Hong Kong cardinal says”, South China Morning News, August 5, 2016.

3 Kung Kao Po (Gongjiaobao 公教報), Issue 3781 (August).

4 Kung Kao Po, Issue 3781.

5 Kung Kao Po, Issue 3781.

6 Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, “My concerns over China-Holy See dialogue and repercussions on Chinese Church”,, August 4, 2016.

7 L’Osservatore Romano, February 17 & 18, 1947.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 52 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.

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