The Dispatch: More from CWR...

The Holy See, China, and evangelization

The only real power the Holy See can deploy in 21st-century world politics is the power of moral witness and argument.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims from China during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In a recent interview, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, suggested that certain critics of a deal between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China were misconstruing the Holy See’s motivations: “There are those who’ve accused us of only wanting diplomatic relations as a sign of some sort of success. But the Holy See, as the pope has said many times, is not interested in diplomatic successes.”

It’s just possible that, among other things, His Eminence had in mind an online article I published at Foreign this past February. There, I argued that the decades-long passion of some Vatican diplomats for securing diplomatic relations with the PRC reflected an outmoded view of the Holy See’s role in world affairs, in which the Vatican is imagined to be a third-tier power trying to punch above its weight (as the cardinal secretary of state of Pius VII, Ercole Consalvi, did at the Congress of Vienna in 1815).

That is no longer the case, I suggested, for the only real power the Holy See can deploy in 21st-century world politics is the power of moral witness and argument. That moral authority is compromised, and the life of the Church under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes is weakened, when deals are made by the Vatican that concede far too much authority in Church affairs to communist regimes. Which is what happened under the so-called Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Agostino Casaroli: a policy of accommodation that led to grave problems for the Church in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and caused unnecessary headaches for the Church in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s, before the Ostpolitik was effectively jettisoned by the most geopolitically consequential pope in centuries, John Paul II.

So the issue here is not an untoward eagerness for diplomatic success; the issue is one of confusing diplomatic accomplishment with evangelical achievement. And that gets me to the oft-repeated nub of my critique of the putative deal between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China: any arrangement by which the Chinese communist authorities are conceded a significant role in the appointment of Catholic bishops will weaken the Church’s evangelical possibilities — today, and especially in the China of the future. Kowtowing to communists is bad for achieving a full reconciliation among the currently divided factions in the Catholic Church in China. But first and foremost, it is bad for mission and evangelization, now and in the future.

I am skeptical of the claim, often heard in Vatican circles, that China will inevitably become the lead power in the world. Yes, China has made enormous strides economically since Deng Xiaoping abandoned Maoist economic madness and unleashed the creativity of the Chinese people. Yes, the Chinese model of efficient authoritarianism is now a serious competitor to democracy. And yes, the communist regime’s claim to have restored the Middle Kingdom’s dignity after a century of quasi-colonial degradation has significant appeal among Han Chinese (if not among Tibetans and the Uighurs of Xinjiang).

But the one-child policy that China brutally enforced for decades has created serious demographic and social problems; there’s little in the way of a social safety net for an increasingly elderly Chinese population; and it seems unlikely that today’s restraints on free expression in China will be tolerated indefinitely by a rapidly growing middle class.

The communist regime in China is inherently unstable, despite what appears on the surface to be a successful, alternative model of development. Chinese communism will not rule China forever. And when a post-communist China finally opens itself fully to the world, China will become the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the western hemisphere in the 16th century.

A Catholicism that has become identified with a discarded communist regime, because the Vatican once conceded the communists a significant role in the Church’s internal life, will be at a grave evangelical disadvantage in the post-communist China of the future, where evangelical Protestants and Mormons will be very, very active. And that evangelical concern, I would respectfully remind Cardinal Parolin, has long been the core of my argument against granting the Chinese communist regime a significant role in the choice of bishops.

Or to quote Pope Francis, any such deal would be an impediment to living out the Holy Father’s vision of “a Church permanently in mission.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About George Weigel 428 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. It shows how myopic “Rome” is these days if they think China is going to dominate the world.

    It might have a slim possibility after the total collapse of their fake economy and the likely civil war that will follow, assuming that the country does not break into parts…and then somehow re-emerges as a free enterprise democracy.

    But the above is even less likely than non-homo-erotic nativity scene at Pope F’s Vatican Square.

  2. I think the communist party will last a very very long time in China because it is a control device not a Marxist theory for them. Beijing has the highest number of billionaires on earth. But the party has reduced the price of medicinal drugs over 200 times by fiat which pleases the common man and contrasts benignly with stories of high drug prices in democratic countries where drug companies can have influence on legislators. The party keeps order and Chinese love order and most affirm the death penalty which gives them a murder rate far below that of the average of Catholic cultures taken together especially done by population.
    Three Popes by departing from centuries of tradition and from scripture on that topic have made Catholicism…a tad bizarre to much of well read Asia which Asia by UN data is the safest area on earth from criminal murder and death penalty dominant….partly from Islam and otherwise by Orientals by tradition as in China and Japan where you are over fifty times safer from murder than you are in the US Virgin Islands….Japan is actually 150 times safer than those islands. They do not want to be like the West in murder rates..race riots…and drug prices. In so many ways, the new unscriptural change on the death penalty is the dumbest thing any three successive Popes have ever done for evangelisation…( let’s unnecessarily place a block to conversion to billions by opposing Rom.13:4 )…..unless you are mainly trying to reconvert the European educated liberal male who is a tad non masculine and very into cinema and recipes for endive. Whommp….there it is. But then what of those billions of non whites you are supposed to convert….the readers among whom know that Catholic countries from Brazil to Mexico are murderous and drug laden and non death penalty….mercy overdone is really working down there…should we convert to that mercy overdone and have their chaos and risk our lives?

  3. China’s approved are not true bishops. No valid mass is being done by them and the priest they ordained. This is the real issue with true Catholics. You cannot be sure if you have a valid priest in the next generation or so.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Holy See, China, and evangelization -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.