The China Agreement: Beijing, Rome, and the Church’s Liberty

The Holy See must show that its provisional agreement with China accords with Vatican II’s teachings on religious freedom and the office of bishop.

A priest celebrates Mass in 2012 in a makeshift chapel in a village near Beijing. (CNS photo/Reuters)

From the Catholic Church’s very beginning, its relationship with Caesar has been, as they say,“complicated.” Christianity has always respected legitimate state authority. It has equally insisted, however, that there are parts of life where the state’s writ simply doesn’t apply.

But the state can be a jealous god. I say “god” because, at different times and places, the state and its rulers have claimed divine or semi-divine attributes. When medieval and absolutist monarchs described themselves as the Lord’s Anointed, they were deadly serious. This often translated into their realms claiming certain rights over the Church, including that of determining who might be named a bishop within their kingdoms.

Against this, there’s a long history of bishops—including the bishop of Rome—contesting the boundaries and substance of such claims. Between 1056 and 1122, for instance, the papacy challenged many Western European monarchs’ insistence that they had the authority to appoint bishops, abbots and other church officials within their realms. The subsequent conflict produced a series of compromises that weakened temporal rulers’ ability to involve themselves in these matters. Legal historians such as Harold J. Berman have stressed that this “Papal Revolution” contributed to a renewal of efforts to desacralize state authority: a process which helped facilitate growing demands for individual, social, economic, and constitutional liberties throughout the West.

Since the French Revolution, regimes grounded on foundations other than the divine right of kings have claimed similar or even greater authority over the Church’s internal affairs. Hard-authoritarian governments, for example, are generally reluctant to concede much meaningful autonomy to those institutions which have traditionally restrained state power. As far as totalitarian regimes are concerned, there is nothing outside the state and everything is under the state.

This brings us to the character of the regime—the People’s Republic of China—with which the Vatican has formally entered into what’s described as a provisional agreement. Since the late-1970s, mainland China has engaged in a limited and inconsistent economic opening to the world. Contrary to expectations, however, this hasn’t morphed into greater liberty in many other spheres of Chinese life. China’s Communist rulers have shown no interest in diluting their highly-authoritarian grip on the country.

That’s especially true with regard to religion. Article 36 of China’s constitution formally guarantees “freedom of religious belief.” It also affirms that “the state protects normal religious activities.” What constitutes “normal” is plainly at the state authorities’ discretion. Moreover, the regime’s policy is that “normal religious activities” may only occur in the context of state-recognized and controlled religious associations like the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).

In practice, any attempt by religious believers and communities to evade the Chinese regime’s controls—let alone rigorously assert anything like the religious liberty to which believers in other countries are now accustomed—is met with systematic repression. That includes imprisonment, labor camps, house-arrest, confinement to asylums for the mentally-ill, and the destruction of unauthorized places of worship.

The Chinese state’s oversight of religion extends into religious organizations’ internal governance. This is especially the case regarding something specifically forbidden by the Chinese constitution. “Religious bodies and religious affairs,” Article 36 states, “are not subject to any foreign domination.” That has obvious implications for a transnational and unified religious organization like the Catholic Church.

For a long time, the Holy See has sought to arrive at an arrangement with Beijing that restores the full communion between the Pope and all Catholic bishops in China which was broken in the 1950s. For the Church, reestablishing this communion is a doctrinal necessity. The vital question, however, is what the provisional agreement says about the role that the Chinese regime has surely insisted that it must be given in bishop appointments.

It could be, for example, that the agreement allows officials from the United Front Work Department (the Communist Party organ that has supervised religious affairs in China since March 2018) a role in selecting future bishops. Would this give the Church in China some freedom from state control? Or would it enable the government to consolidate its grip on Chinese Catholics, particularly those who have kept their distance from the CPCA?

Given the Chinese regime’s record, it’s reasonable to suppose that the second possibility is more likely. That would also fit with recent government efforts to ramp up state control over religion.

Since the promulgation of its new “Regulations on Religious Affairs” in February 2018, the regime has engaged in concerted efforts to “Sinicize” Christianity in China. This has resulted, for instance, in Christians being required to sing songs from the Cultural Revolution or which extoll the Chinese Communist Party in church. Many churches have been forced to remove crosses and install images of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Perhaps most chilling have been government attempts to prohibit Christians from taking their children to church or giving them a religious education.

But it’s precisely these ongoing and heightened violations of religious freedom which remind us that something else is at stake with the Holy See’s agreement with China.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council famously issued Dignitatis Humanae: its Declaration of the right of religious liberty. Properly understood, this is considered to be a right of individuals and communities to be free from unreasonable restrictions by the state as they seek to know religious truth and live in accordance with their conclusions about this matter.

Less well-known is that just 40 days before Vatican II issued Dignitatis Humanae, it promulgated a document on the office of bishop, Christus Dominus. In an echo of disputes from a millennium ago, paragraph 20 of Christus Dominus solemnly declared the Catholic Church’s insistence on its full liberty when it comes to bishop appointments:

Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.

“Properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively”—it’s hard to imagine a more definite and clearer statement that an ecumenical council could make on this topic. There is of course no sense in which a Chinese government or party official could be deemed a “competent ecclesiastical authority.”

Spelling out this teaching’s full logic, the Council then stated:

Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities. The civil authorities, on the other hand, whose favorable attitude toward the Church the sacred synod gratefully acknowledges and highly appreciates, are most kindly requested voluntarily to renounce the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom, after discussing the matter with the Apostolic See.

The first sentence above appears to rule out the Church agreeing to any provision that allows state authorities any involvement in any part of the process of selecting bishops. Does the Holy See’s provisional agreement with Beijing permit any such participation? Indeed, the second sentence—again, I stress, declared by an ecumenical council—effectively asks governments to do the opposite of what the Chinese regime has long demanded of Rome.

This is entirely consistent with how the Catholic Church conceptualized and articulated a right to religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae. For this liberty wasn’t confined to individuals. Dignitatis Humanae insisted that it extended to religious communities.

Securing some sphere of religious freedom for the Church in a country like today’s China was always going to be difficult. Yet creating conditions in which Catholics can more easily access the sacraments and Catholic bishops can be ordained without impairing their communion with Rome is indeed what the Vatican has been seeking to do.

Catholicism, however, has never accepted that Catholics’ pastoral needs aren’t subject to the requirements of Catholic doctrine. Orthopraxis (right action) can only flow from orthodoxy (right thought). No pope, no Catholic bishop, and certainly no Holy See diplomat is exempt from the claims of doctrine. That presumably includes Vatican II’s teaching concerning the religious liberty of individuals and communities and the same Council’s declaration that the Church’s choice of bishops should be free from any external involvement at every single step of the appointment-process.

Yes, Rome has made arrangements in the past with odious governments in an effort to carve out a space for its clergy to undertake their most basic responsibilities to the faithful. Others have noted, however, that it’s highly questionable whether many such twentieth-century agreements bolstered the Church’s freedom or facilitated its ability to administer the sacraments. Medieval and absolutist kings are one thing. Modern totalitarian or hard-authoritarian regimes—whether based on Communism, Fascism, or the combination of Socialism, cronyism, personality-cult, and Confucianism which undergirds the Chinese government—are a different beast altogether.

Whatever the details of the Vatican’s provisional agreement with mainland China, the Holy See is surely obligated to demonstrate that the arrangements for the selection of Chinese bishops meet Christus Dominus’ requirements. If they don’t, then Rome owes the rest of the universal Church an explanation of why there has been a departure from church doctrine and how it will resolve the contradiction.

Diplomacy matters, much more than many people realize. But for the Catholic Church, its freedom and the truth—always together and never apart—should matter even more.

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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 39 Articles
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. The author of many books—including the prize-winning The Commercial Society (Rowman & Littlefield), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar), Becoming Europe (Encounter), the prize-winning Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery), and over 400 articles and opinion-pieces—he writes regularly on political economy, finance, American conservatism, Western civilization, and natural law theory. He can be followed on Twitter @drsamuelgregg


  1. As with his encyclical, Catholic doctrine, and homosexuality in general, Francis is above it all and, reportedly, sleeps the rest of the righteous.

    • This is much bigger a deal than many realize! It may seem like small potatoes amidst the sex scandal which has far more drama and intrigue, but, as you rightly point out, it’s quite difficult to see how this can possibly reconcile with Catholic doctrine.

  2. The five year record from the current papacy suggests that there is little interest in having orthopraxis follow orthodoxy. Thus, it is not likely that Rome will do anything other than criticize and demonize those who criticize this arrangement regarding the selection of bishops.

  3. After over 1000 years of extricating itself from caesaropapism, it looks like the Francis pontificate has finally embraced this debilitating condition in full regalia.

    May God help us!

  4. “Does the Holy See’s provisional agreement with Beijing permit any such participation?” It seems that we should not have to ask such a question at this point. Why can’t the flock know the intentions of the shepherds? This entire process sounds farcical: if you make more bishops for the purpose of increasing the sacraments what use is it if the state can impose sacramental limits?

  5. Is it conceivable that the Chinese Govt might appoint a Bishop who opposes abortion and contraception? I think not. So much for the integrity of the Faith in China on the most important moral facing the age in which we live.

  6. Excellent analysis, Dr. Gregg. Seeing the long view puts this “provisional agreement” in perspective. I also think it would be important to acknowledge how this shocking move undermines the faith of those Chinese Catholics who have been faithful and who have resisted the Church being under the State. How confused and angry they must be!

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