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Better a patch than a hole? Sino-Vatican relations in the new millennium

Beijing will not accept Chinese Catholics’ double or shared loyalty to the country and to a foreign Western country – the Vatican.

A Catholic priest celebrates Sunday Mass in Beijing in this Dec. 4, 2016, file photo. (CNS photo/How Hwee Young, EPA)

In 2001 The Economist published an article entitled “Time to forgive the sinners in China”. The author asked an important question, the answer to which we are still struggling to find:

Both China and the Roman Catholic church have much to gain from patching up their differences. But where to start?

Indeed, where to start?

On the Chinese side, in January 2000, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association appointed five Catholic bishops without papal mandate. This was highly problematic in Sino-Vatican relations. The Vatican’s response was the canonization by Pope John Paul II, on October 1, 2000, of 123 women, men and children who were martyred for the faith in China between the years 1648 and 1930. The majority of the martyrs were Chinese nationals, described by John Paul II in his homily at the canonization as “men and women of every age and state, priests, religious and lay people, showed the same conviction and joy, sealing their unfailing fidelity to Christ and the Church with the gift of their lives.” Additionally, he stated, there were “33 missionaries who left their land and sought to immerse themselves in the Chinese world, lovingly assimilating its features in the desire to proclaim Christ and to serve those people.”

The intention of Rome was to begin “patching” the differences with Beijing in the hope that the native Chinese saints would intervene. The Vatican was honoring “the noble Chinese people” via their sons and daughters, lay and religious, who gave witness and gave their lives for the Church. John Paul II spoke of the martyrs’ double fidelity: to Christ and to the Chinese people via their genuine dedication to the Chinese people they were called to serve. The pope made it clear that it was not his or the Vatican’s intention “to pass judgement on those historical periods” (between 1648 and 1930); instead, the focus was on shared holiness. The life of the Chinese martyrs was considered to be common ground for starting a fruitful dialogue between Beijing and Rome following in the tradition and long history of cultural exchanges between Europe and China. For the Holy Father this was the road leading to more profound dialogue and patching the differences with the Communist government of China.

Was the Vatican’s goodwill met with goodwill on the part of Beijing? Were the differences between Rome and Beijing patched or exacerbated?

Beijing took the canonizations of 123 Catholic martyrs as public humiliation of the Chinese people, a reaction the Vatican neither expected nor was prepared to understand or defend. For the Communist government, the Chinese martyrs were not saints, but sinners and even “criminals,” who had traded their national allegiance or Chinese-ness to a foreign power, abiding by and following after a Western power – the Vatican. The government considered these newly canonized saints to be individuals who had violated the Chinese laws of their time and were protected by Western-imperialistic powers. The term “martyr” combined with “saint” had a different meaning for the Communist. But there was more: the Communists held Vatican responsible for looking down upon and demeaning Chinese history. The government had some serious reservations about the martyr saints selected by Rome. Consequently, Beijing reacted by asking the Catholic Church of Chinese provinces to protest against the canonizations.

Why was Beijing’s reaction to the canonizations so negative? First, the date of the canonization coincided with China’s National Day. Every year on October 1, China celebrates Chinese National Day to commemorate the founding of People’s Republic of China (on October 1, 1949). Additionally, October 1 is the start of a seven-day holiday known as the Chinese “Golden Week”. This is the longest public holiday in China besides the Chinese New Year. For the Communist government, October 1 signified five decades of independence of China’s Catholic Church from a foreign-Western power: the Vatican. Second, according to the Chinese government most of the Vatican selected martyrs (86 of them) had died during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which aimed at eradicating all foreign-Western presence and influence in China. The Communists considered the Catholic “martyrs” Chinese lawbreakers who were protected by Westerners and now elevated to the honor of the altar by the Vatican, but who instead deserved nothing but punishment.

But the month of October, besides marking China’s National Day, has other historical significance connected to Western powers and Western imperialists’ intentions to subjugate the Chinese people. In October 1860, British and French troops burned the entire complex of the magnificent Summer Palace. This notorious act marked the final chapter in the so-called Second Opium War (1856-60) and became a vivid symbol of ravenous Western imperialism to which Chinese historians have never ceased to call attention when they discuss China’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners. However, October 1911 is significant also as the month that started Chinese national awareness, demanding equality with the foreigners.

So, in a nutshell, October marked the founding of new, free and independent China and the end of China’s discrimination by foreigners. The Vatican’s decision to canonize the 123 martyr saints on October 1 indeed shows little knowledge of China, its history, and its people, as well as inability to understand Chinese affairs and negotiate with the Beijing government. Although Catholicism is an officially recognized religion together with Buddhism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism, the fact of foreign intervention and the Vatican being a foreign-Western-sovereign state complicated the government oversight over religion – Catholicism in this case. The leadership from a foreign Western power was and is unacceptable for the Communist government. Moreover, Beijing did not take lightly the Vatican’s recognition of Taiwan as the mainland was rising in power and prestige. Sino-Vatican relations are in fact one of the plethora of problems Beijing has in international relations. In the case of the Catholic Church, the easiest way to exert control of a foreign-Western religion is by directly appointing its bishops. This solution made a great deal of sense to Beijing.

What, then, was result of the Jubilee Year Chinese martyrs’ canonizations? Did the saints patch Sino-Vatican relations or separate Beijing and Rome even further? The latter was the case.

September 2018 marked a fresh and unprecedented start in Sino-Vatican relations. A communique from the Holy See announced an agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China on the appointment of bishops. The agreement was announced to be “provisional” in nature. What this means is not specified in the announcement. Moreover, it was announced that Pope Francis “readmit[ed] to full ecclesial communion the remaining ‘official’ Bishops, ordained without Pontifical Mandate”—those bishops who were appointed by the Communist government, “some of these reconciled bishops” according to Fr. Bernardo Cervellera who specializes on China “are known to have lovers and children and to be collaborators” with the regime. The result, according to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is that now, “for the first time all the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, with the Successor of Peter.”

But the thorny question still remains, why is the Holy See relinquishing power to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and Chinese government now in the appointment of bishops? Will Francis choose new bishops? Or will he make a choice from candidates put forward by the Chinese government? Is this a 2018-new and dangerous patch in Sino-Vatican relations? Why is the Vatican giving its support to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, to the open church, while apparently abandoning the underground and persecuted church? In short, why is the Holy See letting the Catholic faithful down? Rome knows that the underground Catholics have undergone oppression because of their fidelity to Rome and because they were not registered with the government and have refused to submit to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. In his in-flight interview on Tuesday, Francis acknowledged this, stating, “I think of the resistance, the Catholics who have suffered. It’s true. And, they will suffer. Always, in an agreement, there is suffering.”

One thing needs to be clarified: for Beijing, “freedom of religious belief” or religious freedom means that Catholics have no right to initiate religious activities outside the government-supported churches and government sanctioned places of worship, or to accept the appointment of bishops by Rome. In the name of religious freedom, any act of worship or religious activity has to be closely monitored by the government-approved priests and bishops of the open or registered church, subject to and working under the umbrella of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. This is the only way for Beijing leadership to understand and exercise religious freedom where Chinese patriotism and loyalty to the Communist government and the country come first.

Beijing will not accept Chinese Catholics’ double or shared loyalty to the country and to a foreign Western country – the Vatican. To the Chinese Communist, it is impossible to be loyal to an outside-foreign authority and obey the national government. The question is simple. Whom does a Chinese Catholic obey first: the President of the People’s Republic of China or the Roman Pontiff? For Beijing, the answer is the president and the government appoint and exercise control over the bishops, the foreign power, the Vatican has to follow suit.

So, is the 2018 provisional agreement a patch in Sino-Vatican relations? The recent provisional agreement is a new patch in Sino-Vatican relations that might turn out to be doubly dangerous, nationally and universally, within the Catholic Church of China and within the universal Catholic Church, discontinuing the Church’s long time tradition in episcopal appointments. First, nationally, it might cause an unprecedented schism and division among the Chinese Catholic faithful belonging to the open and underground, government-registered and unregistered church. Second, the bishops’ appointments by a Communist government without a Vatican mandate is a breach with the Church’s tradition. The Code of Canon Law 1382 is clear: “a bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.”

Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, makes a strong case about religious freedom, mentioning specifically Holy See’s freedom and mandate in bishops’ appointments:

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferal of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties.

Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 letter to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China, dedicates an entire section to bishops’ appointments, understanding the appointment of bishops from Rome as an expression of religious freedom which is very different from Beijing’s understanding of religious freedom. Pope Benedict XVI stated that “the appointment of Bishops for a particular religious community is understood, also in international documents, as a constitutive element of the full exercise of the right to religious freedom. The Holy See would desire to be completely free to appoint Bishops.”

Is the latest-2018 Vatican provisional agreement a good patch in Sino-Vatican relations? History and Church tradition strongly indicate otherwise. Indeed, as the proverb says, a patch might be better than a hole, but in the long run the hole might prove to be more honorable than the patch and this could well be the case with the 2018 Sino-Vatican “provisional agreement.

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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 30 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku ( is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.


  1. A latter-day iteration of Ostpolitik–except that in this version, the bad guys aren’t kept at bay, they just win. This is a lose-lose situation: for the long-suffering Underground faithful and making an already-defective situation in ecclesial communion worse.

  2. ‘…the bishops’ appointments by a Communist government without a Vatican mandate is a breach with the Church’s tradition.’
    But without clear evidence of the terms in the agreement, how can this statement be made?
    It is likely that Beijing will propose names but the Pope will have the final say. Not ideal but at least a start and definitely inaccurate to say ‘bishops’ appointments by a Communist government without a Vatican mandate’.

  3. Informative article, nice job.
    As to whether a patch is better than a hole – I would say that if it were, Jesus would have taken a pass on the cup.
    Another observation is that it seems wrong to refer to the Chinese Government’s ‘church’ as part of the ‘Catholic Church.’ The Chinese Government’s ‘church’ adheres to the one, central, and universal tenet of all other protestant denominations: refusal to submit to the authority of the Pope.

  4. History is always cruel to the Church when caesaropapism involves a tyrant state. Just as with the Inquisition, the Church will eventually get blamed for some future complicity with the Chinese government.

  5. “Although Catholicism is an officially recognized religion together with Buddhism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism”

    The Catholicism that China officially recognizes isn’t Catholicism.

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