Understanding the 2018 China-Vatican agreement a year later

The present Sinicization campaign has grown more determined since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, and the government control of Catholicism has reached its highest level since the death of Mao in 1976.

Apostolic Delegate to China, Archbishop Mario Zanin (right), and an unidentified Chinese bishop, c. 1930. (Whitworth University Collection)

It has been more than a year since the Sino-Vatican agreement signed on September 22, 2018, and the situation of China’s Catholics continues to attract media attention. In my long career of researching and publishing works on China’s Catholic history, I’ve never before received so much attention from the mainstream media and scholarly community than I received during the last year – everyone in the Western world, it seems, has concluded that China’s Catholic Church has entered its most intense era of transformation. There has been a rather impassioned movement to depict the Vatican as “naïve” regarding the true situation for Catholics in China, or even more pointedly, as a “betrayer” of the Chinese Church. I just met a Chinese nun after a talk I delivered at Seton Hall University, and she again confirmed the confusion many Chinese Catholics feel over how the Holy See appears to be negotiating with state authorities that are, as many news sources announce, destroying Christian churches throughout China. The news has been intense. A 2018, New York Times headline, for example, sensationally read, “Chinese Police Dynamite Christian Megachurch,” and included a photograph of a Shanxi church collapsing in clouds of billowing smoke.i

At the end of the day I’m not a professional journalist; I am a professor, and academics by nature are less inclined to indulge what they perceive as the theatrical and often exaggerated impulses of some media sources. My own impulses are to analyze Sino-Vatican relations from the detached position of a historian with an eye fixed through the lens of the longue durée, that is to view the Vatican’s relationship with China within a larger and more nuanced context than one generally reads in media theatrics.

To truly understand the past year of China-Vatican relations, one must have a general sense of China-Vatican relations since they began in around 1294. I realize that this essay may be longer than the usual sound-bites digested by most news junkies, but I am describing a complicated present that results from a long and complicated past. My remarks, then, shall describe the history of Sino-Vatican relations in what historian Paul Cohen has called, “a history in three keys,” so that we can better contextualize the recent agreement into a reasonable framework.ii These “three keys” are: first, the Sino-Vatican relations as represented in the mainstream media; second, the Sino-Vatican relations as represented in official Chinese and Vatican documents; and third, the Sino-Vatican relations as they are recorded in archival files that are not openly available to the general public.

Destruction of Shanxi Church in 2018. (Whitworth University Collection)

First Encounters

Even before the Holy See had begun sending Jesuits to China in the 1500s, it had dispatched Franciscan friars there in 1294 to establish relations with the empire’s ruler when Paris’ monumental Notre Dame cathedral had just been built.iii So, Sino-Vatican relations of a sort had begun as early as the thirteenth century, had picked up again in the sixteenth century, and by 1922 the Vatican was at last formally trying to establish official diplomatic ties between the Holy See and China’s state authorities. The first Vatican official appointed to operate as an apostolic delegate in China was the Italian bishop and art historian, Celso Costantini (1876-1958), who served in that role from 1922 until 1933.iv His efforts to mediate between the Holy See and China’s government were troubled by French interference due to both France’s diplomatic dominance over the Church in China as the “Protector of the mission,” and the Vatican’s acknowledgment that without France’s protection the Church would be vulnerable to discrimination.v The Holy See was the weakest link in a tripartite contest for political and religious influence in China’s Catholic community – the Republican government under Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) sought cultural hegemony over the fragile nation; the French Third Republic (1870-1940) sought diplomatic and economic hegemony over all of the Western powers then in China, and the Holy See sought administrative independence to govern its own missionary enterprise in this three-way contest that resulted in an almost powerless Vatican influence over Catholic affairs in China.

When discussing Sino-Vatican relations before 1949, one should note an important person with a connection to the American Church, Dr. John C. H. Wu (1899-1986), who was appointed by Chiang Kai-shek to serve as China’s ambassador to the Vatican from 1947 to 1949. When most writers discuss the history of Sino-Vatican relations they train their attention on Vatican diplomats who lived in China, such as Archbishop Costantini and his successors, but Wu’s legacy within the history of China’s relations with the Holy See was centered on his service while living in Rome, almost in the shadow of the dome of St. Peter’s. When Wu submitted his diplomatic papers to Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) on February 16, 1947, both he and the pope understood well that China was amidst a furious civil war between the nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek and the communist forces of Mao Zedong (1893-1976). After receiving John Wu’s papers, the pope announced:

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.vi

Sino-Vatican relations were, I suggest, as tenuous then as they are now, and Wu’s contribution to those relations, while significant and impressive, came at a time when China was amidst overwhelming transitions that relegated Sino-Catholic matters to the distant margins of global attention.

To summarize the pre-communist era of Roman Catholic history in China: The Holy See had certainly been aware of, and was involved in, China since the medieval era, but official political ties were unimagined until the early twentieth century. From the 1920s until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China-Vatican relations were tentative at best. And, in my estimation there has never been an era of truly settled and operational Sino-Vatican relations. The term “Sino-Vatican relations” is little more than a common phrase used to describe what has historically amounted to centuries of diplomatic overtures, missteps, conflicts, and occasional and fragile rapprochements. I’ll now turn to the era of Sino-Vatican relations after 1949, looking especially at the “first key” – how this era has been represented in the mainstream media.

First Key”: The Media

After 1949, Western newspapers, especially in the United States, portrayed communist China as a place of peril for Catholics. A 1955 New York Times headline is typical of China-Catholic reports of that era. “Vatican Sees Peril to Church in China,” the headline read, and the text announced that, “In six years the communists have destroyed all schools, churches and other works that Catholicism had built in decades of persistent effort.”vii The article speaks of the “danger” confronted by Catholics still behind what was then called the communist “bamboo curtain.” Immediately after Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, the New York Times began to run headlines expressing anxieties about China’s treatment of Roman Catholics. An article on October 14, 1949, was entitled, “Chinese Prelate Tells of Red Rise,”viii and on October 21, 1950, another headline declared, “Peiping [Beijing] Executes Two Chinese Priests: Roman Catholics Are Shot on Charges of Espionage,”ix and on August 8, 1954, another article was published with the title, “Freed Priests Cite Red China Purges.”x The tenor of Western news sources from 1949 until the early twenty-first century has decidedly been anti-communist, and have engendered an overall Western disdain for China’s post-1949 government.

On its side of the Great Wall, China’s news sources were equally anti-Western, and were orchestrated to both weaken the Vatican’s authority over the Chinese Catholic Church, as well as encourage a common suspicion of an imagined insidious Vatican control over China’s Catholics and a sense of ecclesial independence from the Holy See. The November 1, 1951, edition of the Shanghai-based China Monthly Review represents the standard narrative disseminated after 1949. An article entitled, “The Patriotic Movement of the Catholics in New China,” asserted that, “Foreign missionaries followed the foreign gunboats into our country . . . [and] imperialism has always used ‘protection of the Church’ as an excuse for attacking and encroaching upon China.”xi The article continues to inform its readers that, “the Communist Party of China has led the people’s liberation” from such devious forces as a “Catholic spy ring” that works for China’s national enemies, and the Legion of Mary, which, according to the article, resisted China’s reforms that had, “released millions of peasants from bondage.”xii In other words, China’s Catholics who remained loyal to the Holy See after 1949 were accused of being spies, saboteurs, and obstacles to improving the lives of China’s vast peasant population. During the Maoist era (1949-1976), the only manifestations of Sino-Vatican relations represented in the mainstream media were those of villainization, fear, and melodramatic news spectacles intended less to provide nuanced and accurate accounts of China’s Catholic condition than to stir public sentiment into a consciousness of Sino-Western and Sino-Vatican enmity. The “first key” of history of Sino-Vatican relations, then, was one of media theatrics crafted to provoke antagonism.

Papal Nuncio to China, Celso Costantini, in 1922. (Whitworth University Collection)

Second Key”: The Documents

The “second key” in the history of Sino-Vatican relations moves us away from the popular media and into the domain of official documents published by China’s post-1949 authorities and those that have been published by the Holy See. For its part, China’s communist party has produced several documents regarding its policies regulating religion, most of which remain guarded from public scrutiny. Roman Catholicism in China has traditionally been monitored by three state agencies – the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), the United Front Work Department (UFWD), and the Public Security Bureau (PSB). It is important to understand this structure because from China’s side of the relationship, these three agencies, especially the Religious Affairs Bureau, have functioned to produce the consistent voice of the party when communicating with the Vatican. The Religious Affairs Bureau was changed into the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) in the 1990s, and in order to better control religious activities in China, the party dissolved the State Administration for Religious Affairs in 2018 and absorbed all matters of governing and monitoring religious matters into the party-controlled United Front Work Department. So, to make this more clear, what was once a bureau somewhat independent of the party before 2018, is now entirely governed by the Chinese Communist Party. China’s Catholic leaders now have far less room to navigate, and state policies have grown more precise since the State Administration for Religious Affairs was abolished.

Within this historical context of state regulation, a stream of party documents has been produced to articulate its aims regarding China’s Catholic Church. Among the most influential documents generated was a statement entitled, “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period,” disseminated by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on March 31, 1982. Three positions regarding the Roman Catholic Church are outlined in this official document: first, that all religions are part of a “historical phenomenon . . . [subject to an inevitable] cycle of emergence, development, and demise”; second, that Roman Catholicism in China is historically connected to “foreign colonialist and imperialist forces”; and third, that while China’s authorities should “safeguard the freedom of religious belief,” the party must patiently work toward a time when “the Chinese people, on Chinese soil, will have thoroughly rid themselves of all impoverishment, ignorance, and spiritual values. . . . and no longer have any need for recourse to an illusory world of gods to seek spiritual solace.”xiii

Beyond the party’s Marxist view of religion and how those views inform its policies regarding Christianity in general, two areas of disagreement between China’s government and the Holy See have remained the most igneous points of tension – China’s self-consecration of bishops and the state’s policy that the Chinese Catholic Church remain independent of any authority beyond the Great Wall. Starting in 1958, China’s government implemented a policy of self-selection and consecration of Chinese bishops without the prior approval or mandate of the Holy See, and one report disclosed that when a new bishop is consecrated in China he is required to “swear to break off all relations with imperialism and any control by the pope of Rome.”xiv Such an oath contradicts the canonical expectation that anyone being consecrated a bishop in the Catholic Church, “take an oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See.”xv And in addition to this oath requirement, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) national convention held in Beijing in 1983 published a resolution that affirms:

The Chinese Church is rooted in Chinese soil and among Chinese people. Therefore, its existence and development should conform to China’s actual conditions. . . . To run our Church independently will remain an unchangeable foothold, in the future as in the past. . . . Any encroachment on the sovereignty of the Chinese Church by the Roman Catholic Church is illegal and invalid.xvi

The wording in this document not only conveys the official state requirement that China’s Catholic Church maintains its independence from outside governance, but noticeably suggests a separation of the “Chinese Church” and “Roman Catholic Church,” a conspicuously un-Catholic ecclesiology.

For its part, the Holy See has routinely issued China-related documents of its own in the wake of the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Pius XII published a wave of agitated responses to China’s religious policies affecting Chinese Catholics, perhaps because it was during his pontificate that many of the most intense years of Sino-Vatican disagreement plagued dialogue between those near the Yellow River and those beside the Tiber. Four major themes are woven through the Holy See’s documents responding to China during the reign of Pope Pius XII, and these themes have remained embedded in the overall character of Vatican discussions with the People’s Republic of China. These themes include:

  1. A rhetoric defining China’s Church as a “suffering Church” under its communist government.
  2. An insistence that China’s Catholics are indeed patriotic.
  3. A reminder that union with the pope is necessary to be authentically Catholic.
  4. An adamant critique of the state-mandated establishment of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and its ideal of “three-selfs,” along with the practice of self-elected and consecrated Chinese bishops.

These themes surfaced in Pius XII’s 1952 apostolic letter, Cupimus Imprimis, wherein he lamented what he perceived as a “holocaust . . . [of] sorrows and . . . sufferings” afflicting the Church in China since it had become a communist nation.xvii The pope emphasized how the post-1949 era continues a pattern of martyrdom and persecution. In rather dramatic prose, he wrote that, “down the ages, your Church had to undergo the fiercest persecutions; the soil of your country has already been empurpled by the sacred blood of martyrs.”xviii

Added to this first theme of suffering, Pius XII insisted in Ad Sinarum Gentem, issued in 1954, that Chinese Catholics are “second to no one in their ardent love and ready loyalty to their most noble fatherland.”xix In this document, the Holy See was attempting to refute the accusation that, due to their connection to the pope in Rome, Chinese Catholics are disloyal to their native country and are thus bad citizens. This same encyclical also insists that China’s Church must be in union with the bishop of Rome to remain Catholic. He warned that:

[The] Church in your nation, as in all others will not be able to be ruled with ‘autonomy of government,’ as they say today. . . . In fact, even then, as you well know it will be entirely necessary for your Christian community, if it wishes to be part of the society divinely founded by our Redeemer, to be completely subject to the Supreme Pontiff.xx

This 1954 papal encyclical was largely motivated by documents and news coming from China, for the pope also cautions that the so-called “three-selfs” ideal – self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation – being promoted in China at that time would result in a “national” church, “which would no longer be Catholic because it would be the negation universality” that marks the fundamental nature of the Roman Catholic Church.xxi In yet another encyclical, Ad Apostolorum Principis, Pope Pius XII in 1958 responded to the situation in China by reasserting his criticisms of the three-selfs movement, and also condemned the establishment of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which he maintained, “aims primarily at making Catholics gradually embrace the tenets of atheistic materialism, by which God himself is denied and religious principles are rejected.”xxii While subsequent popes considerably softened the tenor of their writings related to the Church in China, these four themes remained the principal framework of their remarks.

To summarize this “second key” to the history of Sino-Vatican relations: the official documents circulated by both the Chinese government and the Vatican begin from two very disparate staring points, one from the assumptions of a Marxist ideology and another from the assumptions of a systematic religious tradition. These two conflicting worldviews represent a stark dialectic between a purely materialistic ontology and one motivated by metaphysical assumptions; it is no wonder that the history of Sino-Vatican relations after 1949 is one of enduring tension.

Third Key”: The Archives

The third and final historical “key” in the score of Sino-Vatican relations is expressed in the documents held within official Chinese and Vatican archives, both of which are difficult to access given political sensitivities and embargoes. Archival materials disclose a far more complicated pattern than one discerns in both the general media and the official policies and statements issued directly from China’s government and the Holy See. I’ll center here on a few significant examples: first, an example of a Vatican document from 1783 dealing with the ownership of Beijing’s monumental Gothic cathedral, and other materials from the early twentieth century that disclose the complexities of Sino-Vatican diplomacy; and also, examples of archived state documents from China that reveal the party’s program for dealing with the Catholic Church. These examples provide a useful lens through which to analyze the Sino-Vatican negotiations we have seen unfold during the past year.

It may at first seem curious for me to cite a 1783 Vatican document when discussing Sino-Vatican relations today, in the twenty-first century, but this archival document serves well to show how many diplomatic vectors can intersect a political issue that might at first glance seem straightforward. When China’s imperial court provided valuable Beijing property to French Catholic missionaries in 1693, China assumed that while the land was to be used by the European Jesuits, it nonetheless was Chinese soil. The Holy See’s position in this matter was extremely byzantine; for example, the French crown then viewed the property as belonging to France. Three different diplomatic powers viewed the land’s ownership in three different ways: China believed the land to belong to China; France believed the land to belong to France; and the Vatican simply wished to preserve its use for its religious mission without perturbing either China’s court or the crown of France. Then as now, the Vatican’s spiritual mission was pressed between opposing political powers that could, at a whim, seriously threaten the aims of the Church.

The archives of the Holy See reveal a pattern that remains interwoven through the long history of Vatican interactions with China’s ruling authorities. The document dating to December 7, 1783, by Cardinal Leonardo Antonelli (1730-1811) pronounced the Holy See’s final judgement on who owned the property in Beijing: while the huge Gothic cathedral in the shadow of the Forbidden City was to be used by the Church, the king of France was given ostensible control over the church property, and the Chinese emperor was left to assume his final ownership of the property.xxiii My point here is that Vatican archival materials related to its dealings with China show a history of open negotiation with China’s authorities while at the same time being forced to navigate through negotiations with other interested powers with a stake in the same areas occupied by the Church. Vatican archives continue to represent this pattern of internal deliberations regarding the Chinese Church that reveal the challenges often faced by the Vatican when operating within waters already fraught with multiple national players, each with different agendas and policies.xxiv Diplomacy is a subtle art, and as the famous French diplomat for the Holy See, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), reportedly asserted, “A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe,’ a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no,’ and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.” Archival documents may at times reveal a somewhat shrewd Vatican approach to negotiations with China, but I’ve yet to discover anything that represents the Holy See as anti-China or anti-Chinese, or in any way conspiratorial.

China’s post-1949 archival materials show an adamant anti-foreign and anti-Catholic approach to Sino-Vatican exchange. I’ll mention two such documents before concluding with some remarks about the 2018 provisional Sino-Vatican agreement and how that agreement fits into the longue durée of exchange between China and the Holy See. These dramatic examples of party documents detail the state’s strategy for dealing with the Roman Catholic Church. The first one was drafted in 1949 to summarize the party’s tactics: “When the political struggle and the forces of production have reached a high rate in the stage of their power, then it will be possible for us to destroy the Catholic Church. This is what we aim to do, and it is for this objective that we struggle.”xxv And in a 1953 document from the same archive, the party articulates its conviction that the Roman Catholic Church serves as a venue for clandestine imperialist forces to infiltrate China and control the nation: “Shanghai is going to start to expel the imperialists within the Shanghai Catholic Church. This is an intensive and fierce struggle. We will make a decisive attack on the imperialists hidden within the Catholic Church, . . . completely cleaning up imperialist influence in China.”xxvi China’s party authorities had early on defined the Catholic Church as one of its principal opponents, committing itself to protecting its national sovereignty from what it viewed, and still views, as an imperialist threat.

Party documents reveal an evolution of policies; no longer do we see such passionate anti-Catholic language in archival materials, nor do we see such explicit proposals to “destroy the Catholic Church” as we read in the 1949 brief. We do, however, see a persistent tenor of concern that embedded within Catholic Christianity is an imperialist and cultural threat to Chinese society, and policies are consistently articulated to prevent this perceived danger. Among the strategies employed by state officials to help assure that religious allegiance does not supplant patriotic loyalty is to assert that religions should be made to “adapt” to China’s socialist society. The Chinese term used for “adapt” is shiying, 適應 which first appeared in an important document generated by the United Front Work Department in 1990.xxvii This document represents an important distinction between what Catholic documents suggest about religious practice in a particular society, and how China’s authorities presently understand this question. While Vatican sources suggest that authentic Catholic practice serves to promote patriotism and serves to improve social peace in general, this party document contends that religious practice must conform to socialist ideals before it can be considered a harmless element within Chinese society. As Chan Kim-kwong puts it, “religion should use its doctrines, practices, and certain positive elements in morality to serv socialism. . . . In other words, ‘adaptation’ required religious bodies to reform themselves to conform to the mode designed by the civil authority.”xxviii Former president of the People’s Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, strongly supported this ideal, and approved of strengthening state control of religion so that religious belief adapts to the state’s socialist system.

To return to my outline of Sino-Vatican relations within Paul Cohen’s notion of “three keys of history,” it is clear that what we know of China’s relations with the Hoy See is represented in very different ways. While the media often provides a rather histrionic, and thus myopic view of Sino-Vatican negotiations, openly disseminated documents issued by the Vatican and China, as well as those more carefully guarded within archival collections, more accurately reveal their respective opinions and policies. In my own reading of these “three keys” of historical information, the Holy See’s attentions are normally centered on its religious mission, and China’s communist party is quite otherwise focused upon the materialist aims of its socialist enterprise. There is nothing really novel in this assessment, but how these disparate views are manifest into documents and actions can help us better apprehend the Sino-Vatican agreement to which I now turn.

First illicit consecration of Chinese bishops in China, 1958. (Whitworth University Collection)

Making Sense of the 2018 Provisional Sino-Vatican Agreement

When Pope Benedict XVI issued his 2007 letter to Catholics in China, he preserved some of the previous patterns of post-1949 Sino-Vatican exchange, while also inaugurating some new approaches. Among his statements that conform to what previous popes have said about the Church in China was his assertion that Chinese Catholics have remained faithful, “sometimes at the price of grave sufferings.”xxix But in addition to the acknowledgment of Christian suffering in modern China, the letter expresses the Holy See’s wish that “underground” Catholic bishops are permitted by the state to openly practice their ministry in Chinese society. The letter requests China’s authorities to allow “that these legitimate Pastors may be recognized as such by governmental authorities.”xxx In essence, Pope Benedict XVI’s letter asked for something inconceivable during the Pius XII era, that Roman Catholic bishops openly administer their dioceses under the official sanction of China’s communist authorities.

One striking difference between Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter and the 2018 provisional agreement between the Vatican and China’s authorities is the nature of how they were put forth. Benedict’s letter was conducted in the open, while the 2018 agreement was negotiated and signed in secrecy. Given the flood of leaked Vatican documents, such as the 2012 VatiLeaks and the recent leaks of internal documents revealing financial corruption within the Holy See, it is difficult to imagine how the 2018 secret agreement has remained so effectively undisclosed. I am personally reluctant to indulge in uninformed speculations about the details of the agreement, but Vatican sources have provided clues regarding the document’s contents. Since the agreement’s signing, we have been informed, for example, that the pope has regained two abilities previously denied him in China; he now has the power to approve or disapprove all selections of candidates for ordination as bishops, and he has formally accepted all of China’s bishops into full communion with the Holy See, even those who had been excommunicated for their illicit consecrations.

I’ll conclude with a brief account of what has transpired since the agreement was signed more than a year ago, and provide a few remarks on China’s strategy of what it calls “Sinicization,” a policy that has grown more assertive than it was before the provisional agreement was signed. I should note here that one of the most habitually discussed topics among scholars of Sino-Western exchange is what missiologists call “accommodation,” or “inculturation.” There are many merits to the missionary ideal, as the early Jesuits articulated it, of incarnating Christianity into China’s extant culture rather than merely grafting onto or replacing its indigenous cultural sensibilities. China’s government views this ideal from an entirely different angle than the one held by the Jesuits who occupied seventeenth-century China. Examining the Chinese communist view of adaptation will help us better understand why the post-agreement months were particularly fraught with media reports of church demolition, clergy arrests, and new policies forbidding under-eighteen-year-old Chinese from attending church services across China’s provinces.

The Chinese term for Sinicization is zhongguo hua 中國化, or as Yang Fenggang renders it, “Chinafication.” In the areas of religious belief and practice, Sinicization implies domestication rather than adaptation. Unlike the missiological idea of adapting the non-essential characteristics of Christianity to China’s indigenous culture, the official state expectation is that Catholicism be domesticated to the current socialist political system. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has made the Sinicization of religions one of the state’s principal goals. After Xi became China’s highest-ranking party leader in 2012, he has tirelessly insisted that, as he stated in his keynote speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Conference in 2015, all religions in China must follow the path of Sinicization and adapt to the state’s political principles.

The number of party-supported publications in China that focus on the government’s Sinicization campaign has climbed precipitously in recent years, and no religion has been targeted more for Sinicization than Christianity. During the so-called 2014 “cross-demolition campaign” in Zhejiang province, one of China’s most adamant party intellectuals in favor of state control and Sinicization of religion, Zhuo Xinping, took a team to Wenzhou’s Liushi Church, China’s largest Protestant church building. Zhuo and his team of party intellectuals conducted a conference there on the importance of the state-promoted zhongguo hua, or Sinicization, campaign. The team extolled Buddhist success in adapting and conforming to the state’s political reality in order to endure and flourish in China’s socialist system.

In other words, the present Sinicization campaign has grown more determined since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, and the government control of Catholicism has reached its highest level since the death of Mao in 1976. Thus, the largest challenges the Chinese Catholic Church confront now in the wake of the 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement are those related to opposing ambitions and expectations; while the Holy See is hopeful that the agreement will improve the life and aims of the Church, the policy makers in Beijing are enshrouding those hopes in a bureaucratic morass that makes it difficult, even for the most informed experts, to discern whether China’s Catholics should celebrate what lies ahead or remain still and observe the landscape with prudence.

One of my favorite passages in the Analects of Confucius is located in the fourth book, where the Master imparts an important lesson to his gathered disciples: “以約失之者,鮮矣Or, “Those who are prudent seldom err.”  One of the principal marks of all previous interactions between China and the Vatican was prudence; one wonders if Beijing and Rome still regard the advice of Confucius with the same reverence as has been the case since the thirteenth century.

Pope Francis with Chinese Catholics at St. Peter’s Square. (Whitworth University Collection)


i Russell Goldman, “Chinese Police Dynamite Christian Megachurch,” New York Times, 12 January 2018.

ii See Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

iii See Arnulf Camps and Pat McClosky, The Friars Minor in China, 1294-1955 (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1995), 1-4.

iv See Bruno Fabio Pighin, Il Cardinale Celso Costantini: “L’anima di un missionario (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014), 65-89. Costantini was replaced by Archbishop Mario Zanin (1890-1958), who served in China from 1933-1946, and Zanin was replaced by Archbishop Antonio Riberi (1897-1967), who served as the apostolic nuncio to China from 1946-1951.

v See Ernest P. Young, Ecclesiastical Colony: China’s Catholic Church and the French Religious Protectorate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

vi Quoted in John C. H. Wu, Beyond East and West (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1951), 330-331.

vii “Vatican Sees peril to Church in China,” New York Times, 4 September 1955.

viii “Chinese Prelate Tells of red Rise: Catholic Archbishop Yu-Pin Starts on Good-Will Tour of Latin America,” New York Times, 14 October 1949.

ix Henry R. Lieberman, “Peiping [Beijing] Executes Two Chinese Priests: Roman Catholics Are Shot on Charges of Espionage,” New York Times, 21 October 1951.

x “Freed Priests Cite Red China Purges: 3 U.S. Roman Catholics Say Brutality Left Populace Ready for Revolt,” New York Times, 8 August 1954.

xi Hu Wenyao, “The Patriotic Movement of the Catholics in New China,” China Monthly review, 1 November 1951.

xii Hu, “The Patriotic Movement of the Catholics in New China.”

xiii Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period,” 31 March 1982. This translation is taken from Donald MacInnis, Religion in China Today: Policy and Practice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989), 8-26.

xiv China Update, No. 7 (Spring 1984): 146.

xv Code of Canon Law, Latin-English edition (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1983), 141, canon # 380.

xvi Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), 26 April 1983, p. K14.

xvii Pius XII, Cupimus Imprimis, 18 January 1952, in Elmer P. Wurth, Ed., Papal Documents Related to the New China, 1937-1984 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 35.

xviii Ibid., 36.

xix Pius XII, Ad Sinarum Gentem, 7 October 1954, in Wurth, Papal Documents, 40.

xx Ibid., 41.

xxi Ibid., 43.

xxii Pius XII, Ad Apostolorum Principis, 29 June 1958, in Wurth, Papal Documents, 53.

xxiii Sacra Congregazione per l’Evangelizzazione dei Popolo (De Propaganda Fide), “Décret de la S. C. de la Propaganda du 7 Décembre 1783.”

xxiv See, for example, the records held in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Segretaria di Stato, 1900-1930.

xxv Shanghai Municipal Archives, “Guanyu Shanghai Tianzhujiao gongzuo de jieshao” 關於上海天主教工作的介紹, A22-1-233, 1949.

xxvi Shanghai Municipal Archives, “Guanyu daji he quzhu Shanghai Tianzhujiaonei diguozhuyifenzi” 關於打擊和驅逐上海天主教內帝國主義份子, A22-1-119, 1953. Translated in Paul P. Mariani, Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 121.

xxvii United Front Work Department, “Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Notification Concerning Strengthening the United Front Work,” 14 July 1990.

xxviii Chan Kim-kwong, “Bringing Religion into the Socialist Fold,” China Review (1995); 17.5.

xxix Pope Benedict XVI, “Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons, and Lay Faithful of the catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China” (27 May 2007), 2.

xxx Ibid., 8.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 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.


  1. The clear reality is even clearer now than it was a year ago: the morally and financially corrupt Vatican Secretary of State and the heretical and idolatrous Pope Pachamama have sold the Chinese Catholic Church into the slavery of the violently atheistic Chinese Communist party.

  2. A firm fact. “The chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, has told the Vatican Insider that China is the nation currently best implementing the social doctrine of the Church” (Catholic Herald). If the Chancellor of that Pontifical Academy can publicly state this without qualm or repercussion it’s extremely likely he’s simply expressing the mindset of his Superior. And it explains without pietistic ambiguous Vatican ‘disappointment’ the real intent underlying Vatican policy to betray the Catholic Church in China. And why Cardinal Zen is ignored by the Vatican. They consider Cardinal Zen among the childish unenlightened similar to Cardinal Gerhard Muller. He like Cardinal Muller is reactionary. Not among the ecologically converted. The persecuted Catholicism of China ruthlessly in process of eradication is quite appropriate to a New Paradigm false Christianity that lauds Marxist population control by enforced abortion. After all the Planet is greater than its human inhabitants. The New Paradigm church gives no quarter to the courageous faithful. The courageous faithful including all hierarchy must remain true to Christ. It’s not simply an ecclesial political issue it’s a matter of salvation.

    • Addendum: “The pope has regained two abilities previously denied him in China; he now has the power to approve or disapprove all selections of candidates for ordination as bishops, and he has formally accepted all of China’s bishops into full communion with the Holy See, even those who had been excommunicated for their illicit consecrations” (A Clark PhD). The two “regained abilities” approval or disapproval are meaningless if the State has the final approval. The second “ability” to accept into full communion all including excommunicated bishops is capitulation since it grants approbation to State appointees. Taken together the Church has effectively surrendered its autonomy. Power of appointment rests with a Xi Jinping determined on Chinafication. We need not wonder that Cardinal Zen called the ‘concordat’ betrayal. Whereas continued retention of Benedict’s request for recognition of the “underground” Catholic Bishops even under State approval was a minimal just demand for the degree of autonomy that would ensure viability of a Catholic Church in China.

      • To clarify Vatican approval or disapproval is meaningless because if the State makes the selections for the Vatican to choose from the State in effect has already made the final choice.

  3. Dr. Clark has provided a masterful historical summary of Sino-Catholic relations. In the end, though, the Holy See’s policy really doesn’t betoken a lack of prudence, pace Confucius. But what? The promotion of detente doesn’t seem to fit. The situation under the Parolinian agreement ultimately will result in a one-sided accomodation to a system which has proven repeatedly (especially in its Soviet and Chinese incarnations) to be history’s greatest human-rights killing machine. And if this be so, to what end? That the Chi-Coms will be nicer and more tolerant Communists toward their Catholic brethren? (We’re seeing that’s not working, be it with the destruction or boarding up of churches or a Chinese bishop obliquely suggesting that the values of the State have to be given deference.) Once again, we seem to be provided the false narrative that all sides of a disagreement are (at the end of the day) always equal partners in dialogue. Certainly this is NOT the case between the Holy See and Beijing. As Dr. Lee Edwards notes, socialism is “a pseudo-religion grounded in pseudo-science and enforced by political tyranny” and this definition ideally describes the government of the Peoples’ Republic. Obviously both sides are by no means peers in dialogue or in potential reconciliation.

    Maybe it’s time to to re-read “An Advent dinner with Cardinal Zen” published in CWR this past January.

  4. The deal is the lovechild of Mr. McCarrick and Cardinal Parolin, one a disgraced pederadt, the other financially corrupt. These reasons in themselves are enough that provisional agreement must die.

  5. So: Pachamama, okay. Communist control of the Church in China, okay. German hierarchy wanting to ditch actual Catholic teachings, okay. Those terrible, rigid Americans who actually uphold Church teaching – bad bad bad bad bad, how dare they.

  6. Professor Clark provides a very useful history of the Church relationship with rulers of pre- and post-Communist China. There are several critical observations to make on what he has writtern here, however. His assertion that general tenor of Western media coverage since the 1949 revolution has been hostile to the Communist Party is highly questionable. His examples of a few New York Times articles from the 1950s hardly constitutes a representative sampling. The Leftist press in the West has given plenty of what can be fairly called favorable coverage to the Chinese government, especially since the early 60s. The underreporting of the enormous death counts from the famines and massacres perpetrated by the regime is only the most blatant example of this. Secondly, the claim that Francis has gained two new rights for the Holy See is a gross misstatement. Francis has a very limited authority to veto the bishop nominations of the Party. As Fr Morrello points out, this is hardly a concession from the government. Arguablly, it provides an unmertied legitimacy to Communist Party’s self-declared right to nominate bishops in the first place. The other new “ability” gained by Francis is the power to recognize the stooges appointed as bishops by the Party. Earlier popes also had this “ability”, but for good reasons chose not to exercise it. Finally, in considering the current plight of the Church in China, is not the perspective of Cardinal Zen at least valuable those of Francis, Parolin and Mccarrick(!)? It is odd that Professor Clark finds no room to mention Cardinal Zen’s concerns and warnings in his long essay.

  7. While I appreciate Professor Clark’s historical ruminations, I think that, in they end, they fail to illuminate exactly what is at present happening in China. The Chinese Communist Party, under “core leader” Xi Jinping, is attacking not just on the Catholic faith, but religious sentiment in general.

    “Sinification” actually means replacing the worship of God with the worship of the party state. In this sense, it finds an almost exact parallel in the “Nazification” practiced by Hitler and the Nazis.
    Another way to put it would be to say that the state wants to “confucianize’ all transcendent religions in China, that is, to transform them into instruments of party-state control over society.  That was, after all, precisely the purpose of Confucianism, which resembled a religion in its ritual trappings, but whose theology was consciously focused on social relations in this world, while almost totally ignoring the next. As Confucius said when one of his followers asked him about “spirits”: “I respect them, but I keep my distance.”
    Whatever the “agreement” between the Vatican and China actually says, it will be totally subordinate to these larger goals. Its primary use within China seems to be to force Catholics to join the Patriotic Church using the false argument that “the Vatican has said you must.”

  8. Catholics had a very good hand of cards yet they played it all wrong.
    Leibniz specifically warned against taking “trivial arguments”(in China’s case, Confucius and ancestral worship/reverence) to target countries of preaching, yet Vatican failed spectacularly at it. The Jesuit Order could have been hailed as a pioneer as the start of modern science in China, but it was ruined. Emperors of both the Ming and Qing dynasties welcomed Jesuit friars, until…
    More ironically, the matter of the so-called Chinese Rites controversy was solved vicariously by the church’s need(under pressure, of course) to “befriend” fascist Japan by allowing rites to Confucius in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. The Chinese could say, look, Philip IV did this and Pius XII did that, why all the fuss when it comes to China?

  9. The Wrath of GOD is upon China for persecuting Christian and destroying the churches and place of worship with this Corona-virus.

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