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Pope Francis’ “Prayer for Catholics in China”: Alignment or contradiction?

Any suggestion by the Vatican that China’s Catholics behave as “good citizens” is complicated and controversial, in part because being a “good citizen” in China also means subordination to the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese national flag flies in front of a Catholic church in Huangtugang, China, Sept. 30, 2018.(CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)

In today’s climate of media hyperbole, rumors, and often-unsubstantiated claims that punctuate op-eds and other commentary, historical context and documentation offer a necessary perspective.

Here, first, is a text of a recent prayer by Pope Francis for Catholics in China, followed by texts from three previous popes and quotes from the 2017 document entitled “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” issued by the communist party of China.

Pope Francis in 2020

The pope’s March 2020 prayer intention “For Catholics in China”, while quite short, is singular in the history of the Catholic Church in China, for it aligns quite well with the rhetoric, ideology, and policies of the Chinese Communist Party, while apparently contradicting the position and official statements of previous popes. In light of what previous Vatican statements have asserted, and in light of China’s communist party documents related to religious practice, it is quite surprising to hear the pope’s recent video message posted on Vatican News (March 7 2020). Here is the text to the Pope’s March prayer intention:

Today, the Church in China looks to the future with hope.

The Church wants Chinese Christians to be truly Christians, and to be good citizens.

They should promote the Gospel, but without engaging in proselytism, and they need to achieve the unity of the divided Catholic community.

Let us pray together that the Church in China may persevere in its faithfulness to the Gospel and grow in unity.

Thank you.

Pope Pius XII in 1955

After six years of observing how China’s communist government had persecuted Catholic missionaries and local faithful, Pope Pius XII published Ad Sinarum Gentem, which contained an emotional appeal that China’s new government slacken its oppression and discrimination of the Christian population. A small minority of China’s Catholics acclaimed a “New Chinese Church,” one that promulgated the ideal that all Chinese should prioritize being “good citizens” above their religious beliefs and duties. Pius XII wrote:

There are some among you who would wish that your Church would be completely independent, not only, as We have said, in regard to its government and finances, but also in regard to the teaching of Christian doctrine and sacred preaching, in which they try to claim “autonomy.” … But – and it is absurd merely to think of it – by what right can men arbitrarily and diversely in different nations, interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ? . . . The promoters of such movements with the greatest cunning seek to deceive the simple or the timid, or to draw them away from the right path. For this purpose they falsely affirm that the only true patriots are those who adhere to the church thought up by them, that is, to that which has the “Three Autonomies.” But in reality they seek, in a word, to establish finally among you a “national” church, which no longer could be Catholic because it would be the negation of that universality or rather “catholicity” by which the society truly founded by Jesus Christ is above all nations and embraces them one and all. (pars 15, 22)

In other words, Pope Pius XII understood plainly that China’s communist leaders insisted (as they still do today) that loyalty to state and its socialist doctrines must unequivocally come before one’s religion.

Pope John Paul II in 1982

During Lent in 1982, Pope Saint John Paul II offered Mass for China in St. Peter’s on Sunday, March 21st, inspired by the sufferings and struggles of Chinese Catholics under the communist state. Shortly afterward he made remarks on the state of the Church in that land, remarks that echo other statements given by his predecessors and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Let us entrust our prayers to the powerful intercession of Mary Most Holy, whom the Chinese faithful fervently invoke with so much confidence under the title of Queen of China. Let us pray to the Mother of God and Our Mother that . . . there may be assured to the Church in China the indispensable conditions to enjoy also visual union with the Church of Jesus Christ, which is ‘one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.’. . . And finally, may these our brothers, so sorely tried, attain the good of peace and human, social, and political progress in their national community. (“Prayer of the Entire Church for the Chinese,” Angelus message of March 21, 1982)

In the same year, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote to the bishops of the world inviting them to pray for the Church in China. In his letter he reminded the world’s bishops to pray for China’s Catholics under communism:

We know very well that our brothers and sisters in China have had to face difficult and prolonged trials in the span of these thirty years. In those severe sufferings they have given proof of their fidelity to Christ and his Church; such courageous witness can well be compared to that of the first centuries of the Church. How consoling it is to receive news of the constant and courageous loyalty of Catholics in China to the faith of their fathers and their filial attachment to Peter’s See. All that, while it arouses our deep admiration, must urge us even more to offer them our affectionate support and fervent prayers. (Pope’s Letter to Bishops of the World Inviting Them to Pray for the Church in China,” February 1, 1982.)

Pope Benedict XVI in 2007

In a lengthy letter to Catholics in China released on the Solemnity of Pentecost in 2007, Benedict XVI wrote:

Likewise, therefore, the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Saviour of the world, basing herself – in carrying out her proper apostolate – on the power of God. As I recalled in my Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

In the light of these unrenounceable principles, the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church. The civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom. (par 4)

So, while emphasizing good citizenship, Benedict equally emphasizes that compliance with laws that interfere with “the faith and discipline of the Church” is not an option. He later writes:

The Pope, when he issues the apostolic mandate for the ordination of a Bishop, exercises his supreme spiritual authority: this authority and this intervention remain within the strictly religious sphere. It is not, therefore, a question of a political authority, unduly asserting itself in the internal affairs of a State and offending against its sovereignty.

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… (par 9)

China’s Communist Party in 2017

Reaffirming China’s legal policy towards religious belief and practice, the communist party issued a document in 2017 entitled “Regulation on Religious Affairs.” The document predictably notes that religious believers must support socialism and practice the core socialist values (shehui zhuyi hexin jiazhiguan 社会主义核心价值观), and Article Four contains two significant regulations.

The State, in accordance with the law, protects normal religious activities, actively guides religion to fit in with socialist society, and safeguards the lawful rights and interests of religious groups, religious schools, religious activity sites and religious citizens.

[And] Religious groups, religious schools, religious activity sites, and religious citizens shall abide by the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules; practice the core socialist values; and preserve the unification of the country, ethnic unity, religious harmony, and social stability. (Chinese Communist Party, Standing Committee of the State Council, “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” Article 4.)

In April 2016, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, offered a few remarks is support of this view, insisting that, “We must develop the socialist theory of religion with Chinese characteristics, … we must continue to walk the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics; actively practice the core values of socialism, promote Chinese culture, strive to fuse together the religious teachings and Chinese culture.” (“Comprehensively Improving the Level of Religious Work According to the New Situation,” April 23, 2016). A key element of what it means to be a “good citizen” in communist China is what state officials call aidang 爱党, or “loving the party.” Therefore, any suggestion by the Vatican that China’s Catholics behave as “good citizens” is complicated and controversial: first because the Church has always insisted that Catholics should indeed be good citizens, and second because being a “good citizen” in China also means subordination to the Chinese Communist Party.

As for proselytization, Article forty-four of the document, “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” states that, “It is prohibited to proselytize, hold religious activities, establish religious organizations, or set up religious activity sites in schools or educational bodies other than in religious buildings.” The party’s law against proselytization in China forbids any attempt to persuade another person to agree with or convert someone to a particular religious view. The Oxford English Dictionary defines proselytization as, “To convert or attempt to convert from one opinion, religion, or party, etc., to another”; nothing in the English meaning of this term suggests that proselytization is conducted by force. This is an important point, for the Chinese party has not prohibited only conversion by force; it has illegalized efforts of any kind to spread religious belief.

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. The Pontiff Francis’ prayer composed to satisfy General Secretary Xi is monstrously evil, a totem to the decadence and mediocrity of his polluted, post-Christian personally cult.

    This evil is second only to the uttetly evil abomination of the Pontiff Francis staged managed presiding over and promotion of idolatry in October 2019.

  2. Apparently the words from popes JPII ans Benedict arw indeed quite different. Must admit that the term ” being good citizens ” makes one jump.
    Please PRAY for Chinese Christians!

  3. Thank you for the update on the history of prayer for the Catholic Church in China. So often in today’s world, the history is lost in the rhetoric.

  4. Why do so many Catholic intellectuals always circle the wagons around Pope Francis? With respect to China he is, judging from his past comments, remarks, and actions, sympathetic to socialist governments. Not surprisingly, he has allied himself with the Chinese communist party, and sold out faithful underground Catholics ‘praying” they become “good citizens” while waiting in the shadows for more power opportunities and self-advancement.

  5. “Regulation on Religious Affairs” is so definitively structured to annihilate religion that signing to it was complicit in its aim and immoral. Duplicity has been the Hallmark of the alt empowered Vat Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin. Prior to his signature [an approval the ramification of which the Pontiff could not have been unaware] Cardinal Parolin had previously in another instance assured the world that the Argentine Papal exchange of letters on Amoris Laetitia inserted in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis made the content of those letters “official” Magisterial doctrine. A complete canard. As if an oblique assent by the Pontiff on questions raised by the Argentine bishops suddenly are now made ‘What’ universally binding. Pope Francis did nothing to clarify what that ‘What’ meant for the universal Church. Never in Church history has any binding doctrine been submitted as a kind of moral burlesque. Now we are to assume the Pontiff’s prayer that “The Church wants Chinese Christians to be truly Christians, and to be good citizens” is not in agreement with Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences who during 2018 praised China saying that “Chinese today were those who are perhaps best implementing Church teachings on social issues, such as concern for the environment and human dignity”. Cardinal Zen the faithful to Christ stand fast with you.

    • The silver lining in all this might be:

      (1) that the newer and so-called Francis cardinals from outside the West (as is China) now might not consider Cardinal Parolin as a front-runner papal candidate (papabile); and
      (2) that two-thirds of all the voting cardinals might vote surprisingly with the perennial magisterium rather than with Parolin’s “new paradigm”; and
      (3) that precipitous elements of the needed and originally proposed curial “reform” remain stalled, i.e., an high office of Evangelization, but eclipsing a muted (doctrinal) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (?); and overall preeminence of Parolin’s (political) Secretariat of State in direct connection with decentralized (and empowered/freelancing?) synods/conferences of bishops (providentially sobered by the disowned/stalled Amazoniac/Germaniac and neo-Lutheran “synodal path”?).

      Church governance—a work in progress, in historic and admittedly turbulent times—with the Church in China gambled away as collateral damage. In times past it was the autonomous/ Orthodox Churches that were consumed by state Socialism, now it is the newly-synodal (and morally ambiguous) Catholic Church that dismembers itself on the global stage.

      After seven years, and from the pits of hell—the needed transparency and “clarity”.

      • Yes there’s always the theological virtue of Hope. Pretty much abandoned these days nonetheless a significant virtue.

  6. Being a true Christian is also being a good citizen , in any country – ‘one soul can make a difference for the world ‘ Diary of Divine Mercy ) , interceding for mercy of deliverance , from ancestral bondages on down , invoking the protection of The Precious Blood for all that is around and so on .
    Just as the meaning of the word ‘gay ‘ has changed with the times , the ‘user ‘ attitudes and lust for power to use religion for control over others has brought on a dark shadow over ‘proselytism’ , hence, instead , in certain areas esp. and times, waiting in patience with the heart of the Father of the Prodigal , with the abundant trust in The Spirit , to do His work , to touch hearts – that too may be what The Church is called to do in these times ; after all ,we read how in times of Noah , the animals came into the ark on their own and very likely , Noah too had spent the times of making the Ark in deep prayer ; thank God that The Ark of The Church of saints , of both living and deceased , have many to do so as well and all these remarks from the Holy Father too can be taken as a plea for more of those who need to be concerned to do so to join forces ; the day of fasting declared can be seen as one such answered prayer for all to join more deeply .

      • well… unsure of Mr . Carl Olson agrees with you or not ..
        let us agree to pray for each other and others , to be set free from the darkness of minds and hardness of hearts , the related Father wounds in any and all in all our lives .
        Thank you and God bless !

        • The word ‘gay’ was corrupted by its hijacking by homosexual activists.

          Your comments are becoming more bizarre as you take such pleasure in playing devil’s advocate against the Catholic Church with rarely proving your point.

  7. The Chinese Government, particularly its President Xi Jinping, have already become a reincarnation of Pagan Rome, where the Roman Emperor was worshipped as god, and those opposing his worship, like the First Christians, are crushed. Xi Jinping tries to make the Chinese Christians look like an arm of the American Government that needs to be corralled and limited to the max. It is an arm of God, not the USA, but Emperor Xi Jinping needs to be worshipped by “good [submissive, idolatrous] citizens”. By calling for Chinese Catholics to be “good citizens”, Pope Francis is ACTUALLY calling for them to be submissive to and idolatrous of Xi Jinping (President for life and with absolute power, even wrote his own version of the Bible and the Koran).

    Francis is acting as a submissive arm of the Chinese Government not as the Vicar of Christ. Why is he still in the Chair of Peter if he does not want to be a REAL Catholic Pope and instead acts like a Protestant full compromiser? Xi Jinping, like all tyrants that want actual, god-like worship, will not stop at the present immoral, inhuman limitations on Chinese Catholics. He will not stop until all actual Masses there are directed in worship of him. Pope Francis betrays the flock there and is, de facto, asking for homosexual-style submission, just like all the “diplomatic” appeasers in history and those before Hitler, Stalin, etc.

    Pope Francis is practicing Borderline Heresy, Borderline Betrayal and Borderline Apostasy of the True Catholic Faith and Magisterium of 2,000 years. He is not fully 100% heretic or 100% traitor or 100% apostate, but by actually being 50% or so on each of those he is opening wide the doors to heresy, betrayal and apostasy, because in Catholicism, especially at the top, anything less than 100% ceases to be Catholic: “”Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”, (Matthew 12:30).

    Never forget that Protestant denominations range all the way from 80% down to 1% Catholic in their teaching. It’s the Truly Catholic 100% that Xi Jinping wants to destroy, as it is a challenge to his false divinity. The same with Pope Francis, as 100% Catholic would mean no personality divine worship for him as well. We are in the midst of an Idolatrous Plague, much worse than Covid-19 or Ebola, etc. We must pray hard and speak up hard against idolatry in our own hearts, in the Laity and Clergy in our own Church, in all governments, in the family and everywhere. ONLY JESUS IS LORD!! (Philippians 2:9-11).

      • Excellent question, my dear brother Paul! Has Pope Francis totally come out declaring the “Absolute Divinity” of Pachamama and the totally necessary worship of all Catholics to this invented idol instead of to Jesus? No, he has not. He appears BORDERLINE because he appears to be “inclusive” about it. We human beings, sinners all, absolutely love the sinful, cowardly, borderline FENCE between Good and Evil.

        Sin makes us all stupid. The Fence looks like a “glorious”, “compassionate”, “fabulous” arrangement. What Francis did with Pachamama in the Vatican was seriously reprehensible. If he has not been duly censured yet is because he PRETENDS to preach from Saint Peter’s Chair when in reality, he is preaching from the FENCE. That Cunning Fence is what has made Satan’s False Gospel so successful with so many well-educated people and also with “reputable”, “faithful” Catholics.

        Jesus shows that He is True God in that, even though He is patient with our weakness, He will not permanently accept any fence-sitting and/or compromises whatsoever: ” “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”, (Matthew 12:30).

        Not only should we True Catholics stand against Francis’ Devious Fence but against that very same Compromising Fence in our own hearts, pursuing Jesus and his Holiness and crucifying that Delirious Fence on the Cross, day by day, moment by moment, for the Glory of God in us, through us and around us! Forever!

  8. My wife is ethnic Chinese and a Buddhist. She has no use at all for the current Chinese president or his administration and their persecution of all religions that don’t toe the party line.

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