China–Holy See relations

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People's Republic of China-Vatican relations
Map indicating locations of China and Vatican City


Vatican City

There have been no official China – Holy See relations since 1951. However, in September 2018 China and the Holy See signed an agreement allowing the Pope to appoint and veto bishops approved by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The agreement was subsequently renewed for another two years in October 2020. [1]


The Beijing government broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951 after a complicated incident. Throughout 1950 and 1951, China had been putting pressure on the Vatican by threatening a breakaway of "independent Catholics", but many priests opposed the movement, and Zhou Enlai sought a middle ground.[2] A deadly controversy was then manufactured: a priest working at the Holy See internunciature (legation) had thrown out an old 1930s-era mortar in a trash pile out of his home. A businessman named Antonio Riva discovered the mortar and took a non-functioning piece of it back to his house to display as an antique. When Communist officials saw Riva's curio in his home, they arrested him for conspiracy to assassinate Mao Zedong, which Riva denied. Riva was executed and the Holy See's diplomatic mission was banished from the country for "espionage".[3] Tarcisio Martina, the regional apostolic prefect, was sentenced to life in prison[4] and died in 1961, while four other "conspirators" were given shorter sentences.[5]

The Beijing government has set two conditions for reestablishing the relations: that the Holy See "not interfere in religious matters in China" and that, in line with Beijing's One-China policy, it break the ties with the Taipei government that it established after the expulsion of Archbishop Riberi, ties that, since the United Nations' recognition of the Beijing government as the government of China, it now maintains only at the level of chargé d'affaires.[6] The Holy See has indicated that it would have no difficulty about the second condition, but requires discussion about the concrete meaning of the first.[7] The main point of contention concerns the appointing of Catholic bishops in mainland China, who are now named by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), at some periods in agreement with the Holy See, at other times in direct opposition to its declared wishes. The PRC government's position is that bishops should be appointed by itself; the Holy See's position is that bishops can only be appointed by the Pope,[8] while envisaging in some cases a form of consultation with the civil authorities.[9]

The Holy See made efforts in 2007 to create formal ties with the PRC.[10] Theodore McCarrick had been an envoy as part of such efforts.[11] High-ranking bishops in the Roman Catholic Church implied that such a diplomatic move was possible,[12] predicated on the PRC granting more freedom of religion[13] and interfering less in the hierarchy of the church in mainland China.[14]

In September 2007, the appointment of Father Joseph Li Shan by the PRC authorities was said to be "tacitly approved" by the Vatican.[15] In May 2008, the China Philharmonic Orchestra from mainland China performed a concert for the Pope inside the Vatican, prompting analysts to speak of a "growing rapprochement" between the two countries.[16] On 8 April 2011 the Financial Times reported that Baron Von Pfetten organised the first major breakthrough discussion at leadership level during a three days closed door seminar in his French château where a senior Chinese visiting delegation met with Monseigneur Balestrero the then Holy See Undersecretary for Relations with States.[17] Since Pope Francis' inauguration in March 2013 he has publicly expressed his wish to visit China and improve the Sino-Holy See relationship in a media interview.[18] It was also reported that on a Papal visit to South Korea in August 2014 China opened up its airspace to the Pope's plane, and while crossing the Chinese airspace the Pope sent a telegram expressing his "best wishes" to the Chinese people.[19]

In the late 1990s, officials of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Beijing raised the possibility that it might one day be used as the Holy See's embassy as a reason against demolishing an abandoned architecturally distinctive mansion belonging to the archdiocese (the reputedly haunted house at Chaonei No. 81).[20]

In January 2018, the Church was close to negotiating a deal with China that allows China to have more control over the underground churches and allows the Vatican to have more control over the appointment of bishops. While this did not amount to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties, this was seen as a huge step towards formal recognition.[21] However, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun regarded the warming of diplomatic relationships as selling out the Catholic Church in China, as the process involves the resignation of several bishops of the underground church.[22][23] A vigil was held by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese in response from 12 to 13 February in St Bonaventure Church.[24]

2018 Holy See–China Agreement[edit]

On 22 September 2018, Chinese government and the Vatican signed a historic agreement concerning the appointment of bishops in China.[25] China's foreign ministry said that the agreement works to maintain communications and improve relations between the parties.[25] They did not establish diplomatic relations and the Vatican maintained diplomatic ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan,[26] which the People's Republic of China does not recognize. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke described the agreement as "not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities."[25][27] While the agreement states that China will recommend bishops before they are appointed by the pope,[27] it also stipulates that the pope has authority to veto a bishop China recommends.[28] Francis then approved seven bishops who had been appointed by Beijing, after withdrawing church censures against those six and one recently deceased bishop, who had all received episcopal consecration without papal approval.[29][30] On 23 September, the Catholic Church in China pledged to remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party.[31] On 26 September, in a letter to Chinese Catholics, Pope Francis wrote:[32]

On the civil and political level, Chinese Catholics must be good citizens, loving their homeland and serving their country with diligence and honesty, to the best of their ability. On the ethical level, they should be aware that many of their fellow citizens expect from them a greater commitment to the service of the common good and the harmonious growth of society as a whole. In particular, Catholics ought to make a prophetic and constructive contribution born of their faith in the kingdom of God. At times, this may also require of them the effort to offer a word of criticism, not out of sterile opposition, but for the sake of building a society that is more just, humane and respectful of the dignity of each person.

The agreement reflects the longstanding desire of the Chinese government to end the Holy See's recognition of the government in Taiwan, even as the Chinese Communist Party of General Secretary Xi Jinping continues the campaign, launched in the spring of 2018, to increase control of foreign religious institutions.[33] In October 2018, local Chinese government officials destroyed two Marian shrines, one in Shanxi and one in Guizhou.[34]

On 14 February 2020, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States, met while both were attending a meeting of the Munich Security Conference. It was the highest-level meeting between the two states since 1949.[35] In July 2020, U.S. cybersecurity firm Recorded Future said that Chinese state-backed hackers had infiltrated Vatican computer networks.[36][37]

On 15 September 2020, a Catholic periodical reported that the Vatican wants to open a Beijing office with a permanent representative and also set up a meeting between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and the Holy See's Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.[38]

On 17 September 2020, A British Foreign Policy journalist Benedict Rogers revealed that China was no longer enforcing the terms of the 2018 agreement, which were only valid for two years.[39] On 22 October 2020, both parties extended the agreement for two more years. [40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Holy See and China renew Provisional Agreement for 2 years". Vatican News. 2020.
  2. ^ "Religion: Catholics in China". Time. 2 July 1951. Archived from the original on 8 August 2014.
  3. ^ "Religion: Prayer for China". Time. 17 September 1951. Archived from the original on 9 August 2014.
  4. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2013). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 117. ISBN 978-1620403471.
  5. ^ Bertuccioli, Giuliano (1999). "Informatori, avventurieri, spioni, agenti più o meno autentici in duemila anni di storia delle relazioni italo-cinesi" (in Italian). Mondo Cinese 101. Archived from the original on 20 July 2014. Retrieved 14 July 2012. English translation at Google Translate
  6. ^ "China: the Vatican denounces the arrest of bishop, priest and layperson". AsiaNews. 4 February 2005. Archived from the original on 6 October 2012.
  7. ^ "Taiwan "Religious Freedom The Key To Beijing-Holy See Ties"". Union of Catholic Asian News. 22 July 2004. Archived from the original on 29 May 2009.
  8. ^ Reynolds, James (9 May 2008). "China-Vatican relations". BBC News. Archived from the original on 4 October 2014.
  9. ^ (in Italian) The 1966 Agreement with Argentina provides an example of how national governments are, by exception, sometimes consulted prior to the appointment of bishops. "Agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Argentina". 10 October 1966. Archived from the original on 2 April 2014. English translation at Google Translate
  10. ^ "Pope offers olive branch to China". BBC News. 20 January 2007. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  11. ^ Mares, Courtney (17 September 2018). "Archbishop McCarrick's unofficial role in Vatican-China relations". Catholic News Agency. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  12. ^ "HK bishop hints at Vatican switch". BBC News. 5 April 2005. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  13. ^ "China welcomes Vatican initiative". BBC News. 22 January 2007. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  14. ^ "China ordains new Catholic bishop". BBC News. 30 November 2006. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  15. ^ "China installs Pope-backed bishop". BBC News. 21 September 2007. Archived from the original on 15 August 2014.
  16. ^ Willey, David (7 May 2008). "Chinese orchestra plays for Pope". BBC News. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008.
  17. ^ "Subscribe to read". Financial Times. Cite uses generic title (help)
  18. ^ "Pope Francis wants to visit mainland China". ANSA. 28 September 2015.
  19. ^ "Pope Francis Sends Message to China in Telegram From Papal Plane". The Wall Street Journal. 14 August 2014.
  20. ^ Qin, Amy (25 September 2013). "Dilapidated Mansion Has Had Many Occupants, Maybe Even a Ghost". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 October 2014.
  21. ^ "China, the Vatican and a controversial deal". BBC News. 4 February 2018. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  22. ^ "Vatican rebukes ex-cardinal after remarks on 'selling out' of Chinese Catholics". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  23. ^ Scimia, Emanuele (29 January 2020). "The Vatican Stays Away from the Hong Kong Crisis Due to Fears of Beijing's Retaliation". Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  24. ^ 活動資訊 :: 香港天主教正義和平委員會. (in Chinese). Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  25. ^ a b c "Vatican and China sign agreement on bishop appointments". Reuters. 22 September 2018. Retrieved 23 September 2018 – via The Guardian.
  26. ^ Rosner, Max (27 September 2018). "A compromise too far?". The Irish Catholic. Retrieved 15 November 2018.
  27. ^ a b "Vatican announces deal with China on bishop appointments". NBC News. Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  28. ^ Rocca, Francis X.; Dou, Eva (22 September 2018). "Vatican and China Sign Deal Over Bishops, Allowing Pope a Veto". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  29. ^ "Briefing Note about the Catholic Church in China, 22.09.2018" (Press release). Holy See Press Office. 22 September 2018. Retrieved 26 September 2018. H.E. Mgr Joseph Guo Jincai, H.E. Mgr Joseph Huang Bingzhang, H.E. Mgr Paul Lei Shiyin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Liu Xinhong, H.E. Mgr Joseph Ma Yinglin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Yue Fusheng, H.E. Mgr Vincent Zhan Silu and H.E. Mgr Anthony Tu Shihua, OFM (who, before his death on 4th January 2017, had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See).
  30. ^ "Pope Francis recognizes seven bishops in China". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  31. ^ "China's Catholic Church pledges loyalty to Party after Vatican deal". Reuters. 23 September 2018. Retrieved 26 September 2018.
  32. ^ Pope Francis. "Message of Pope Francis to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church, 26.09.2018". Vatican Press. Retrieved 15 November 2018.
  33. ^ Wo-Lap Lam, Willy (10 October 2018). "Vatican Agreement Latest Front in Xi's Widening Religious Clampdown". Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved 14 September 2019.
  34. ^ "China-Vatican accord followed by the destruction of two shrines in Shanxi and Guizhou (videos)". 25 October 2018. Retrieved 16 November 2018.
  35. ^ Allen Jr., John J. (16 February 2020). "With the Vatican and China, soft and hard powers collide". Crux. Retrieved 17 February 2020.
  36. ^ Cadell, Cate (29 July 2020). "U.S. cybersecurity firm says Beijing-linked hackers target Vatican ahead of talks". Reuters. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  37. ^ Sanger, David E.; Wong, Edward; Horowitz, Jason (28 July 2020). "The Vatican Is Said to Be Hacked From China Before Talks With Beijing". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  38. ^ "Vatican wants to open Beijing office and meet with Chinese Premier". Apple Daily. 16 September 2020. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  39. ^ Rogers, Benedict (17 September 2020). "China Is Already Breaking Its Vatican Deal". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 17 September 2020.
  40. ^ Winfield, Nicole (22 October 2020). "Vatican, China extend bishop agreement over US opposition". Associated Press. Retrieved 2 April 2021.

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