WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Catholic Thinking – A Bridge between Rome and Beijing

WelCom March 2019:

Catholic Thinking Series presents articles about theology, morality, ethics and faith heritage written for WelCom by lecturers from New Zealand’s Catholic Tertiary Education Providers: Good Shepherd College – Te Hēpara Pai; and The Catholic Institute of New Zealand – Te Pūtahi Katorika ki Aotearoa. Here Fr Tim Costello sm of Good Shepherd College discusses the Catholic Church in China.


A Bridge between Rome and Beijing

What’s Happening in the Catholic Church in China?

Fr Tim Costello sm

Catholics in China live their faith among lights and shadows. An important event for Chinese Catholics took place on 22 September 2018 when the government of the People’s Republic of China signed a ‘provisional agreement’ with the Holy See. This agreement was hailed by some as an epoch-making breakthrough and by others was denounced as a betrayal. What is the agreement about? Has this changed the relationship between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China? Has Pope Francis succeeded in reaching an accord that his predecessors worked for but never achieved? To find answers to these questions we need to look to history.

My personal interest in the Church in China began developing about ten years ago during a year-long celebration in Rome marking the 400th anniversary of the death of China’s most famous missionary, Fr Matteo Ricci. Ricci was an Italian Jesuit who attended the Roman College – now known as the Gregorian University – where he studied philosophy and theology, Greek, Hebrew and Latin, mathematics, cosmology and astronomy.1

Matteo Ricci left Europe with 14 Jesuit companions in March 1578, arriving six months later in Goa where St Francis Xavier was buried. He became proficient in the Chinese language and, with his attitude of accommodation, established many contacts with Confucian scholars, scientists, astronomers, cartographers, artists, religious leaders, and rulers. It took 20 years, however, for Ricci to reach his ultimate goal – Beijing, and the Forbidden City. He soon gained the respect of the emperor who appointed him as the first foreign adviser to the imperial court. Matteo Ricci died in 1601 and was buried, by imperial indult, in the capital city where his tomb is honoured to this day.2

A 1610 Chinese portrait of Jesuit Fr Matteo Ricci, Superior General of the Chinese mission. Image: Wikipedia

In the following centuries, Catholic evangelisation in China was dogged by cultural ignorance, rivalry among missionary religious orders, European colonialism, imperial politics and by a lengthy theological dispute known as the Chinese Rites Controversy. In 1692 the Kangxi emperor had sanctioned the presence of Christianity in China. One of the negative consequences of the ongoing theological disputes, however, was the expulsion of many Catholic missionaries by the same emperor 30 years later. Similarly, some 30,000 Christians were massacred during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). This was essentially a xenophobic reaction against foreigners and Chinese converts to what was perceived to be a foreign religion. The 400 years following the death of Matteo Ricci has been aptly described as ‘a complex history of controversies, conflicts, and unwavering conviction’.3

With the foundation of the People’s Republic by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949, Chinese Christians – both Catholic and Protestant – had to deal with an atheistic communist regime whose aim was to control and eradicate the expression of religious faith. The ensuing years were not kind to the Churches. The papal representative was expelled from China in 1951 and diplomatic relations were severed. Older New Zealand Catholics will remember the persecution of clergy, religious and laity that took place throughout the 1950s. In 1957 the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was created to shape the Church to be independent from Rome. Soon after, the illegal ordination of bishops began. In the mid-1960s Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) during which all religious activity was suppressed, church buildings were seized, and all symbols of religion were destroyed.

The National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China. Photo: Supplied

The installation of Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1978 ushered in a new era of modernisation. The Church emerged into public life once again but with the scars of division. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association created a deep division within the Church. The ‘underground’ or ‘unofficial’ community recognised only the bishops who had been appointed by Rome and resisted the influence of the government. The ‘patriotic’ or ‘official’ community adopted the pragmatic stance that co-operation with the communist government was a political necessity for the Church’s survival. Despite its many efforts, the Holy See was never able to resolve the problem of the valid but illicit ordination of bishops in China.

The recent agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China concerns the selection and appointment of bishops.

  • First, the Pope has agreed to recognise the illegitimate bishops who were ordained during the last decade without papal approval.
  • Second, the Chinese government will recognise the underground bishops appointed by the Pope.
  • Third, the two parties have formulated a new procedure that gives both the government and the Holy See a role in the selection of future bishops. This probably follows, at least to some extent, the blueprint of a similar agreement reached in 2010 between the Holy See and the communist government of Vietnam.

Pope Francis accepts that some Chinese Catholics may be disappointed with the limited nature of this agreement and that others may be suspicious of the intentions of the Chinese government. He acknowledges that the agreement is not ideal but is the only one that is possible at the moment. The Church, clearly, sees this as a starting point rather than the conclusion of a process that still needs to address some difficult questions such as the future role of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the creation of new dioceses, and the bishops’ free communication with the Pope.

There are many reasons for calling this ‘provisional agreement’ a very significant milestone in the relationship between the Vatican and Beijing.

  • First, the communist Chinese government has recognised for the first time the Pope as the head of the Church, and the Church in China as a part of the universal church. Until now the Pope has been acknowledged only as a ‘spiritual leader’ and the head of the Vatican State.
  • Second, for the first time in 60 years all of China’s bishops are in union with the Pope. The confusion of legitimate and illegitimate bishops in the Chinese Church has come to an end.
  • Third, the door has been opened for a healing of the rift between the underground and the patriotic communities within the Church, a division that has been a great obstacle to the growth and development of the Catholic Church in China.

Without disrespecting the sacrifice and suffering of many heroic men and women, some of them martyrs for the faith, the Church must also look to the future. This is the time, perhaps, to reflect on the Chinese proverb: ‘When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills’.4

  1. 1. Gianni Criveller, “The Background of Matteo Ricci. The Shaping of his Intellectual and Scientific Endowment” in Portrait of a Jesuit: Matteo Ricci. (Macau, China: Macau Ricci Institute, 2010), 16-34.

2. In China Matteo Ricci is known as Li Mǎdòu 적瑪竇

3. Wee Kek Koon, “The Catholic Church in China: A complex history of controversies, conflicts and unwavering conviction” in The South China Morning Post Magazine 4 October 2018. https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/short-reads/article/2166789/catholic-church-china-complex-history

4. Chinese proverb 風蕨轉變時,唐훙築牆,唐훙芚風車

Fr Tim Costello sm is a lecturer in pastoral theology and homiletics at Good Shepherd College. He was a lecturer in psychology at the Gregorian University in Rome, and has twice contributed to the professional development of the staff of the National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China in Beijing.