The Catholic Church in China has a long and complicated history. Christianity has existed in China in various forms since the 8th century AD. Following the 1949 takeover by the Communist Party of China, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were expelled from the country, and the religion was vilified as a manifestation of western imperialism. In 1957, the Chinese government established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which rejects the authority of the Holy See and appoints its own bishops. Since September 2018, however, the Papacy has the power to veto any Bishop which China recommends.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by the Communist Party of China, Catholicism, like all religions, was permitted to operate only under the supervision of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. All legal worship was to be conducted through state-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which did not accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. The CPA espoused politically oriented objectives as well — the church needed individuals who “love the country and love religion: politically, they should respect the Constitution, respect the law, and fervently love the socialist motherland.”
Clergy who resisted this development were subject to oppression, including long imprisonments, and torture and martyrdom. Catholic clergy experienced increased supervision. Bishops and priests were forced to engage in degrading humble jobs to earn their living. Foreign missionaries were accused of being foreign agents, ready to turn the country over to imperialist forces. The Holy See reacted with several encyclicals and apostolic letters, including Cupimus Imprimis, Ad Apostolorum principis, and Ad Sinarum gentem.
Some Catholics who recognized the authority of the Holy See chose to worship clandestinely due to the risk of harassment from authorities. Several underground Catholic bishops were reported as disappeared or imprisoned, and harassment of unregistered bishops and priests was common. There were reports of Catholic bishops and priests being forced by authorities to attend the ordination ceremonies for bishops who had not gained Vatican approval. Chinese authorities also had pressured Catholics to break communion with the Vatican by requiring them to renounce an essential belief in Catholicism, the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. In other instances, authorities permitted Vatican-loyal churches to carry out operations.
A major impediment to the re-establishment of relations between the Vatican and Beijing was the issue of who appoints the bishops. The official church had no official contact with the Vatican and did not recognize its authority. In later years, however, the CPA allowed for unofficial Vatican approval of ordinations. Although the CPA continued to carry out some ordinations opposed by the Holy See, the majority of CPA bishops became recognized by both authorities.
In a sign of appeasement between the Vatican and Beijing, Pope Benedict XVI invited four Chinese bishops, including two government recognized bishops, one underground bishop, and one underground bishop recently emerged into the registered church, to the October 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. Beijing, however, ultimately denied the four bishops the right to attend the meeting.
On 27 May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Chinese Catholics “to offer some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China.” Pope Benedict acknowledges tensions:
As all of you know, one of the most delicate problems in relations between the Holy See and the authorities of your country is the question of episcopal appointments. On the one hand, it is understandable that governmental authorities are attentive to the choice of those who will carry out the important role of leading and shepherding the local Catholic communities, given the social implications that – in China as in the rest of the world – this function has in the civil sphere as well as the spiritual. On the other hand, the Holy See follows the appointment of Bishops with special care since this touches the very heart of the life of the Church, inasmuch as the appointment of Bishops by the Pope is the guarantee of the unity of the Church and of hierarchical communion.
Underground bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar released a two-page pastoral letter in July 2007, asking his congregation to study and act on the letter of Pope Benedict XVI and naming the letter a “new milestone in the development of the Chinese Church.” In September 2007, a coadjutor bishop for the Guiyang Diocese was jointly appointed by the Vatican and the Chinese official Catholic church.
On 22 September 2018, China and the Vatican signed a historic agreement concerning the appointment of bishops in China. The Chinese government also recognizes the pope as head of China’s Catholics. China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the agreement also works to maintain communications and to improve relations between both sides. However, it does not establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China.
While the agreement states that China will recommend the Bishops before they are appointed by the Pope, it also stipulates that the Pope has authority to veto any Bishop which China recommends. On 23 September, the state-recognized Catholic Church in China pledged to remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party.
On 26 October 2018, AsiaNews reported that despite the agreement, the Chinese government decided to continue including the Catholic Church in its religious crackdown and destroyed two Marian shrines, one of which was located in Shanxi and the other located in Guizhou.