A Chinese Catholic carries a crucifix during a pilgrimage in the Shaanxi province of China in 2013 (CNS photo / Wu Hong, EPA)

If China is, as many Westerners once appeared to believe, a society in which religion is unimportant, how does one explain the enormous number of temples and shrines that dot its vast landscape? That was the question put by the great sociologist C. K. Yang at the beginning of his book Religion in Chinese Society (1961), which dealt primarily with pre-Communist China. Perhaps a better question is why so many Westerners once believed religion to be irrelevant in China. One answer is the common Western misunderstanding of nonexclusive religious groupings (it is not unusual in other parts of the world for people to adopt religious practices from more than one religious tradition). Another answer is that many intellectuals, from Voltaire on, preferred to believe in a great ancient civilization that owed nothing to the superstitions and dogmas of the West. Later, many proponents of the modernization theories developed in the middle of the twentieth century held that “traditional societies,” with their old cultures, old beliefs, and superstitions, would give way before the inevitable march of progress, secularism, and rationality. So too, after the victory of Communism in 1949, the theories of Marx and Lenin (to say nothing of Mao Zedong) left little room for religion.

In 2019 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will celebrate its seventieth birthday, and will boast of the accomplishments of the enlightened leadership of the Communist Party—increasing prosperity, huge modern cities, high-speed rail networks, a strong military, advanced technologies, and so forth. Chairman Mao’s war on religion, culminating in the persecution of the Cultural Revolution (1966­–1976), will once again be politely overlooked, and the officially atheist regime will simply await religion’s ineluctable extinction.

They may have a long time to wait. Not only are the old ashes of Chinese religion still glowing but, as Ian Johnson’s book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao explains, they appear to be bursting into flame once again. By the mid-1950s, the PRC recognized five official religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism (Jidu jiao, the religion of Jesus) and Catholicism (Tianzhu jiao, the religion of the Lord of Heaven). The divide between these last two may stem partly from earlier Christian missionary teachings in a pre-ecumenical age. It’s worth noting that of these five, only Taoism is genuinely indigenous, though after some early persecutions Buddhism eventually came to be accepted as Chinese. Thousands of Christian missionaries were expelled or imprisoned after 1949, and in 1951 the old Protestant sectarian divisions—Congregational, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.—were swept away, replaced by a new official unified Protestantism called the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Catholicism was harder to domesticate for several reasons, chief of which was loyalty to the pope, a foreign leader and thus highly suspect in the eyes of a regime seeking to cast off the shackles of imperialism. Not until 1957 did the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) appear as the “official” Catholic Church. Both the CCPA and the TSPM were firmly under Beijing’s leadership. But large numbers of believers, seeing these official churches as puppets of the regime, stayed away, coalescing into unofficial groups generally known as underground, unregistered, or house churches.

Soon the Cultural Revolution ended even this limited toleration. But in the late 1970s, religion began to reappear under the watchful eye of the state, as Deng Xiaoping’s regime sought to clear away some of the wreckage left by Mao. The results have been uneven: while Buddhism and Daoism are growing once more, Catholicism is barely holding its own; in fact, it may be slightly declining. In 1949, there were roughly 3 million Catholics in China, and this year roughly 10 million—just keeping pace with China’s population growth over those seven decades. Protestantism, by contrast, has grown from about 1 million in 1949 to about 60 million. Thus, as Ian Johnson points out, of the five official religions Catholicism is today the weakest and least consequential, even though the last three popes, and especially Francis, have made clear their wish to reopen relations with China.


The first permanent Catholic presence, established by the Jesuits in the late sixteenth century, was not imperialist. But many later missionaries, Catholic and Protestant both, were occasionally the beneficiaries of gunboat diplomacy.

Why this weakness? The answer is not simply persecution, bad as that has been—and still is. After all, Protestants, Buddhists, and others have also been persecuted. Catholicism in particular has struggled in China for a few reasons. First, as Richard Madsen points out in China’s Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society (1998), Chinese Catholicism, despite its comparative strength in a few cities (Shanghai being the most obvious), was largely a rural phenomenon. Today, China’s countryside is being left behind by massive migration into cities. There is also the contentious history of the Christian missions, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first permanent Catholic presence, established by the Jesuits in the late sixteenth century, was not imperialist. But many later missionaries, Catholic and Protestant both, were occasionally the beneficiaries of gunboat diplomacy. By the middle of the nineteenth century, France had managed to establish a protectorate over all Catholic mission activity in China, and used it as a way to build up France’s presence and influence, the better to compete with stronger economic rivals such as Britain, the United States, and Germany. The protectorate took its orders from Paris, not Rome. Indeed, at one point France managed to block Pope Leo XIII from opening any independent Roman line of communication with Beijing.

While the French may have provided some protection for Catholics in a hostile environment, other aspects of their presence were less fortunate. Take for example the case of Aurora (Zhendan) University in Shanghai. Though the central figure in its founding was Ma Xiangbo, a Jesuit from an old Catholic family, within a few years the French Jesuits had eased him out in order to ensure that the school would be run on French lines. Ma later left the Jesuit order and was instrumental in the founding of Fudan (New Aurora) in Shanghai, which today remains one of China’s top universities, its campus adorned by a huge statue of Chairman Mao.

By the 1920s, a France weakened by war saw its protectorate fading. In 1919 Benedict XIV’s Maximum illud called for the growth of indigenous clergy in mission countries, and in 1926 Pius XI named six Chinese bishops—the first since 1685. French reaction was decidedly cool; the natural inclination of such bishops, the minister in Beijing warned darkly, would lead them into heresy. And a few years later, when the new Furen Catholic University in Beijing was started, it was pointedly put under the direction of American Benedictines, not of the French.

The whole missionary enterprise, both Catholic and Protestant, suffered from its ties to imperialism, as a new Chinese nationalism grew in strength during the early decades of the twentieth century. This nationalism denounced all forms of foreign domination and included a strong anti-Christian movement. It favored the modern and the scientific, and called for the overthrow of old forms of authority, conveniently lumped together as Confucianism. “National humiliation” (guochi) was one of its watchwords. The term evoked the lasting effects of the unequal treaties imposed on the country since the 1840s, first by the West and later by Japan. Though the treaties themselves vanished in the mid-1940s, the humiliation lasted until—so goes today’s nationalist narrative—the victory of the Communist Party in 1949.

Despite Maximum illud and Pius XI’s decision to ordain Chinese bishops in 1926, and despite the passionate advocacy of a few priests (notably two Lazarists, the Belgian Frédéric-Vincent Lebbe and the Egyptian Antoine Cotta), by the time the Communists took power, relatively little had been done to build up an indigenous clergy and church leadership. Of the hundreds of bishops in China before 1949, living and dead, very few bore Chinese names. Thus, as Ian Johnson points out, the Catholic leadership was decapitated after the Communist government’s mass expulsion of foreign missionaries. Worse, Catholic leaders had shown little sympathy for the modernizing social and intellectual movements that had been sweeping across China since 1919. Lucien Bianco, a leading French historian of modern China, gives the Protestant missionary movement far more credit for participation in social reform than its Catholic counterpart. Particularly surprising is that Catholics seem to have ceded leadership in higher education to Protestants. Aurora University in Shanghai (founded in 1903) and Furen in Beijing (founded in 1925) stand in lonely contrast to the network of universities started by the Protestants from 1878 onwards. Richard Madsen has faulted the two Catholic universities for turning out not critical intellectuals, as the Protestant institutions were doing, but a patrician elite whose duty it was to impart their knowledge to others without questioning it—or encouraging others to question it. This was probably not the best way to build up an indigenous leadership.


The church has certainly found a way to function under dictatorships, but how good has its record been, particularly when it shuts its eyes to injustice or even atrocity in the hope of preserving the Catholic faith?

Since the Vatican broke with Beijing in 1951, there have been sporadic attempts by Rome to heal the breach. But the one underway now seems the most serious. Writing on “the future of the Sino-Vatican dialogue from an ecclesiological point of view” in February 2017, Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong made it sound as if the two sides had already reached an agreement. Two points about Tong’s intervention stand out. First, recognizing that the core issue in any agreement would be episcopal appointments, Tong stated that Beijing would now “let the pope play a role in the nomination and ordination of Chinese bishops.” The PRC had come to accept “that the pope is the highest and final authority in deciding on the candidates for bishops in China.” Presumably this meant that the PRC would propose a candidate or slate of candidates for a particular see, while leaving to Rome the final decision or at least the power of veto. In March, America’s Gerald O’Connell reported that Cardinal Tong, then on a visit to Rome for a seminar on the church in China, had said that Pope Francis was very much on the right track in his negotiations with China.

Just a few days later, however, Chen Zongrong, an official in China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs, introduced a new set of detailed regulations governing the conduct of religious matters, and insisted that the PRC would allow no foreign interference in religious affairs, adding that “there is no religion in human society that is above the state.” He also claimed that it was no restriction on religious freedom to deny Rome full control over episcopal appointments. What he meant by “foreign interference” is not entirely clear, but the New York Times concluded that his comments dashed any hopes for a quick agreement. These new regulations may well be, as some suggest, primarily aimed at Islamic Uighur practices in Xinjiang province. But they can also be used against anyone who, in the Party’s view, contravenes state law, which is why Christian groups of all sorts are worried.

In any case, Cardinal Tong’s second notable point seems accurately to define the dilemma facing the Vatican. True religious freedom would mean the church’s being able to appoint its own bishops without hindrance. Since that’s impossible, the choice now is between two evils: take what is being offered and thus become “an imperfect but true church,” or hold out for complete freedom, which may never arrive. To Tong, at least, the first choice is clearly preferable.

Not everyone agrees. Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, sees rapprochement as a great mistake, betraying China’s faithful underground Catholics. He thinks Pope Francis simply does not understand how the Chinese Communist Party operates and how it will manipulate any agreement to its advantage (his opposition earned him a Vatican reprimand earlier this year). In this country, the conservative Catholic commentator George Weigel strongly opposes any agreement, as do many influential Catholics elsewhere.

On the other hand, Drew Christiansen, the former editor of America, has defended the Vatican’s efforts to normalize relations with the Chinese government—and he is far from alone. Supporters of Rome’s overtures to the Chinese Communist Party hold that half a loaf is better than none, and that we may hope and pray for better times to come. But what if the church is asked to settle for a quarter of a loaf, or an eighth, or a sixteenth? And how many of us are willing to bet on China’s future? Think how wrong so many Westerners were in believing that China’s growing prosperity and its integration into the world economy would mitigate its autocracy. The increasing centralization of power in both state and Party under Xi Jinping, particularly in the past year, gives the lie to this hope, suggesting that while we may have been able to deal with “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (as China’s authoritarian capitalism calls itself), we are now watching the development of what the human-rights lawyer Teng Biao calls “fascism with Chinese characteristics.” The church has certainly found a way to function under dictatorships, but how good has its record been, particularly when it shuts its eyes to injustice or even atrocity in the hope of preserving the Catholic faith? What might have seemed, to some at least, good enough in the days of Pius XII is unlikely to work in the days of post–Vatican II Catholicism.

In fact, the Vatican concordats with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Franco’s Spain all gave those states some say in reviewing episcopal appointments. Many other issues will need resolution. What, for instance, is to be the future of the Patriotic Association after an agreement? Will it simply fade into the background once the church is reunified? Cardinal Tong seems to hope so, but that may be wishful thinking. It is much more likely that Xi Jinping expects today’s underground Catholics to come out into the light and happily—or at least with minimal coercion—join the Patriotic Association. Xi himself is enormously concerned with social and political stability, and though he has problems far more difficult than dealing with religious dissent, some suggest that an agreement with Rome will actually make it easier for Beijing to bring disruptive Catholics under its control.

Another issue closely related to the Vatican’s dealings with the Chinese government has more to do with national prestige than with religion itself. This is the question of Taiwan, which China regards as a “renegade province” that must inevitably be reunited with the motherland, regardless of what the island’s inhabitants think. (A 2017 poll claimed that 54 percent of them thought of themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than Chinese.) The Vatican is one of the dwindling number of states that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan under its formal name of Republic of China, or ROC—a name that goes back to 1911–1912, when the last imperial dynasty fell and China became a republic. Taiwan was then a Japanese colony and only reverted to Chinese control after the victory over Japan in 1945. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has insisted that formal recognition of Beijing means cutting diplomatic ties to the ROC.

The number of Catholics in Taiwan is small—no more than three hundred thousand. Most of them were either among the roughly two million who fled the mainland after the Nationalist defeat of 1949 or are the children and grandchildren of those who did. There is today an archdiocese of Taipei and six other dioceses on the island, but the number of Taiwanese Catholics has lagged well behind the island’s population growth (from some 6 million in 1945 to roughly 23.5 million today). The Holy See has no wish to be seen as abandoning Taiwan’s Catholics, and the Vatican’s formal diplomatic recognition is important to Taiwan, for reasons of prestige if nothing else. Beijing, of course, demands a break in these diplomatic ties. In early May 2018, a delegation of bishops from Taiwan made an ad limina visit to Rome, impressing on Francis the need for his support. To their voices has been added that of Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan’s vice-president, himself a Catholic but also a leading member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which wants Taiwan to be a genuinely independent country. There has even been talk of the pope visiting Taiwan, though as yet no official invitation. Such a visit would be the end of any meaningful Vatican-Beijing negotiations. It is possible that an agreement might tacitly allow some form of continued Vatican presence on Taiwan, but that is a matter for the diplomats to settle.


Even if the church is one day able to teach and preach freely, can it find a way to make Catholicism attractive to a China that is increasingly urban, prosperous, and modern?

The major issue remains that of inculturation, or a “sinification” (zhongguohua) of the churches, a matter on which Xi Jinping has insisted in the past few years. No one would maintain the impossibility of being a loyal and patriotic Chinese citizen and a Christian at the same time. Yet even in societies that are not dictatorships, there can be troublesome differences between heads of state and ordinary citizens over what it means to be “loyal” and “patriotic” (think, for instance, of Protestant America’s grudging acceptance in the last century of Catholics and Jews).

For Catholics at least, “sinification” has a long and complex history stretching back to the Jesuit Matteo Ricci and his colleagues on their arrival in China in the late sixteenth century. A central question then was how to deal with Chinese religious rites, and more particularly what Westerners came to call the practice of “ancestor worship.” Did that mean that one’s ancestors were in fact spirits, or even gods, whom one might worship and to whom one might turn for practical help? Or was “ancestor worship” really nothing more than a Confucian form of filial piety, a matter of honoring the founders of a particular family? The answer seemed to depend on which person one asked. Some historians have suggested that the Jesuits, who were settled in Beijing by 1601, got much of their information from highly educated Confucian literati, who emphasized filial piety. Other missionaries who came later—particularly Dominicans and Franciscans—worked among the less educated, from whom they picked up a very different idea of what “ancestor worship” meant: not simply honoring one’s forebears but getting them to help you buy the land you wanted or marry off your daughters.

The question went to Rome: Were such rites compatible with Christianity or were they not? Clement XI’s Ex illa die of 1715 decided against the Jesuits, finding the rites incompatible, and in 1742 Benedict XIV’s Ex quo singulari upheld the prohibition. In 1689 the great Kangxi emperor had issued an edict tolerating Christianity, but Clement’s decision changed his mind: in 1721 he outlawed the missions, though allowing useful Jesuit scientists and experts to remain in the capital. It would be two centuries before another pope, Pius XII, reversed his predecessors’ prohibition in a new decree, Plane compertum (1939), which opened the way once more to Confucian rituals honoring ancestors.

The great Belgian Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans, who wrote under the name Simon Leys, observed some thirty years ago that while Matteo Ricci had understood that the church in China must become a Chinese church, most other Christian missionaries did not. Unfortunately, Leys never spelled out what this would mean in modern terms. How do you disentangle a faith which, despite its Middle Eastern origins, has become, in its practices and institutions, so firmly Western and, even more narrowly, European? Today, with the vision of a Marxist-Maoist utopia having vanished, Xi must depend more and more on old-fashioned nationalism as an ideological underpinning and has essentially written his own views on this into the new Party constitution. Like Ricci, he demands that the church become sinified. But sinification in Ricci’s Confucian Ming dynasty would have been very different from the sinification demanded by today’s China under Xi Jinping.

What exactly is the China to which the church (or any other institution) must become adapted? As foreign companies in China must often share their advanced technology, so Christian groups, both the Protestant TSMP and Catholic Patriotic Association, are expected to contribute to building the Party’s version of a “socialist” China—to help Make China Great Again. “The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture,” Wang Zuoan, Director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, recently told a Protestant gathering in Shanghai. What form would the church take, or be forced to take, in such a country? A lot more is at stake than merely translating a Western liturgy into Chinese.

In the May 2018 issue of Civiltà Cattolica, Benoit Vermander (Wei Mingde), a French Jesuit at Fudan University in Shanghai, sounds a hopeful if guarded note. On the question of sinification, he points to two sorts of dangers. The first is obvious: the Party’s demand that it lead in all aspects of social and cultural life. Here Christians must remain wary and above all true to their convictions. The other danger, however, is that of rejecting outright any such appeal for adaptation simply because it comes from the government or Party organs: “The right attitude for Christians is to hear the call and to examine what changes it may lead them to imagine and implement, while remaining keenly aware of the dangers this might create.”

This assessment echoes a recent remark from the pope himself: “Dialogue is a risk, but I prefer risk rather than the certain defeat that comes with not holding dialogue.” In February 2017 he told the staff of Civiltà Cattolica, “A Catholic should not be afraid of the open sea, he should not seek refuge in secure ports…. The Lord calls us to engage in mission…. When we set out into the deep, we encounter storms and there can be a contrary wind. Yet the holy voyage is always made in the company of Jesus who said to his disciples: ‘Courage, it is I, do not be afraid!’”

Is he, like Vermander, being too optimistic? It is tempting to see such ideas, coming today from the first Jesuit pope and printed in the leading Jesuit journal, as an implicit warning against any repetition of those condemnations two hundred years ago, which many historians believe did lasting damage to the Catholic faith in China. Might Francis and his supporters on this issue be playing a long game—very long and also very risky? 

For there are certainly risks. Since taking effect in February, the new religious-affairs regulations have caused trouble for churches both Catholic and Protestant. In Henan province, for instance, those younger than eighteen appear to be barred from attending church. There are also stories of the destruction of religious pictures and symbols, now replaced by portraits of Xi Jinping himself (shades of Chairman Mao). The new regulations may not explicitly require such persecution, but they do at least seem to have emboldened local authorities to crack down on Christians in whatever way they see fit.

On August 6, a brief report from the BBC indicated that an arrangement between the Vatican and the Chinese government was indeed imminent. According to this latest report, Beijing would recognize a papal veto of its own episcopal nominees, while in return Catholic bishops still loyal to the underground church would step down. As of this writing, however, there seems to be no further information.

Whatever comes of these negotiations, the future of Catholicism in China remains uncertain. Even if the church is one day able to teach and preach freely, can it find a way to make Catholicism attractive to a China that is increasingly urban, prosperous, and modern? As many have pointed out, Maoism largely managed to destroy the country’s old value systems, chief of them the Confucian ethic. Though the post-Mao leadership has tried to bring back its own version of Confucianism, a 2017 poll showed that 47 percent of Chinese identified “moral decline” as their chief concern. As Ian Johnson reports, many Chinese now believe that religion—though not necessarily traditional religion—provides a better basis for morality and spiritual fulfillment than the prescriptions handed down by the Party. In particular, Protestantism, with or without Chinese characteristics, has helped many people to fill the moral void. Can Catholicism, with its traditional rituals, its exclusivity, its hierarchical structures and systems of authority, speak to the Chinese people? The Vatican would like to find out.

Nicholas Clifford, a professor emeritus of Middlebury College, is a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: View Contents
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