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Papal Realpolitik: Sino-Vatican Relations and the Ascension of Chinese Christianity

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

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Credit: Alfredo Borba Wikimedia Commons

The Holy See and China maintain a complex relationship often dominated by diplomatic contention; divergence in diplomacy is often constrained by the lack of formal relations between the two states. The Vatican - this article will use Vatican and Holy See interchangeably - remains one of thirteen states that reject diplomatic relations with Beijing, instead recognising Taiwan (ROC) as sovereign. However, despite historic hostilities, recent years have seen a shift in dynamics as Beijing attempts to court the growing Chinese Catholic population and the Vatican seeks to capitalise on its increasing influence beyond the traditional Catholic world.

After decades of state-enforced attacks aimed at crippling the fledgling Chinese Catholic community, followed by a policy of “sinicisation” aimed at expelling Vatican political and cultural influences from the community, Beijing and the Vatican reached a historic agreement in 2018. Under a written agreement, Chinese Catholics would be required to register under the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) - an entity separate from Vatican authority and instead under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - and in return the Vatican would have the final say in the selection of Church officials enabling full communion. This secretive deal - ratified in 2018 - was to last four years with future renewals expected. Thus in 2022, both parties agreed to renew in the face of prominent backlash from within the Vatican and the worldwide Catholic community. However, despite the explicit agreements of the deal forbidding CPCA appointments without Vatican involvement, Beijing broke this. In April, Shen Bin was directly appointed as Bishop of Shanghai without Papal approval.

Such a brazen move has been perceived by many as a stab in the back, discarding the good faith shown by the Vatican and collapsing any positive developments in diplomatic rapprochement. For Hong Kong’s Catholic community, this breach of trust was to be expected. Cardinal Joseph Zen has long opposed attempts at collaboration due to Beijing’s historic oppression of Catholics, accusing the original 2018 deal of “betraying Jesus Christ” and pessimistically predicting Beijing to breach it. And yet, the most shocking action to occur was Pope Francis’s public recognition of Bishop Shen Bin. As other prominent Church officials have accused Beijing of violating the “spirit of collaboration”, Francis seems to be standing down, bending the knee and conceding the authority vested in him by the Catholic world.

The political situation however is not so black and white; to fully understand the Vatican’s approach to China one must analyse both the history of Catholicism and Christianity in the East and its potential future.

History of Conflict

Christianity has had a notable presence in China for over 1300 years, morphing into different practices and branches with varying degrees of success throughout Chinese society. The first recorded case of Christians visiting China was in 645 when Nestorian missionaries arrived in Xi’an via the Silk Road. The Nestorians were a unique branch of Christianity branded by most as heretics due to their denial of Christ being both man and divine. Thus, the Far East served as a perfect location to start anew, its large populations, unaware of Christian doctrine, would provide opportunity for expansion. In this similar vein, the first Catholics to establish themselves in Chinese society came during the 16th century with Jesuit missionaries. Jesuits integrated themselves into Ming aristocracy through their sharing of Western knowledge, science and art, finding positive reception amongst all social classes eager to explore a newly emerging spirituality.

The “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” led an uprising across central China that would result in the deaths of an estimated 30 million | Source: Wikimedia Commons

The following centuries would see Catholicism and Christianity maintain a small but influential role in Imperial China. This Western influence would face serious pushback following humiliating defeats to the Qing Empire during the Opium Wars. Imposed Western economic dominance over China enraged nationalists who branded all cultural practices not historically Chinese as “foreign”. Catholic missionaries would find themselves beaten and killed by both government actors and nationalistic mobs. Meanwhile, Christianity was continuing to draw in those curious to non-Chinese spirituality and wisdom. Hong Xiupuan, a lowly peasant from Guangdong, found Christianity to provide alternatives to the deeply unequal system of feudal Imperial China. Declaring himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, Hong rallied millions of peasants to his crusade against the Qing dynasty, proclaiming himself Emperor of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace”. Finding support among non-Christian poverty-stricken disenfranchised groups, his empire fought the brutal Taiping Rebellion resulting in the deaths of 30 million thus making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history.

Although the rebellion failed, its influence was unshakable. When a coalition of mostly Western powers invaded China in response to the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese nationalists once again saw Christianity as a source of destructive influence. They had witnessed both the disastrous impacts of domestic Christian influence during the Taiping Rebellion - although Hong Xiupuan’s twisted version of the faith was certainly not based upon traditional Christian teachings - and faced numerous invasions from Christian powers. Christian missionaries were despised for their actions in local affairs, asserting Christian moral teachings over traditional justice systems and the operation of institutions active in “Westernising” traditional practices. And so, in defiance, the Boxer Rebellion marched under the slogan “Protect our country, drive out foreigners, and kill Christians”, brutally massacring both Catholic and Protestant missionaries.

Christianity’s connection to mass violence and its ability to rapidly galvanise the people of China were seen by Mao Zedong as serious threats, further inspiring his Marxist atheistic views. When the People's Republic of China was declared in 1949, wide-scale religious repression swiftly followed. Chinese Protestants although severely oppressed, were able to practice openly in a limited degree so long as they expressed total loyalty to the state, allowing them to organise through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Catholics however were treated significantly worse, their devotion to the Vatican and the Pope - a core tenant of the faith - was perceived by communists as an open act of treason. Catholic priests were tortured and followers were massacred in the thousands, resulting in the Vatican ceasing all relations with the People’s Republic of China and instead aligning with Taiwan (ROC).

Despite anti-religious zeal, the ruling CCP could not completely root out Catholicism, and thus Beijing established the CPCA in 1957 to organise Catholics under the leadership of loyal Bishops - the use of “patriotic” in its name equating loyalty to the state to being a “true” Catholic. The CPCA was not recognised by the Vatican, and so in turn rejected the authority of the Pope, instead claiming that the Western-centric Papacy had been “corrupted by imperialism”. The gravity of this denunciation is not simply politics, the recognition of the Pope’s authority is the central dogma of the Catholic Church. Each Pope is believed to be the direct successor of St Peter who received the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” from Jesus, thus, to question this authority is to question the very fundamentals of what it means to be both a Catholic and a Christian. Whilst other Catholic churches may reject the liturgical practices espoused by the Vatican (Eastern Catholic Churches for example) and other Catholic entities may question the Vatican/Pope’s contemporary policies (Traditionalist Catholics for example), these entities still recognise the authority vested in the Holy See.

Catholics worshipping within an “underground” church | Source: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

One-China, One Church

It is therefore understandable why many Catholics across the world and in China would criticise Pope Francis’s attempts to mend relations with Beijing. After all whilst practising Catholicism may not result in the same brutality as in the past it is still illegal to freely worship outside of the CPCA – an entity that for the millions of underground worshippers is out of the question. And with such a tumultuous history between Beijing and Rome, it begs the question, why was the 2018 deal agreed on to begin with?

China has increasingly sought to foster improved relations to sway the Vatican away from Taiwan, consistent with Beijing’s “One China” aimed at diplomatically isolating Taiwan’s claims to Chinese sovereignty. Since establishing official diplomatic relations in 1942, the Holy See has recognised Taiwan as the representative of Chinese sovereignty. Historically the two entities have maintained a close connection with Taiwan, providing shelter to Catholic dissidents fleeing the mainland whilst the Vatican has resisted the global trend of relation switching. As the representative of a global Catholic population of 1.36 billion, the Vatican holds a tremendous global soft-power influence, thus for Beijing, a Vatican renunciation of Taiwanese sovereignty must occur sometime in the future. In similar vein to “dollar diplomacy” - the act of providing greater economic incentives towards small states in return for recognition of PRC sovereignty - Beijing has attempted to provide incentives towards the Vatican in the former of greater political and social freedoms to Chinese Catholics. All in the hope of alienating Taiwan to further cement global support/indifference towards an absorption of the island.

However, despite this new approach, Beijing has also pushed through repressive reforms against religious minorities. Since taking office in 2012, Xi Jinping has introduced a range of socially repressive “sinicisation” policies aimed at reducing “foreign” influences over Chinese culture - not unlike the actions taken by nationalists during the Boxer Rebellion. China is a historically diverse nation, thus following the communist victory post-civil war the CCP established an ethnic policy directly modelled after the Soviet Union’s. Citizens were divided into 55 distinct minority groups, with the promise of local autonomy. Yet with the rising influence of Uyghur separatism and Islamic politics in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Beijing has taken the opposite approach.

Ruling a nation that speaks one language and practices one dominant culture is far easier than ruling a nation divided by difference, thus to quell dissidence in Xinjiang there has been a campaign of enforced assimilation into the majoritarian secular/atheistic Han culture. Local leaders, Islamic architecture and traditional cultural practices have been banned or destroyed; religious autonomy is once again being targeted. These attacks against Islam have been replicated against Christians; 2018 - the same year as the historical Vatican deal - saw one of China’s largest Evangelical churches, the Great Lampshade Church, demolished with dynamite due to its refusal to join a state-sanctioned church, a striking blow to Western-inspired Evangelical influence. Han cultural dominance serves to affirm CCP societal control, and this is best done through the appointment of CCP loyalists in areas of societal importance. Thus, whilst Beijing wishes to improve relations with the Vatican, it equally desires to maintain an iron grip over all forms of society, resulting in a strange “one step forward, one step backward” strategy.

Demographics is Destiny

This brings us back to the 2018 deal and Pope Francis’s acceptance of Beijing directly breaking the deal and maintaining control over the practice of Catholicism through the CPCA. Whilst his detractors claim he lacks the backbone to stand up to China, Pope Francis’s perceived concessions are more in line with “realpolitik” - politics based on pragmatism over ideology. Whilst millions of Chinese Catholics remain under deeply authoritarian state surveillance and are represented by a Church that denies the faith’s core beliefs, the Vatican is willing to accept this in the pursuit of a realpolitik strategy that comes down to one word, demographics.

Growth of Chinese Christians compared to CCP Members | Source: Council on Foreign Relations

French philosopher, Auguste Comite, once proclaimed that “demography is destiny”, this statement rings true for the rising boom in Chinese Christians. Following the disastrous consequences of the Cultural Revolution (the purging of traditional elements from Chinese society through mass violence and destruction) and the Great Leap Forward (a nationwide campaign to forcefully industrialise society), Mao’s legacy was left in ruins. In his place came Deng Xiaoping, a reformer who wished to reverse Maoist destruction by permitting gradual but stable reforms to both the economy and social life. This period of reform from the late 70s-90s saw renewed public interest in religion. Over the past four decades, Christianity has grown faster in China than anywhere else in the world at an average rate of 10% annually. Despite initial theorisation that its sudden growth was simply a pendulum swing away from enforced atheism, citizens now had the freedom to explore spirituality producing short-term excitement that would eventually subside. This, however, has not been the case as the newfound moral systems, structure and community provided by Christianity appear to be filling a void possessed by tens of millions. In 1989 it was estimated that there existed around one million Christians in the country, now estimates are as high as a hundred million, making Christians 5% of the population.

A 2014 poll predicted that China could have as many as 160 million by 2025, and 247 million by 2030 putting China on track to house the largest Christian population in the world. Such demographics simply cannot be avoided, for the Vatican to maintain its relevance on the world stage and secure its position over Eastern Christendom it must establish a more positive presence in the country. This demand for new relations is further exacerbated when comparing the Protestant-to-Catholic ratio. Represented by the aforementioned “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” and the “China Christian Council”, Protestants make up the predominant population at a rate of roughly six to ten Protestants for every Catholic. The decentralised nature of Protestantism lacks a hierarchal power structure that could rival Beijing, it also divides power and influence amongst multiple diverging churches, and so historically Protestantism has been received far more favourably by CCP authorities. To sway would-be Protestants over to Catholicism a closer collaboration with the Chinese government is necessary - a Vatican-recognised CCP-directed Church will garner more interest from the public than no Catholic Church at all.

Christianity’s mass appeal in China is seemingly unstoppable, however, since the Vatican has failed to fully reap the rewards, the need to reclaim Papal influence is the driving factor behind Sino-Vatican relations. Recognising CPCA Churches and Bishops is not entirely an act of concession, but rather an act of survival. This recognition will for the first time in history allow millions of underground worshippers to practice in CCP-approved Churches, both diluting the amount of Beijing loyalist worshippers who hold total influence over Catholic politics in China and also beginning the process of normalising Vatican presence in the country. Protestantism has thrived due to its initial unthreatening nature, likewise by allowing Chinese authorities to maintain the public perception of control, Vatican influence can slowly trickle in. Whilst denouncing China as an enemy of human rights and denying Beijing any ounce of power over Papal sovereignty may provide institutional dignity and moral justification, it does little to genuinely advance the Vatican’s goals. Whilst previous Popes may have the moral high ground, there is a logical rationale for Pope Francis’s tactics.

Global shift in regional distribution of Catholic populations from 1910-2010 | Source: Pew Research Center

Global Paradigm Shift

This strategy is consistent with Pope Francis’s approach to the great Global South. Despite its historical institutional influence over Europe, Catholicism and Christianity in general have seen a decades-long slump as secularism, atheism and diversity in religion continue to grow. The last century saw Europe’s populace account for two-thirds of the Catholic world, by 2050 it could fall to a sixth of the population, Europe lags behind as the only region in the world where Catholicism is decreasing. In its place, Latin America has taken over as the emerging regional leader - Pope Francis, hailing from Argentina, was the first non-European Pope since the 8th century. It is perhaps this personal factor that has seen Pope Francis pay particular focus to both Latin America, controversially fostering relations with the Castro regime, and Africa where the Catholic population has skyrocketed to over 260 million. Whilst touring the Congo this year, Pope Francis decried “economic colonialism” whilst celebrating the rapid rise of African Catholicism, directly politicising his visit as a defence of emerging economic powers. This change in global demographics is evidently beginning to shape the power structure of the Vatican, of the 132 cardinals, 40% are European, down from 52% in 2013, potentially influencing Vatican policy away from Western-centric ambitions.

For the estimated 13 million Catholics living in China, the Vatican holds a degree of responsibility over their lives, Papal foreign policy can directly determine whether Beijing enforces repression or concession. Whilst Xi Jinping’s sinicisation policies continue to detain underground worshippers, dismantle Churches and tarnish attempts at positive moves towards religious freedom, Christianity’s dark history in China has proved its ability to survive. Continuing to collaborate with Beijing despite this open oppression will not prove popular amongst Western Catholics, traditional Vatican partners and much of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan's Catholic communities, but Pope Francis is likely to continue forward unbound by dissuasion. As the global demographics of Christianity continue to shift, the Vatican must find its footing within a new world, one that sees the power of faith placed upon rapidly growing Global South communities. Pope Francis’s pragmatic strategy is rooted in the reality that as China’s Christian population continues to surge, open engagement with Beijing is a crucial part of its global efforts to remain a relevant and influential power structure.

The Catholic Church has a deep history of exploring new regions in the face of opposition, continuing to strive forward despite violence, martyrdom and sacrifice; with the possibility of possessing the largest Christian population, China may be the Church’s final “missionary frontier”.


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