Security and Foreign Policy

From Rome to Beijing, the Holy See and China’s Path to Reconciliation

Earlier this year, the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See reached the first agreement after 70 years of distressing relations. Mario Ghioldi explains what pushed Beijing and Rome to sign this compromise.       


The distance between Rome and Beijing is approximately 5,000 miles. Marco Polo, one of the most famous merchants of the Middle Ages, after leaving Italy in 1271 reached the Forbidden City in Beijing after a four-year trip. In a different strain, the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China last September finally covered the same gap after a diplomatic impasse of 70 years.

In fact, on September 22nd China and the Holy See signed an important agreement on designating Catholic bishops in the country. The mutual consent involves millions of Chinese Catholics and has sparked worldwide interest, due to the previous relations between these two actors and their influence within the International Community. Basically, this deal should stop/end years of awkward rapports, especially after the Communist takeover of China in 1949.

Although both parties stressed how the agreement has to be considered as only a religious entente, its consequences could involve the politics of their respective governments. Thus, it seems important to understand why these countries, despite their ideological distance, decided to sign this compromise.

China officially broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951, as a result of an incident involving the local apostolic prefect, who was sentenced to life in prison by local authorities. Since this episode, these countries have had no relations until the agreement last September. In those decades, Beijing set two conditions to establish the relations. First, the Pope would have to break off diplomatic ties with Taipei, considering the One-China policy adopted by the Republic of China. Second and more significantly, the Holy See would not interfere in religious issues in the Chinese territory, which especially concerned the appointing of Catholic bishops.

Basically, the Beijing position was that the clergy could be appointed by China itself; on the other side Rome stated bishops could be only nominated by the Pope.

Over the years, bishops in China were named by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), a body linked to the government. These nominations were in  some periods, in accordance with the Vatican, in others in opposition to the Holy See. In the last few decades, Chinese Catholicism has developed through two separate strands: the official church  managed by the CPCA and the underground church, composed of fragmented communities without a link with the Vatican.

The provisional agreement establishes that the Holy See has the only authority to appoint the bishops chosen from a pool of candidates indicated by the CPCA, and those clergy will be under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. As a result of this compromise, the Vatican recognized eight bishops nominated by the CPCA in the previous years. Now, for the first time the People’s Republic of China recognizes the role of the Pope as the spiritual leader of the Church.

Although the agreement was defined as revolutionary, it is not surprising, considering how the Vatican and Beijing were both faced with various internal and external problems concerning spiritual and political issues.

The Chinese development is creating a new large middle class, which is changing the shape and the needs of Chinese society. Among the various issues raised by these changes, one of the most challenging for the Chinese social balance concerns the resurgence of religious faith amongst the population.

Even though, there are approximately 31 million Christians in China(2.3% of the total population), for the Chinese authorities an agreement with the Church is fundamental, considering the problematic relations between Beijing and other religions. For instance, an eventual opening of the government to the Buddhist institutions would be extremely complicated due to the dispute with the Tibetan communities; as well the Uighur situation makes an eventual entente with Islamic institutions risky.

Simultaneously, the Holy See is in dire straits for several reasons. Beyond the trend of secularization and criticism for sex scandals, the Vatican appears divided over the spiritual approach of Pope Francis, criticised by the traditional wing of Catholics. The rise of evangelical movements in countries outside Europe and the consequent loss of consensus on the Catholic church is a symptom of those troubles. In Brazil, which for decades held the title of the “world’s largest Catholic country, the Evangelical population has exploded from just 4% 40 years ago to nearly one-quarter of the population.

Faced with these challenges, the Pope has adopted a new strategy, oriented to strengthening the influence of the church in new areas, where the previous presence of the Holy See was fairly small. This change is apparent in the Bergoglio appointment of the new Cardinals. For instance, in 2016, among the 16 designations, 12 clergy came from outside Europe mostly from Asia and Africa. Furthermore, this year’s nomination of Cardinals hailing from Iraq, Madagascar and Pakistan shows the Church’s intent to balance its influence by diversifying its presence.

Despite their political disagreements, China and the Holy See had the mutual interest to reach an agreement that allows various benefits to both. Although doubts still remain, especially concerning the status of the underground Catholics, who have never recognized the CPCA bishops, the optimism in Beijing and the Vatican remains high, with hopes that neither will have to wait another 70 years to improve their relations.

Mario Ghioldi has an International Relations background through his studies at the University of Siena. In the last year, he worked with the Italian government’s Mission to the United Nations (3rd Committee) and in Nicaragua. He also joined the Salvadoran diplomatic team at the Rome agencies twice.  

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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