China–Holy See relations

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People's Republic of China-Vatican relations
Map indicating locations of China and Vatican City


Vatican City

There have been no official China – Holy See relations since 1951.


The Beijing government broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951 after a complicated incident. Throughout 1950 and 1951, China had been putting pressure on the Vatican by threatening a breakaway of "independent Catholics", but many priests opposed the movement, and Zhou Enlai sought a middle ground.[1] A deadly controversy was then manufactured: a priest working at the Holy See internunciature (legation) had thrown out an old 1930s-era mortar in a trash pile out of his home. A businessman named Antonio Riva discovered the mortar and took a non-functioning piece of it back to his house to display as an antique. When Communist officials saw Riva's curio in his home, they arrested him for conspiracy to assassinate Mao Zedong, which Riva denied. Riva was executed and the Holy See's diplomatic mission was banished from the country for "espionage".[2] Tarcisio Martina, the regional apostolic prefect, was sentenced to life in prison[3] and died in 1961, while four other "conspirators" were given shorter sentences.[4]

The Beijing government has set two conditions for reestablishing the relations: that the Holy See "not interfere in religious matters in China" and that, in line with Beijing's One-China policy, it break the ties with the Taipei government that it established after the expulsion of Archbishop Riberi, ties that, since the United Nations' recognition of the Beijing government as the government of China, it now maintains only at the level of chargé d'affaires.[5] The Holy See has indicated that it would have no difficulty about the second condition, but requires discussion about the concrete meaning of the first.[6] The main point of contention concerns the appointing of Catholic bishops in mainland China, who are now named by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), at some periods in agreement with the Holy See, at other times in direct opposition to its declared wishes. The PRC government's position is that bishops should be appointed by itself; the Holy See's position is that bishops can only be appointed by the Pope,[7] while envisaging in some cases a form of consultation with the civil authorities.[8]

The Holy See made efforts in 2007 to create formal ties with the PRC.[9] High-ranking bishops in the Roman Catholic Church implied that such a diplomatic move was possible,[10] predicated on the PRC granting more freedom of religion[11] and interfering less in the hierarchy of the church in mainland China.[12]

In September 2007, the appointment of Father Joseph Li Shan by the PRC authorities was said to be "tacitly approved" by the Vatican.[13] In May 2008, the China Philharmonic Orchestra from mainland China performed a concert for the Pope inside the Vatican, prompting analysts to speak of a "growing rapprochement" between the two countries.[14] In April 8, 2011 the Financial Times reported that Baron Von Pfetten organised the first major breakthrough discussion at leadership level during a three days closed door seminar in his French château where a senior Chinese visiting delegation met with Monseigneur Balestrero the then Holy Sea Undersecretary for Relations with States.[15] Since Pope Francis' inauguration in March 2013 he has publicly expressed his wish to visit China and improve the Sino-Holy See relationship in a media interview.[16] It was also reported that on a Papal visit to South Korea in August 2014 China opened up its airspace to the Pope's plane, and while crossing the Chinese airspace the Pope sent a telegram expressing his "best wishes" to the Chinese people.[17]

However, in some areas the relationship between the Catholic Church and the PRC remains tense, with vocal and influential critics inside the church such as Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop emeritus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.[citation needed]

In the late 1990s, officials of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Beijing raised the possibility that it might one day be used as the Holy See's embassy as a reason against demolishing an abandoned architecturally distinctive mansion belonging to the archdiocese (the reputedly haunted house at Chaonei No. 81).[18]

In January 2018, the Church was close to negotiating a deal with China that allows China to have more control over the underground churches and allows the Vatican to have more control over the appointment of bishops. While this did not amount to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties, this was seen as a huge step towards formal recognition.[19] However, Cardinal Zen regarded the warming of diplomatic relationships as selling out the Catholic Church in China, as the process involves the resignation of several bishops of the underground church.[20] A vigil was held by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese in response from 12 February to 13 February in St Bonaventure Church.[21]

On September 22, 2018, China and the Vatican signed an historic agreement concerning Bishop appointments in China.[22] China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the agreement also works to maintain communications and work to improve relations between both sides.[22] However, it does not establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China. The Vatican currently has diplomatic ties to Taiwan,[22] which China does not recognize. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, speaking in Lithuania, described the agreement as "not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities."[23][22] While the agreement states that China will recommend the Bishops before they are appointed by the Pope,[23] it also stipulates that the Pope has authority to veto any Bishop which China recommends.[24] Seven Bishops who had been appointed by Beijing were then approved by Pope Francis.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Religion: Catholics in China". Time. 2 July 1951. Archived from the original on 8 August 2014. 
  2. ^ "Religion: Prayer for China". Time. 17 September 1951. Archived from the original on 9 August 2014. 
  3. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2013). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 117. ISBN 978-1620403471. 
  4. ^ Bertuccioli, Giuliano (1999). "Informatori, avventurieri, spioni, agenti più o meno autentici in duemila anni di storia delle relazioni italo-cinesi" (in Italian). Mondo Cinese 101. Archived from the original on 20 July 2014.  English translation at Google Translate
  5. ^ "China: the Vatican denounces the arrest of bishop, priest and layperson". AsiaNews. 4 February 2005. Archived from the original on 6 October 2012. 
  6. ^ "Taiwan "Religious Freedom The Key To Beijing-Holy See Ties"". Union of Catholic Asian News. 22 July 2004. Archived from the original on 29 May 2009. 
  7. ^ Reynolds, James (9 May 2008). "China-Vatican relations". BBC News. Archived from the original on 4 October 2014. 
  8. ^ (in Italian) The 1966 Agreement with Argentina provides an example of how national governments are, by exception, sometimes consulted prior to the appointment of bishops. "Agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Argentina". 10 October 1966. Archived from the original on 2 April 2014.  English translation at Google Translate
  9. ^ "Pope offers olive branch to China". BBC News. 20 January 2007. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007. 
  10. ^ "HK bishop hints at Vatican switch". BBC News. 5 April 2005. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007. 
  11. ^ "China welcomes Vatican initiative". BBC News. 22 January 2007. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007. 
  12. ^ "China ordains new Catholic bishop". BBC News. 30 November 2006. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2007. 
  13. ^ "China installs Pope-backed bishop". BBC News. 21 September 2007. Archived from the original on 15 August 2014. 
  14. ^ Willey, David (7 May 2008). "Chinese orchestra plays for Pope". BBC News. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. 
  15. ^ "Subscribe to read". Financial Times. 
  16. ^ "Pope Francis wants to visit mainland China". ANSA. 28 September 2015. 
  17. ^ "Pope Francis Sends Message to China in Telegram From Papal Plane". The Wall Street Journal. 14 August 2014. 
  18. ^ Qin, Amy (September 25, 2013). "Dilapidated Mansion Has Had Many Occupants, Maybe Even a Ghost". The New York Times. Retrieved October 12, 2014. 
  19. ^ "China, the Vatican and a controversial deal". BBC News. 2018-02-04. Retrieved 2018-02-08. 
  20. ^ "Vatican rebukes ex-cardinal after remarks on 'selling out' of Chinese Catholics". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 2018-02-08. 
  21. ^ "活動資訊 :: 香港天主教正義和平委員會". (in Chinese). Retrieved 2018-02-08. 
  22. ^ a b c d Vilnius, Reuters in (22 September 2018). "Vatican and China sign agreement on bishop appointments". the Guardian. 
  23. ^ a b "Vatican announces deal with China on bishop appointments". 
  24. ^ Rocca, Francis X.; Dou, Eva (22 September 2018). "Vatican and China Sign Deal Over Bishops, Allowing Pope a Veto" – via 
  25. ^ (, Deutsche Welle. "Pope Francis recognizes seven bishops in China - DW - 22.09.2018". DW.COM. 

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