Addressing false narratives about the Vatican/China deal

By Mike Lewis, 5 November 2022
Catholic faithful praying at the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan in Shanghai, China. Image: Vatican News.


After months of speculation, last week brought news of the renewal of the Vatican agreement with China on the selection of Catholic bishops. Along with this news, predictably, came biased and ill-informed negative coverage from various Catholic media outlets. Whether driven by antipathy towards Pope Francis, simple laziness, or other reasons, such coverage is irresponsible and undermines decades of difficult and careful Vatican dialogue with the Chinese government and Chinese Catholics over the last 40 years.

There are certainly valid criticisms of the Vatican deal that can be made, but typically the “analysis” or commentary offered by reactionary and traditionalist Catholic media on the topic ignores history and omits many key facts about the situation. A piece published this week entitled “Is the Vatican’s China ‘progress’ going backwards?” by the Pillar’s Ed Condon is a particularly egregious example of the distorted way the circumstances and purpose of the agreement are presented.

Condon’s article, which is not categorized as an op-ed, presents an extremely selective overview of the agreement. Although its tone is not as angry and inflammatory as other articles about the Vatican/China deal, it lends credibility to the reactionary narrative in its incomplete and distorted description of the situation. Although Condon certainly tried to provide a veneer of impartiality, his bias comes through in both the factual errors he makes and the details he selectively omits.

Was bringing CPCA leaders into communion an “aim” of the agreement?

Condon’s assertion early in the piece that the 2018 agreement “aims to bring the leaders of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — the state-sponsored Catholic apparatus in China — into communion with Rome” is inaccurate.

This statement is misleading on two fronts. First, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) is an entity of the Chinese government, is not recognized by Rome, and it is very unlikely that the aims of Church leadership would involve it specifically. Not to mention, much of the “leadership” of the CPCA was already in full communion with Rome by 2018, including its current president. In fact, at the time the agreement was made, all but seven of the CPCA-affiliated bishops were in full communion with the pope.

Second, the aim of the Holy See was much more straightforward. As Pope Francis put it in his message to Chinese Catholics, the agreement was made because “it was essential, before all else, to deal with the issue of the appointment of bishops.” The appointment and recognition of bishops is the entire scope of the agreement. The Vatican lacks the ability to put a stop to attacks on religious liberty in China or to prevent the Chinese government from attempting to coerce Catholics or interfere in Church affairs.

Francis believes the agreement was a small, imperfect, but necessary step towards improving the situation for Catholics in China. But it was also significant, because, as he noted, “For the first time, the Agreement sets out stable elements of cooperation between the state authorities and the Apostolic See, in the hope of providing the Catholic community with good shepherds.” He also admits it may not succeed, writing, “Indeed, it will prove ineffective and unproductive, unless it is accompanied by a deep commitment to renewing personal attitudes and ecclesial forms of conduct.”

Has the agreement added to the persecution of Chinese Catholics?

Condon writes that among the “costs to the ‘daily life’ of the local Church” resulting from the agreement are “Regional restrictions ban minors – those under 18 – from attending religious services, making it effectively a crime to baptize infants in many places.” This is a partial truth. Tragically, many localities in China do ban minors from the life of the Church, but this restriction stems from Beijing urging of a more rigorous interpretation of a clause in China’s constitution more than local laws. These unjust laws apply to all religions, not just Catholics. As the US State Department reported in its 2021 International Report on Religious Freedom in China, “National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws precluding minors’ participation in religious activities.” The report goes on to list individual cases where regional enforcement is more severe.

Condon suggests that the deal, which in theory exposed previously unregistered Catholics to additional government scrutiny, may have led to the greater enforcement of China’s unjust anti-religion laws against them. This is a questionable notion, however, because the persecution of Catholics correlates with an overall increase of religious persecution in China. Furthermore, the Chinese government’s harsh treatment of other unapproved religious groups such as the Uyghurs and Falun Gong has been much more severe. Remaining unregistered certainly hasn’t helped independent Protestant communities either, such as the Golden Lampstand megachurch in Shanxi Province that was demolished in 2018 by Chinese police using heavy machinery and dynamite, or the mass arrest of over 100 members of an independent Protestant congregation in Chengdu.

There certainly have been reports of increased arrests of Catholic clergy. I have spoken to several experts on the Church in China about increased pressure put on unregistered clergy and bishops to join the CPCA. But it is just as reasonable to suggest (and arguably more likely) that the root cause of the increase in religious persecution is not the provisional agreement, but rather the growing hostility of the Chinese government towards religion in general.

Schismatic Communist ‘Puppet Church’?

Attempting to describe the situation of the Church in China prior to the provisional agreement, Condon writes: “Before the 2018 agreement, the CPCA regularly named and saw consecrated its own bishops, for the dioceses of its schismatic Communist ‘puppet Church’ — ending that practice was a foremost concern for the Vatican in 2018.”

It is difficult to understate how inaccurately this sentence depicts the position of the Church towards Chinese Catholics in the years and decades preceding the agreement. Although it is true that the CPCA has appointed bishops without Vatican approval who were then consecrated illicitly, it is both inaccurate and an oversimplification of the situation to describe members of the state-recognized Catholic Church as “schismatic,” “Communist,” or a “puppet Church.” I will address these in reverse order.

In a 2009 article in Catholic World Report, Catholic historian Anthony E. Clarke addressed the third claim. Writing in light of significant changes in the relationship between the Church and the Chinese government during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict, he asserted, “The first issue that China’s clergy would like cleared up is that the Patriotic Catholic Association is not a ‘parallel’ or ‘puppet’ Church; it is not a ‘church’ at all, but an administrative association established by the Chinese government to oversee the Catholic community in China.” Furthermore, he said that in his interactions with state-sanctioned “open” clergy at the time, many told him that they desired to be in full, visible communion with the pope and saw “the Patriotic Catholic Association as an unwelcome overseer; its members appear determined to function as authentic Catholics from within the sanctioned community.”

Regarding the claim that the CPCA is “Communist,” it’s certainly true that the group was erected and is overseen by communist authorities. They are likely exposed to communist propaganda on a regular basis. But since membership in the Chinese Communist Party is limited to atheists, the members of the CPCA are ineligible on the basis of their religious beliefs. For Condon to assert this without explanation was irresponsible.

As for “schismatic,” certainly at one time the state-sanctioned Church could have been described in this way, but not since 2007. Following the erection of the CPCA in 1957, Pope Pius XII wrote in his 1958 encyclical Ad Apostolorum Principis that “bishops who have been neither named nor confirmed by the Apostolic See, but who, on the contrary, have been elected and consecrated in defiance of its express orders, enjoy no powers of teaching or of jurisdiction since jurisdiction passes to bishops only through the Roman Pontiff” (39). This reflects the Church’s similar position on the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, which is considered schismatic and whose bishops do not hold any valid ministry in the Church.

During the first three decades of the Communist regime, the Chinese government harshly persecuted the “underground” Church, imprisoning many of them and creating many martyrs. A lasting effect of this period was great resentment between those Catholics who remained loyal to the pope and endured persecution while Catholics who associated with the official state Church were seen as compromised. But during the The Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), all religion was suppressed and even the CPCA was shut down. In 1978, the situation for Catholics in China had become so dire that Pope Paul VI granted faculties to the Chinese Church allowing for the appointment and ordination of “clandestine” bishops in secret to replenish the clergy and provide for the needs of the Catholic faithful.

Then, in the early 1980s, Pope John Paul II began privately granting requests for papal recognition to state-approved bishops in individual cases. This led, essentially, to the creation of three different “types” of bishops: state-approved only, Vatican-approved only, and those approved by both the state and the Vatican. Benedict maintained this situation until 2007. For example, both he and the CPCA approved the appointment of the Rev. Joseph Li Shan as archbishop of Beijing, which was even reported in the New York Times.

That same year, Benedict promulgated his Letter to Chinese Catholics and called for an end to the “clandestine” bishop situation, explaining, “The clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church’s life, and history shows that Pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith and to resist interference from State agencies in matters pertaining intimately to the Church’s life” (8). He also expressed his hope that the unregistered clergy of China would be recognized by the state.

Towards the end of the letter, Benedict removed the special faculties granted in 1978 to the clandestine Church by Paul VI. He wrote, “I hereby revoke all the faculties previously granted in order to address particular pastoral necessities that emerged in truly difficult times” (18).

Why did Benedict do this? He gives his explanation in the same paragraph: “Considering in the first place some positive developments of the situation of the Church in China, and in the second place the increased opportunities and greater ease in communication, and finally the requests sent to Rome by various Bishops and priests.”

In other words, in 2007, Pope Benedict officially declared that the Chinese Church was one. He addressed the letter “to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China,” regardless of their official status. This is clearly evident because throughout the letter he addresses various groups directly, including members and clergy of both the state-sanctioned and unregistered Churches. He clearly asserted that “it is licit to concelebrate with Bishops and with priests who are in communion with the Pope, even if they are recognized by the civil authorities and maintain a relationship with entities desired by the State and extraneous to the structure of the Church” (10; emphasis added). In the next paragraph he says that the laity also “must not hesitate to participate in the Eucharist celebrated by Bishops and by priests who are in full communion with the Successor of Peter and are recognized by the civil authorities.”

Because the requests for Vatican approval by the state-sanctioned bishops and priests had become almost routine by 2007, Benedict had every reason to anticipate that a deal with China would take place in the very near future. And the expected deal would have included a role for the CPCA in the selection of bishops. Benedict showed an openness to a compromise as long as the agreement did not contradict the faith. He wrote, “the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church” (4).

But an agreement didn’t happen. Dialogue with China was derailed after a series of episcopal ordinations were conducted without Vatican approval in 2010 and 2011. Due to the impasse that followed, as well as the fact that the special 1978 faculties were revoked, this meant that by the time of the 2018 agreement, there had not been a single licit bishop ordained for the Chinese Church in more than a decade. The Chinese bishops have continued to age and die, while others have been arrested or disappeared without explanation. By 2018, the situation had become desperate.

The Church’s position on membership in the CPCA

A final area of distortion in Condon’s article is his assertion regarding membership in the CPCA. Speaking about Cardinal Parolin’s interview about the renewal of the agreement:

“While the acceptance of six formerly underground bishops by the Communist authorities is, perhaps, progress of a kind, the secretary of state’s remarks did not account for those Catholic bishops who refuse to join the CPCA, which requires them to swear to the supremacy of Communist Party doctrine and authority over Church teaching and hierarchy.”

The matter of joining the CPCA is perhaps the most difficult and potentially problematic part of the agreement, especially for the unregistered clergy. Although Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of religious belief,” the article concludes with, “Religious groups and religious affairs shall not be subject to control by foreign forces.” This has long been the sticking point in the relationship between China and the Vatican. Because the pope is seen as a “foreign force,” the Chinese government has not tolerated his authority and supremacy over the Church in China.

Condon makes a gross and irresponsible overstatement when he says that becoming a member of the CPCA “requires them to swear to the supremacy of Communist Party doctrine and authority over Church teaching and hierarchy.” Yes, the CPCA is problematic, but the if that was the requirement for membership, why would John Paul or Benedict regularize its member bishops?

The real issue with the membership pledge of the CPCA reflects the aforementioned article in the Chinese constitution, requiring members to sign an agreement with a clause that affirms the “independence” of the Catholic Church in China. But as the Holy See made clear in a set of 2019 guidelines regarding the registration of Chinese clergy, this should not be interpreted or understood “in an absolute sense, namely as separation from the Pope and the Universal Church, but rather relative to the political sphere, as happens everywhere in the world in the relations between the Universal Church and the particular Churches.” This, in fact, is a longstanding question, but this understanding was accepted by Popes John Paul and Benedict, ever since they began legitimizing bishops affiliated with the CPCA in the 1980s.

Furthermore, the document instructs “if a Bishop or a priest decides to register civilly, but the text of the declaration required for the registration does not appear respectful of the Catholic faith, he will specify in writing, upon signing, that he acts without failing in his duty to remain faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine.” It also makes clear that priests who register must assert their intentions and their fidelity to the Catholic faith clearly to their bishops.

Does this mean that the Church now obliges clergy whose consciences will not allow them to join the CPCA? No. The same guidelines state, “the Holy See understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions. The Holy See remains close to them and asks the Lord to help them to safeguard the communion with their brothers and sisters in the faith, even in the face of those trials that each one will have to face.”


The purpose of this article was to address and clarify some of the errors, omissions, and irresponsible language in Ed Condon’s recent article about the Vatican agreement with China. It is meant to provide readers with crucial context that he did not provide, and to address his distorted depiction of the situation. It is not intended as a comprehensive apologia for the agreement (and certainly not for the CPCA), but as a corrective of a one-sided opinion piece presented as an objective “analysis.” The relationship between the Holy See in China is a very sensitive and complicated subject with decades of history behind it. It cannot be reduced to a mere “good guys” vs “bad guys” situation in order to attack the pope.

This topic is too important for that. To write so irresponsibly, undermining a delicate but gravely serious matter of diplomacy, and to put it forward as an objective “analysis” is gravely immoral. This kind of fake news could potentially have a negative effect on the future and religious liberty of real people—the Catholics in China. This is not journalism. It’s an uneducated opinion based on a false narrative.

I’ll write more on the situation of the Catholic Church in China soon. In the meantime, you can read my past writing on the topic by clicking here.

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Mike Lewis, where this article originally appeared.


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