Will China Ever Embrace Pope Francis?


Pope Francis continues to make overtures to China, but so far Beijing shows no signs of being wooed. Conditions have been laid out by Beijing, but even if an agreement were reached and a concordat of sorts were signed to end this battle of wills, the larger problem may have to do with the perception of both sides by Chinese citizens.

China’s sortie into capitalism has created one of the world’s highest rates of income inequality. As a result, many young Chinese are losing faith in the Party. Xi’s “Chinese Dream,” an attempt to rekindle that faith, is a working treatment but not a cure. The elimination of the Four Olds and the failure of the state to deliver a communist utopia have left a generation of Chinese with a sense of jingshen kongxu (spiritual emptiness). This, in turn, is generating a thirst for meaning and a growing number of Chinese are trying to slake this thirst by taking up the cross.

While the Party is aggressive toward religious groups, its aggression is often misunderstood. The incarceration of senescent bishops and priests, for example, is one of the many ruthless measures taken by the government. However, this is not merely the irrational lashing-out of an avowed atheist state. It is, from Beijing’s perspective, a defensive act against foreign imperialism. This may sound like a line from the Party handbook, but in truth Christian missionaries have historically caused a good deal of harm in China.

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Missionaries were, for instance, involved in the Opium War. They profited from the infamous 1842 Treaty of Nanking. During World War II, the Vatican stationed a diplomatic officer by the name of Charles Lemaire in Japanese-controlled Harbin, Manchukuo, effectively giving support for Japan’s presence in the region. And of course, there was the 1715 decree against Confucian ancestral rites, effectively declaring one of China’s most cherished cultural practices evil. Pope Pius XII reversed this in 1939, though one has to wonder about all the Chinese Catholics who practiced the faith during the intervening 224 years.

To be fair, the Church has recently exhibited a sensitivity not seen since the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who was so adapted to the local culture that he used to dress in the robes of Buddhist monks. But China has not yet warmed to the sudden change of heart. Both sides, however, routinely express their desire to establish diplomatic relations, which ended in 1951 when Beijing officials accused the Vatican of plotting to assassinate Mao Zedong (and subsequently executed an Italian and a Japanese by firing squad). These days, the détente is noticeable, but unlikely to proceed further if Beijing’s demands are not met.

Its first demand is that the Vatican must not interfere in China’s domestic affairs. The main problem here for the Vatican is that Beijing considers the ordination of bishops a domestic affair and bishops are now selected by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). Vatican officials are trying to work out a protocol similar to the diplomatic process of agrément (mutual consent), but a solution is not yet in the wind. The second demand, that the Vatican end ties with Taiwan, has been met by the Vatican with voiced consent but no action thus far.

To understand Beijing’s dealings with the Vatican, and religions in general, one must understand the sanzi (three selfs) doctrine. This policy, reminiscent of North Korea’s juche, promotes self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. Simply put, religious groups that threaten sanzi are not tolerated. So for instance, while the government supports the Tibetan Catholics of Cizhong, or quietly watches the wealthy Christian community of Wenzhou, it arrests Korean “house churches” at every turn. This is because the Cizhong community offers a path of assimilation for other Tibetans, and the Wenzhou community presents an argument that Christianity might be good for the economy, whereas Korean “house churches” maintain strong ties to churches in South Korea and frequently help North Koreans refugees find homes in China, Mongolia, South Korea or elsewhere. These Korean communities are, in other words, a threat to sanzi in a way that other churches are not.

What the Vatican needs, then, is a pope who can speak to China on China’s own terms, rather than as a former imperial power. Marxism and capitalism were both embraced in China after being adapted to local culture, and Catholicism can succeed in this way too. Likewise, Beijing should avoid presenting itself as a modern-day Rome to Chinese Christians.

Fortunately, Beijing and the Holy See have compatible objectives. The gospel doesn’t necessarily conflict with sanzi. In fact, as growth generates inequality, the Church could play a stabilizing role. As Viktor Frankl wrote, nothing helps one survive trouble “as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”

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