The Vatican-China Agreement: What is it?

Updated: Jan 27


© Alfredo Borba / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

On the 22nd of October 2020, the Vatican and China jointly announced a two-year extension to the 2018 agreement. The content of the deal has remained secret, but according to the official declarations, it is mainly focused on the bishops’ nomination and doesn’t cover the establishment of diplomatic relations. In any case, it has been “a decisive event”, as the Italian Sinologist Sisci affirmed, “of which it is difficult to exaggerate the importance”. The agreement is presented as merely ecclesiastical from the Vatican side; on the other hand, it may disclose some political implications for China. The United States, as well as some conservative Catholics groups (including a part of the Hong Kong Church), are among the main detractors of this agreement. Their disapproval is centred against the atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its behaviour towards religious minorities. Taiwan is also keeping an eye on the issue, afraid of losing an important ally.


Before analysing the content of the agreement in details, and to better understand its meaning and implications, it may be useful to take one step back into Chinese history.


“Sons of Heaven”: Religion and Spirituality in China

Chinese State traditionally embodies both political and spiritual power. Since the first millennium BC the Emperor was depicted as the “son of Heaven” (天子tiānzī) who governed China through a “Mandate of Heaven”, similar to the European kings’ Divine Rights. As Sisci points out, contrary to the Western world, the spiritual dimension was way more ideological than metaphysical, resulting in the Chinese citizens to fully identify themselves with the civil authority, which was a spiritual guide at the same time. According to this view, it would have been impossible for an external entity (i.e. Catholic Church) to nominate religious representatives in China (i.e. bishops).


When Mao Zedong became President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) embraced the Marxist (atheist) doctrine, the long-lasting monolithic political power lost its religious dimension. Therefore, every religious belief was abolished as constituting a limit of Mao’s authority who, ironically, was being idolized in a way that resembled ancient Emperors. In 1951, diplomatic ties between the Holy See and the PRC came to an end, when Beijing expelled the Holy See’s Apostolic Internuncio (the Vatican diplomat), who was then moved to Taipei.


Following Deng Xiaoping reforms and opening up, the unprecedented economic growth in China led to a sort of “spiritual vacuum” which resulted in a renewed interest in religion and traditional faiths. To meet this demand, since the 1980s more space has been left to “normal religious activities”, as stated in the Art. 36 of the new Constitution. Despite this, the Holy See has never been allowed to nominate its representatives inside the PRC. Firstly, because of the role that Chinese bishops play in China: they aren’t merely religious leaders, they have a social, political and ideological role too. Secondly, because it has been regarded as an interference in the internal affairs and so not in line with the abovementioned Art. 36 which concludes that “religious groups and religious affairs shall not be subject to control by foreign forces”.


The Catholic Church(es) in China: when Religion encounters Politics

According to a Freedom House Report, since the 1980s the number of Catholic Chinese grew up to 12 million, split between registered and unregistered churches. Chinese Catholic Church is in fact divided into two entities: the “official Church” and the “underground Church”. The latter is faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and, as Professor Moody puts it “it does not imply ‘secret’ and the community mostly operates openly, although without access to official support or resources and always subject to arbitrary harassment by the authorities”. The former is controlled by the joint conference of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), established in 1957, and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC), founded in 1980. The method used by the “official Church” for bishops’ appointment is called ”self-election and self-ordination” (自选自圣 zìxuǎnzìshèng) which involves the proper and valid rituals of the episcopal consecration but cannot be considered licit by the Holy See, neither juridically, nor canonically. This method, in fact, is made to serve the Chinese purpose of maintaining national sovereignty and avoiding - what is regarded as - an interference in China’s internal affairs. The difference between the “underground Church” and the “official Church” as Zhu, Professor of Religious Studies at Fudan University, explained lies in the compliance with “the CPCA’s idea of an independent and self-managed Church and the act of self-electing and self-ordaining bishops”.


Catholic Chinese, especially the members of unregistered Churches that struggle to agree with the government’s view of Catholicism, have been suffering periodic crackdowns. Since 2005, a growing bureaucratisation has also made the process of registration for new Catholic communities more difficult. Despite the unstable relationship between the Catholic Chinese and the party-State, the dialogue between China and the Vatican – already started with the previous Pope – began to improve thanks to Pope Francis overtures in favour of the PRC and its current leader, Xi Jinping. This eventually led to the signing of the Provisional Agreement with the Holy See.


The Provisional Agreement between the Vatican Pursuit of Universalism and the Chinese Quest for Modernity

The Provisional Agreement was signed on the 22nd September 2020 in Beijing by China's Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wang Chao, and the Vatican undersecretary for state relations, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri.


As “L’Osservatore Romano” (a daily newspaper published in the Vatican City) stated, the agreement does not directly involve any talks on diplomatic relations, the legal status of the Catholic Church in China or its relationship with Chinese authorities. The Provisional Agreement is mainly about the nomination of bishops and the creation of adequate conditions to foster bilateral collaboration. To this end, it has been agreed that Chinese bishops should be elected by the Catholic representatives of the Chinese diocese and approved by Chinese authorities. Afterwards, the Holy See would assess the chosen bishops and decide whether to ratify the decision or not.


As for the objectives, from the Holy See’s point of view, the deal should have consolidated the role of the Pope in the nomination of Chinese bishops and strengthened the Catholic Church unity and universalism. Considering that China is the most populous country in the world, and that is also expected to become home of the largest Christian community in the world by 2030 - the Catholic Church’s quest for universalism may not be completed without it. On the Chinese side, Xi Jinping might see the Pope’s overture as an occasion to improve its reputation both at home and abroad. Secondly, China is interested in the agreement as a tool for the maintenance of social stability, in order to deal with the “increasingly restless underground Catholics in China who might otherwise become a formidable source of political opposition to the regime”, commented Professor Xiang. Thirdly, the Chinese government probably hoped to gain a direct advantage in the Western debate thanks to a more proactive role of the Holy See, especially vis-à-vis the United States.


The agreement was considered a milestone for two reasons. First of all, as Sisci affirms, we saw that “for the first time in its multi millennial history, a Chinese full-powered government has accepted a limitation of its own internal affairs resulting in the separation of religious powers from political powers”. Such separation, continues Sisci, is the basic principle of Western modernity, which China seemed to have accepted as far as the content of the agreement is concerned. Secondly, for the first time in history, two ancient civilizations – the Catholic Church, a symbol of the Western world and the CCP, the modern representative of thousand-year old Chinese culture – experienced a cultural encounter that neither involves the use of weapons nor have commercial aims.


Following the agreement, Pope Francis has recognised seven bishops that had been previously excommunicated by the Vatican after being appointed by China. So far, there have also been two joint-appointments of Chinese bishops: Antonio Yao Shun from Jining diocese in Inner Mongolia and Stefano Xu Hongwei of Hanzhong diocese in Shaanxi province.


Was it enough to renew the agreement? The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, called it a “point of departure” and said the reason for the extension lies in the impossibility to evaluate a two-year agreement. He added that “there have been some results, but in order for the dialogue to have more consistent fruits, it’s necessary to continue”.


Taiwan Worries and US Warnings: the Detractors of the Agreement

Looking now at the international sphere, both Taiwan and the US don’t seem to have welcomed the agreement with enthusiasm, expressing renewed worries following its extension.


The Vatican extended its diplomatic recognition to Taipei, capital city of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1942. But from 1971, after the Chinese UN seat was given to the PRC, the Holy See’s diplomatic mission has been reduced to a single charge d’affaires ad interim. Taiwan on the contrary has always preserved its diplomatic representative at the Vatican City. The Vatican remains a unique European ally for Taiwan.


The 300,000 Taiwanese Catholics have been paying strict attention to the development of the Vatican-PRC talks. The Chinese Mainland, as a matter of fact, has frequently insisted that any reconciliation requires the Vatican to break with Taiwan. Despite reassurances, Taiwan is indeed afraid that its relations with the Holy See may be threatened. This loss would be a serious one to the ROC, especially in light of the continuous drain of diplomatic Taiwanese friends. Besides, the Catholic Church still has a sort of moral authority over the island. Abandoning Taiwan in favour of the PRC would mean for the Holy See to weaken its above mentioned moral authority and credibility, especially in view of the controversial religious freedom issues in China.


The Holy See substantially seems to be ready to untie the knot with Taiwan. Such an event would certainly be a great victory for the PRC in terms of international reputation.


Another harsh detractor of the deal is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo . In a letter he wrote for the US conservative Catholic magazine 'First Thing', he claimed that the Vatican “power of moral witness should be deployed today with respect to the Chinese Communist Party”. What is more, he holds that two years after the signing, “it’s clear that the Sino-Vatican agreement has not shielded Catholics from the party’s depredations”. On Twitter, he also said that, by extending the agreement, the Vatican may endanger its moral authority.



Washington’s tense relation with the Vatican has been recently put under pressure, when Francis declined a request from Pompeo for an audience, as the Pope declared he avoids meeting politicians ahead of elections. The US harsh stance against the Holy See had probably been an attempt to ingratiate the conservative Catholic (Republican) voters. However, it also reveals something of an end to the “honeymoon” between the two sides.

To conclude, relevant criticism was also voiced by a part of the Hong Kong Church, led by the former bishop Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun. He wrote to the New York Times questioning: “what good is having the last word when China will have all the words before it? In theory, the pope could veto the nomination of any bishop who seems unworthy. But how many times can he do that, really?”. He also added that the Vatican deal rather than fulfilling the goal of unifying the Catholic Church, might lead to the “annihilation of the real Church in China”. Similar critics argue that the deal has given Communist China a de facto blessing from the Roman Catholic Church, an influential Western actor.


In summary, it’s too early to say whether the Provisional Agreement proved effective and this is the reason why the Vatican has decided to extend it. However, we cannot ignore that something absolutely new had occurred: the Chinese party-State agreeing to put limits to its internal sovereignty. So far, the deal has no direct political or diplomatic implications, but this doesn’t mean that changes won’t occur in the future. Taiwan and the US will be wary.



Jessica Milano is an Italian graduate of Political, Social and International Science at University of Bologna and City University of Hong Kong. She is currently attending a Double Master Degree in International Studies and China Studies at University of Turin and Zhejiang University. You can find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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