In 1594, Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci excitedly hailed the coming of Catholicism to China after "having been blocked for thousands of years by high mountains and lofty hills, by the impassible Islamic barriers." He celebrated the clear compatibility of China and the Roman Catholic Church's long-separated traditions and the striking "uniformity between Christian tenets and the ancient Chinese sage's rationality and teachings." Indeed, Ricci saw fantastic success during his time in China, becoming an adviser to the Kangxi emperor and winning numerous high-profile converts. But frictions that spelled trouble for Catholicism as a mainstream Chinese religion were on their way. In 1700, there were an estimated 200,000 Chinese Catholics. Three decades later, the adherents of the "Religion of the Lord of Heaven," as the Chinese called Catholicism at the time, would find themselves cut off from Europe then banned entirely.
Catholicism's challenges in China are not unique to the religion. Indeed, they have much more to do with centralized Chinese authorities' near-timeless struggle to assert control over the sprawling empire that now calls itself a country. Over the past several centuries, Christianity as a whole, along with many other faith traditions, has been consistently at odds with secular authorities in China. Today, as Catholicism faces competition for adherents around the world, the Vatican is trying to navigate China's complex political landscape as it aims to establish an official presence in the nation.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidates power and his government works on centralizing, religious movements that have operated in the shadows in China will have less room. With this in mind, the Vatican will be more amenable to compromising with the Chinese state, which has often been at odds with faith traditions. Indeed, the Catholic Church may offer to switch its diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China.
The Benefits and Pitfalls of Faith in the Empire
Faith traditions present both challenges and opportunities for any empire. On the one hand, they make totalizing claims to the truth, which might motivate believers to dissent from the empire's dictates. On the other hand, they can present a valuable tool of legitimacy for the state to wield. For late 16th-century China, embracing Christianity meant gaining access to technologies from and information about Europe, whose tendrils were steadily creeping across the Pacific. But this access was valuable only as long as it did not undermine the power of the state. Throughout China's 3,000-year history, politics has always trumped religion.
Catholicism in China peaked in 1692, when the Kangxi emperor issued an edict of toleration that put Christianity on par with other long-established faith traditions in the empire. But the edict included a veiled warning, noting that the Europeans "are very quiet" and that, unlike "false sects," their religion does not have "any tendency to incite sedition." This made clear that Christianity was acceptable only as long as it remained "quiet" and did not try to erode the foundations of China's political order. Indeed, Catholicism's initial success in China hinged on the clergy's tremendous efforts to learn Chinese philosophy and culture and ingratiate themselves with the country's elites. In 1615, the Vatican even granted Chinese Catholics the unique privilege of being allowed to perform liturgy in Chinese rather than Latin.
But in the early 18th century, a dispute between Vatican and Chinese authorities revealed just how quickly this dynamic could unravel. During the so-called Chinese Rites Controversy, the Catholic clergy debated whether to allow Chinese Catholics to bow to tablets bearing images of ancestors and participate in other Confucian ceremonies. Jesuits in China thought these rites were secular and compatible with Catholic practice, while others in the church saw them as heretical idolatry. And this debate was not just a point of ecclesiastical trivia; it challenged the very essence of Confucianism, the backbone of the Chinese political order that connected the lowliest peasant to the emperor through a great hierarchy extending even into the realm of the dead. Confucian seasonal rites were a key responsibility of bureaucrats nationwide, and forbidding the veneration of ancestors challenged the entire fabric of Chinese society. An affront to the emperor and the bureaucracy that held the country together, it verged on treason.
Christianity had faced down practices similar to the Chinese Rites before, defying the emperor worship that was critical to the politics of the Roman Empire from its earliest days up to A.D. 388. In 18th-century China, as in the Roman Empire long before, the Vatican ordered the faithful to stand apart; Pope Clement XI issuing a final ruling banning the Chinese Rites in 1704. As its missionaries scattered across dozens of non-Christian lands, the Catholic Church was making its authority clear.
In response, the Chinese emperor expelled the papal delegation and banished all missionaries that complied with the Vatican's orders. Persecution rose, especially in the years after 1724, when the Yongzheng emperor formally banned Catholicism. In 1814, the Jiaqing emperor went a step further, including a ban on all Christianity in the fundamental laws of the country; he sentenced Europeans to death for proselytizing, sent Christians who would not unconvert to remote parts of the empire and removed and exiled imperial military leaders who would not do the same. It was not until the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin forced an ailing Qing dynasty to accept missionaries once again that Catholicism gained a greater aboveground presence. That tentative progress lasted until 1951, when the Communist People's Republic of China targeted the religion in its efforts to combat what it saw as Western imperialist threats to stability.
Buddhism: The Exception That Proves the Rule
It's unsurprising that China so thoroughly chastened the Vatican in the wake of the Chinese Rites Controversy. In the Roman Empire, Christianity had eventually won enough converts (and the heart of the emperor himself) to establish a firm foothold. But China was different. The country approached all faith traditions — Catholicism included — by working to chasten them and shape them to the political order. If needed, China would ban them outright with no hesitation.
Even China's greatest religious success story, Buddhism, is not without its periods of struggle. Arising in India, Buddhism first made inroads in the Han dynasty in the middle of the first century, before gradually spreading to all corners of the empire and earning several emperors as stalwart adherents. For the Sui dynasty of 581-618 and the Tang dynasty of 618-907, Buddhism became a valuable tool for central authority. The empires embraced the Buddhist clergy for their work supplementing the authority of bureaucrats across the empire and even for instilling a universal, self-sacrificing ethic among soldiers that transcended family loyalty.
But China's secular authorities always remained suspicious that Buddhist clergy were too set apart from worldly oversight. Government institutions made steady efforts to subordinate Buddhist monasteries and more directly oversee religious affairs. And when the Tang dynasty lost its grip on power over China's provinces in the 840s, imperial authorities mounted a massive purge of Buddhism, confiscating monastic land, stripping monks of authority and destroying temples across the country. (At almost the same time, China was snuffing out the first wave of Christianity in the country, which came via the ancient Silk Road.) As Buddhism slowly worked to regain power in the following centuries, it was in a form that integrated more Chinese cultural elements and complemented the renaissance in Confucianism.
Buddhism, unlike Christianity, was uniquely poised to adapt itself to the power politics of China. The religion has all but died away in India and therefore has very little outside authority. There is no Buddhist Vatican and much less risk of Buddhism becoming an empire within the empire. In fact, Buddhism's long-standing roots in China have given it the status of a nearly indigenous faith. Christianity, on the other hand, has always been associated with Western outsiders. And Catholicism in particular has been suspicious to Chinese rulers because of its loyalty to a European authority thousands of miles from China's imperial capital.
In the modern era, Buddhism has occasionally threatened centralized Chinese authority, such as in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, which has its own spiritual leader outside of China. Beijing has worked hard to harness and return the authority structure over Tibetan Buddhism to Chinese soil, rigorously challenging the Dalai Lama and seeking to appoint its own authority over the faith. There are now nascent signs that Tibetan authorities, and even the Dalai Lama himself, are starting to bend to Beijing's will. And the Vatican may not be far behind.
A Modern Day Battle Over God and Government
In 1939, Pope Pius XII reversed the Catholic Church's ban on Chinese Rites, removing a centuries-old sticking point and re-establishing diplomatic relations with the Republic of China. And even under the Communist rule that followed a decade later, Christianity never fully disappeared in China, thanks to years of underground practice, as well as carefully monitored state-affiliated churches. Today, there remains a robust Christian presence; Beijing's official estimates peg the Christian population at 25 million, with 18 million Protestants and 6 million Roman Catholics. Estimates by the Pew Research Center put these figures even higher, with 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics. Although Christians account for only 5 percent of China's population, in terms of sheer numbers they are the largest Christian minority in the world.
But in keeping with history, Christianity's status in modern China is complicated to say the least. The religion is half-submerged, with practitioners divided in their attendance of officially sanctioned churches and so-called underground churches. And even with regard to Beijing-approved churches, Catholics and Protestants are further separated. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants was founded in 1951, while the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association was established in 1957 and overseen by priests and bishops selected by Beijing but unrecognized by the Vatican.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Chinese state has tried to find a balance between its interests and those of Christian adherents, swinging between the harsh crackdowns of the 1963-66 Socialist Education Movement and subsequent 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the burgeoning toleration of the 1980s. But there are increasing signs that the Vatican might be poised to find a lasting balance between acceptance and censure. The two major sticking points for re-establishing an official Vatican presence in China have been severing ties with the Taiwanese government and accepting a policy of noninterference in Chinese religious matters. The first of these is the easier. Unlike many other diplomatic missions, the Vatican maintained support for mainland China after the Communist victory pushed the nationalists to Taiwan. (It was Beijing that eventually ousted the Vatican.) The demand for noninterference is more challenging for the Catholic Church, because it would entail relinquishing some responsibility for appointing Catholic leadership to Chinese authorities.
Over the past decade, the Vatican has shown a willingness to compromise. While the Catholic Patriotic Association has no formal dealings with the Vatican, its members are allowed to acknowledge the spiritual authority of the pope, and most of its bishops are now tacitly recognized by Rome itself. And since at least 2007, the Vatican has been making steady signals it wants to come to a formal agreement with Beijing. In late 2017, Vatican officials reportedly asked two underground bishops in China to retire and make way for their Beijing-backed counterparts. Some reports have foreshadowed a grand bargain being made as early as April 2018, but this is optimistic. And even once it is reached, this final deal might only resolve the question of bishops, leaving the discussion of diplomatic ties for a later date.
For the Vatican, the logic of coming to terms with Beijing is self-evident. Catholicism is on the ropes worldwide, working to maintain its ground as other forms of Christianity challenge it in places it once dominated, most notably in Latin America. And if unofficial estimates are to be believed, Protestants in China outnumber Catholics by 6 to 1. But Protestant churches are autonomous and deeply fragmented, whereas the Vatican has the advantage of being able to negotiate with Beijing as a unified body. If it can merge the underground church with China's official Catholic Church, it can yank that whole submerged apparatus aboveground in one go and hopefully earn many more adherents. For the Protestants, however, what happens with the official church does not affect the underground church, making it difficult for the Protestants to implement changes across the board. Timing is also key: New religious laws enacted in February make it significantly more difficult to operate in underground gray areas, and the consolidation of Chinese President Xi Jinping's power signals a new era of centralization that bodes ill for illicit religious activity. The Vatican probably sees that now is the best time to try to earn official government approval.
For Beijing, bringing the Catholic Church back to the Chinese mainland is essentially a diplomatic coup against Taiwan. The Vatican is the last European power that recognizes Taiwan as a country; if it severs those ties, several Latin American capitals could follow suit. This is particularly important given recent U.S. efforts to enhance diplomatic and military ties with Taiwan. Beijing's renewed emphasis on spreading development into far-flung regions can also be complemented by the work of the Catholic Church, which shares an emphasis on reducing poverty. Finally, China's aging population signals a looming gap in government social services, particularly in rural areas, which could be filled by an increase in religious institutions ranging from Buddhism to Catholicism.
Still, this is not the first time that the Vatican and Beijing have shown signs of rapprochement, and dilemmas remain. It's not clear to what degree that Beijing will allow an outside power to dictate religious leadership on Chinese soil, And the Vatican will have to prove just how far it is willing to bow to the wishes of Beijing. Ceding ground to the Chinese government risks undermining the authority of the pope, but precedent for this sort of agreement can be found in the church's relationship with Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Argentina. Of course, members of the Catholic Church — particularly its underground bishops — have pushed back against efforts in these areas. But with Catholicism facing challenges worldwide, the Vatican might find the 1.4 billion souls of China tantalizing enough to make a bargain.
Editor's Note: We have adjusted the caption for the fourth photograph in the piece to more clearly represent the denomination of the pictured church.