The Catholic Church and China: Where Religion and Geopolitics Meet

Mar 30, 2018 | 17:37 GMT

Chinese worshippers attend Christmas Eve Mass at a Catholic church in Beijing during 2015.

Chinese worshippers attend Christmas Eve Mass at a Catholic church in Beijing during 2015.

(WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)


  • The Roman Catholic Church has been at odds with the state in China since the imperial period, reflecting the broader dynamic of politics trumping religion in the country.
  • Religious movements in China succeed best when they can show they are not a threat to centralized control, as with Buddhism.
  • But the Vatican's fortunes may change as it approaches a possible compromise with Beijing, causing repercussions for Christianity in China as well as for Taiwan.

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,...

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