On the walls of several Catholic churches are inscribed historical charts, one column containing the history of the Catholic Church and the world since Adam, and the other detailing the history of China since the original ‘sage emperors’. These two columns merge half way down and record in more detail the history of the particular church. This sense of historical lineage is particularly strong in some northern Chinese villages where many families have been Catholics for many generations.

Brief History

There has been a Catholic presence in China since at least the late thirteenth century, when John of Montecorvino a Franciscan priest was sent as a papal envoy to the emperor Kublai Khan. Evangelism was continued in the seventeenth century by Jesuit priests who succeeded in gaining access to the Ming and Qing courts, and set about translations of Catholic doctrines, catechisms and liturgies into Chinese. The first Chinese bishop, the Dominican Luo Wenzao was ordained in Guangzhou in 1685. However disagreements over whether Chinese converts could continue to practice traditional rites led to conflict between Rome and Beijing. Foreign missionaries were expelled or withdrew, and Christianity was proscribed until the mid-nineteenth century. Chinese Catholic communities continued to meet in secret until the ‘unequal treaties’, forced Chinese officials to recognise and protect them. Catholic missions expanded rapidly, working also in scientific and cultural research, famine relief and education. The number of Chinese Catholics reached around one million. With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War, all foreign missionaries were again forced to leave. A Chinese hierarchy had gradually been encouraged over the previous twenty years, particularly under the guidance of Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical Maximum Illud and especially Pope Pius XI’s Rerum Ecclesiae (1926).

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) was established in 1957 to manage the Catholic Church in a socialist society, implementing government policy on religion. From 1958 until the late 1990s bishops were nominated and consecrated without Rome’s approval. After 1962 no national assembly of Catholics was permitted, as all religious institutions and believers were attacked during the Cultural Revolution. Some Catholics refused to acknowledge the authority of the CCPA and bishops consecrated without the consent of Rome. These have been described as “underground” or “unofficial” Catholics.

Since 1992 the renewed Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference has been the senior Catholic body in China, and the ‘spiritual’ authority of the Holy Father was acknowledged. Religious orders such as the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Sisters of the Sacred Heart and Sisters of the Holy Spirit continue in China, but the principle of Chinese independence means that they do not retain official connections with their international congregations, and cannot have a foreign superior. In effect, the bishop of the diocese is the head of each local order.

While religious activity in China continues to be constrained, it is clear that, within certain boundaries, Catholic activity has been growing steadily for three decades. Catholic priests, sisters and lay people help run orphanages, old people’s homes, provide scholarships and work in disaster relief. Since 1985 international links have not been condemned as before, and many instances of local cooperation have developed. Since 1993 many of the younger generation of priests have received theological and vocational training in Hong Kong, the Philippines, the United States and Europe. A new generation of bishops, recognised by both Beijing and the Holy See, have sought reconciliation in many dioceses. Catholics talk now of being “one church and two communities”. In June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a pastoral letter which has encouraged the healing of old divisions and encouraged unity.


© Churches Together in Britain and Ireland 2010