Nearly 70 years after Mao Zedong expelled Pope Pius XII’s representatives from the People’s Republic of China, the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are now reportedly on the verge on signing a deal that could end the decades-long religious and diplomatic staredown. While the specifics of the deal remain private for now, a source within the Vatican said that it lays the groundwork for collaboration between the Vatican and the CCP in the selection and appointment of bishops on the Chinese mainland. It is unlikely that the agreement would re-establish formal diplomatic relations between the two sides, but even the simplest deal would be an historic moment, possibly paving the path to full diplomatic relations.
A Long Road to This Moment
After the Vatican and the Party severed ties in 1949, Chinese Catholics (as well as those of other faiths) who continued to practice their religion became easy targets for the new regime, especially during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Catholics and other Christians were labelled as “enemies of the people,” stripped of property and imprisoned for their beliefs. Party officials insisted they could not be true to communist ideology if they believed in religion.
But for Mao and his successors, the problem was a much more fundamental question of who ought to have final authority. The one-party state could not tolerate any sort of external check on the party’s ability to dictate ideology. For faithful Catholics, for instance, to take their cues, spiritual or otherwise, from the pope and not the chairman, could potentially disrupt the political order. Moreover, although it was until recently extremely rare for non-Italians to become pope, anyone, from any country, could sit in the chair of St. Peter. Could Mao—or President Xi Jinping, for that matter—afford to have Chinese citizens obeying a foreigner (or perhaps even worse, albeit unlikely, a Chinese pope)? And what if someday the pope were an American?
The mistrust of foreign-controlled or -influenced religious movements isn’t just a product of Chinese communist ideology, either. Suspicion of upstart religious movements runs deep in Chinese history. Indeed, in the mid-19th century—only a short while ago in historical terms—the Qing Dynasty put down the Taiping Rebellion, a mass uprising led by a failed civil servant who came to believe he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ who had come to rid China of idolatry. The faith-based rebellion, which claimed as many as 30 million lives all told, joined with others in leaving an indelible mark on China’s leaders down through the years.