Eastern Religion

Is Catholicism in China different from elsewhere?

Cardinals from around the world gathered in Rome on Friday to discuss, among other things, the planned ordination in China of a bishop who hasn’t been approved by the Vatican. How is being Catholic in China different from being Catholic in Europe?

The Chinese must choose between their government and the pope. There are actually two strains of Catholicism in China. The official, “above-ground” version operates in state-approved churches and is overseen by the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference and the state-affiliated Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association rather than by the pope. The CPCA handles structural questions like who gets ordained and which bishops and priests get placed where. The bishops conference handles doctrinal questions like how to format mass and which sermons to teach. By contrast, the unofficial, “underground” church is loyal to the Vatican.


For years, the Chinese government shut down underground church services—often held in private homes—and punished its leaders. (As late as 1992, a prominent dissident Chinese bishop died under mysterious circumstances.) Recently, however, Chinese government officials have turned a blind eye to the underground churches. At the same time, the line between the official and unofficial churches has blurred. More than half of the priests and bishops ordained by the CPCA have also been approved by the Vatican. The CPCA and the Vatican don’t have official diplomatic relations, but they do confer on nominees.

As far as day-to-day practice, Catholicism in China is a lot like anywhere else. Chinese Catholics hold masses in cathedrals and share the same rituals and beliefs and prayers. One difference is that services in China tend to be more old-fashioned. Priests are more likely to face away from the congregation and lead traditional hymns. Until 20 years ago, most masses were still conducted in Latin.


Relations between China and the Catholic Church have long been tense. Pope Pius XII excommunicated Chinese bishops not approved by the Vatican in a 1958 encyclical; China, for its part, banned all organized religion during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1979. But there’s been a thaw in recent years. Pope Benedict wrote a pastoral letter in 2007 urging the underground and above-ground churches in China to reconcile, implicitly recognizing Catholics loyal to the CPCA as legitimate in the eyes of the Vatican. China, too, has eased its stance on the Vatican: While it still considers the CPCA the church leader, it now recognizes the pope as the “spiritual leader” of Catholicism.

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Explainer thanks Daniel Bays of Calvin College and Fenggang Yang of Purdue University.

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Clarification, Nov. 23, 2010: The caption on a photo originally accompanying this article identified Joseph Zen as a Catholic bishop. That was his title in 2003 when that photograph was taken, but he was elevated to cardinal in 2006. The photograph has been removed.