China’s Catholic Leviathan: Jesuits and the Sino-Vatican Agreement

No one, it seems, is more optimistic about China’s Church than the Holy See. And I suspect that no one is more cynical regarding this optimism than China’s Catholics themselves.

October 26, 2020 Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. Clark on ChinaColumnsFeatures 5Print

Holy Mass at a Chinese “Underground” Church
(Source: Whitworth University Special Collections)

On October 22nd, the Holy See Press Office announced that the Vatican has renewed its agreement with China’s state officials – the new expiration date of the agreement is October 22, 2022. The Vatican states:

The primary objective of the Provisional Agreement regarding the appointment of Bishops in China is that of sustaining and promoting the proclamation of the Gospel in that land, restoring the full and visible unity of the Church. In fact, the primary motivations that have guided the Holy See in this process, in dialogue with the Government leaders of that country, are fundamentally of an ecclesiological and pastoral nature.i

The agreement was renewed during one of most turbulent eras of China’s Catholic history, and opinions range from buoyant optimism to alarm and distrust. While from the Vatican’s point of view the agreement provides the Holy See with long-desired authority over the election of bishops, there is no mystery regarding the communist party’s current sense of empowerment to eradicate the “underground” Catholic community using its usual methods. The press release notes that the agreement’s objectives include “promoting the proclamation of the Gospel in that land [and] restoring the full and visible unity of the Church.” In truth, the only part of these two aims that China’s authorities agree upon is “restoring the full and visible unity” of China’s Catholics by erasing the “underground” community, who do not acquiesce to state regulations. No one, it seems, is more optimistic about China’s Church than the Holy See, insisting even in its press release that “there will be no more illegitimate ordinations.” And I suspect that no one is more cynical regarding this optimism than China’s Catholics themselves. Even so, the “prophets of doom,” as Pope St. John XXIII employed the term in his opening remarks of the Second Vatican Council, continue to disregard the many salutary fruits bearing forth in China’s Catholic Church.

The Chinese have two sayings to describe the cornucopia of contradictions expressed about the situation of the Chinese Church: Mitian dahuang and Luanzhong youxu, meaning, “Deceits fill the heavens” and “Within chaos there is order.” I have listened to online talks given by experts on China’s Catholics that contradict the realities I have observed with my own eyes, and I have read media reports describing state persecutions in areas I have just visited that had no such events. There are persecutions, more than I care to mention, but there are also flourishing Catholic communities in China that would blanch if they saw the hyperbole and misinformation of some media sources. Despite the misunderstanding and misrepresentation in the media, much of what we hear about the Church in China is accurate.

Three connected events related to China’s Catholics have recently occupied the news – the renewal of the provisional Sino-Vatican agreement originally signed on September 22, 2018; the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo’s remarks in Rome that were critical of the Vatican’s entente with Beijing; and Joseph Cardinal Zen’s, SDB, recent effort to meet with Pope Francis in Rome to warn against renewing the Sino-Vatican agreement. At first glance it appears that the Church in China is eddying into disorder and increased suffering, but while much there is unsettling the majority of China’s Catholics are still able to attend Mass, pray their daily rosary, and draw many others into the Church.

There are several leviathans that, like the biblical sea creature of the Hebrew scriptures, continue to threaten China’s Church, but like Job who retained his faith when swallowed by the monster, China’s pews remain filled on Sundays. In this column I consider how Jesuits have responded to China’s post-1949 communist government, and I describe what I hear from Catholics in China who preserve spiritual order within a larger context of global and national chaos.

Fr. Shen Baishun, SJ, Fr. Wang Rensheng, SJ, and Fr. Wu Yingfeng, SJ (Source: Whitworth University Special Collections)

Surviving Chaos: China’s Jesuit Strategy of Resistance

Popular media sources are not commonly in the business (and they are businesses) of placing their reports into an historical context. History rarely supports histrionics, but China is a culture that has long been concerned with its past, and the average Chinese Christian experiences current events in light of their background. A few select stories will help non-Chinese readers view Sino-Vatican relations through the Chinese Catholic lens. Since I’m currently writing a book on Jesuits (and the pope is a Jesuit), I’ll provide three examples of Chinese Jesuits who China’s faithful evoke as witnesses of ordered spirituality in chaotic times.

I choose these three Jesuits because they are well known in China but largely unknown elsewhere. When Chinese Catholics think of Jesuits they often imagine Father Matteo Ricci, SJ, (1552-1610) Father Gulio Aleni, SJ, (1582-1649) and other modern Jesuits who represent resistance to, rather than agreement with, China’s ruling government.

Among the Jesuits who are frequently celebrated is Father Shen Pai-shun, SJ, (d. 1985) who was arrested by state officials on 8 September 1955. Shen was charged with being a “counterrevolutionary” and “intellectual saboteur.” Sources suggest that if he had publicly denounced his bishop, Ignatius Gong Pinmei (1901-2000), and renounced his loyalty to the pope he would have been released from prison. Most Jesuits in China in the 1950s were not only unwilling to collaborate with China’s new communist government, but they also invited local Catholics to join the Legion of Mary to better resist state pressures to repudiate the pope. Father Shen spent three decades in a prison for political dissenters, was released briefly, and then rearrested because he refused to join the Chines Catholic Patriotic Association. He finally died in prison on 3 June 1985.ii

Another Chinese Jesuit esteemed today is Father Wang Jen-sheng, SJ, (d. 1960) who converted to Catholicism despite his family’s disapproval. The good reputation of Jesuit schools in China inspired Wang’s non-Christian parents to enroll him in Shanghai’s St. Ignatius High School in the 1920s, where he often argued with his Jesuit teachers over Christian beliefs. The force of reason that Wang encountered in his Jesuit interlocutors brought him to the waters of baptism, and he was later ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus. Communist officials arrested him in 1953 on the same charges held against his confrere, Father Shen, and he was sent to a state labor camp in Anhui province. Refusing to deny his faith, and after years of maltreatment, Wang died on December 22, 1960. One Chinese Jesuit who knew Wang recalled that he finally died “after a great deal of torment and suffering.”iii

China’s Catholics are particularly attached to the story of the Jesuit priest and writer, Father Wu Ying-feng, SJ, (d. 1976) who was arrested in 1955 and then died of torture during the final year of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Wu had studied at the Sorbonne, and when he returned to his native China he served as the editor-in-chief of Shengxinbao, or Sacred Heart Magazine. He also translated the Confessions of St. Augustine and a biography of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Refusing to support the party’s efforts to establish a national Church independent of the Holy See, Wu was arrested on September 8, 1955 and accused of being a “counterrevolutionary.” Witnesses recall that when the state officials assembled the Catholic priests into a dining room, Wu “was the first to stretch out his hands . . . in order to be handcuffed.” He was imprisoned in China’s most notorious prison, Tilanqiao, and was later moved to the Anhui labor camp where he endured cruelties because of his resistance to the party.iv

These three Jesuits remain influential examples among Chinese Catholics of the importance of persistence within a political system opposed to religion. The situation for most Chinese Catholics nowadays is better than the era during which these determined Jesuits lived, but a series of official state decrees have meant that churches and the believers who fill them are not without difficulties still. China’s Catholics complain that state religious policies remain a source of religious disorder.

For those attending Mass in both China’s sanctioned and unsanctioned churches, state religious policies loom ominously over their shoulders. Party decrees regarding religious practice are often affixed to the main entrance or an outdoor bulletin board of their church, a constant reminder of required conformity to the state’s insistence on national loyalty over religious belief. These documents typically express two main aims: to avert Vatican influence over China’s faithful and to eradicate the “underground” community. Two excerpts of government decrees governing the life of China’s Catholics illustrate this:

We are determined to crack down on all criminal and counterrevolutionary activities that hide under the cover of religion, … especially imperialist ones like the Vatican and Protestant foreign-mission societies. . . . Our policy is to develop fraternal international contacts with worldwide religions, but firmly resist infiltration by all hostile religious forces from abroad.v

The Catholic Church in China must remain firmly on the [Three-Autonomies] road. The Vatican is, however, again trying to take control over the Chinese Catholic Church. . . . [It is] a political force defying the government and an element that can seriously affect public

In addition to these two state declarations, the party also published a directive entitled, “Destroy Completely the Organization of the Underground Religious Forces,” on February 5, 1991,vii and on August 16, 1999, the party issued another decree, “A Proposal to Reinforce the Work on the Catholic Church under the New Current of Changes,” in which officials again asserted the state’s intention to eliminate “all underground Catholics in China.”viii The contours of China’s official policies regarding the regulation and suppression of religious practice has remained much the same since the 1950s when Chinese and foreign Jesuits were arrested for refusing to either deny their Christian beliefs or denounce their loyalties to the Bishop of Rome. Beginning in the 1980s, Jesuit strategies to preserve the Church in China began to change from a model of resistance to one of rapprochement.

Bishop Gong Pinmei, Sishop Zhang Jiashu, SJ, and Bishop Jin Luxian, SJ (Source: Whitworth University Special Collections)

Seeking Order: China’s Jesuit Strategy of Rapprochement

The religious landscape shifted after the death of Chairman Mao (1893-1976), which changed how Jesuits navigated China’s murky political waters. Soon after Mao’s death, religious practice, which was entirely banned beforehand, was again allowed. By the 1980s, Catholic churches were reopened and the faithful returned to the Sacraments that had been denied them. The situation was far from prefect – loyalty to the pope was still forbidden – but altars were again adorned with tabernacles and candles, and priests again offered Mass and heard confessions. It was the Jesuits who took the lead in restoring order to the Church in what was dispirited and disordered community. While Catholics in China’s “underground” community viewed any form of rapprochement as compromise, many others held the view that without some form of cooperation the Church in China would suffer continued persecution and slowly disappear.

Two Jesuits chose this second option to, as they put it, ensure the Church’s survival in China during Communist rule: Father Zhang Jiashu, SJ, (1893-1998) and Father Jin Luxian, SJ, (1916-2013). Both Zhang and Jin decided that to rebuild the Church in China concessions must be made. When Bishop Gongpinmei was arrested in 1955 for “treason,” Zhang decided to cooperate with the People’s government, and in 1956 he attended the Second Session of the Second Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as a delegate. In 1957, he helped establish the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and was elected a member of its standing committee. And then on 23 April 1960, he was consecrated the bishop of Shanghai without papal approval. Zhang died while out of communion with the pope, but for many Chinese Catholics he nonetheless helped assure the Church’s survival under communist rule by cooperation with state officials.

The second Jesuit to adopt a strategy of rapprochement was Jin Luxian, who was consecrated a bishop in 1988 without papal approval, but unlike Zhang he was reconciled with the Holy See in 2005 and recognized as a bishop in full communion. Despite his affiliation with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, illicit ordination to bishop, and continued cooperation with the communist party, most of China’s Catholics hold him in esteem. Without Bishop Jin, they insist, the Church in Shanghai would have perished. While Zhang and Jin chose rapprochement, two other Jesuit bishops chose resistance, Fan Zhongliang, SJ, (1918-2014) and Deng Yiming, SJ, (1908-1995), and both these men suffered terrible persecutions for their defiance to the party.

The ongoing debate in China is whether the rapprochement of Zhang and Jin was more or less helpful to the Church in China than the resistance of Fan and Deng. Jesuits I know have opposing opinions on this question.

The Sino-Vatican Agreement: Two Jesuit Paths and One Divided Church

To turn now to the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement: Pope Francis’ approach is aligned with rapprochement rather than resistance, and it is too soon to speculate on the long-term results of his tactics. Whatever the outcome, he is a Jesuit, and thus a member of the Roman Catholic order with the most experience dealing with China over the past four centuries.

Several years ago I sat in the small residence of an elderly Chinese Jesuit who had known most of the Jesuits I have described above, and I was struck by the fact that no other Catholic order today has more living memory and experience in China that the Society of Jesus. Truth be told, I do not support the Holy See’s recent agreements with China, but I also acknowledge that there are Jesuits still living in China who have better access to the Church’s situation there than I do.

Here is an example of behind the scenes realities that few, if any, news sources are aware of: According to sources, China’s party authorities threatened to orchestrate the consecration of more bishops without Vatican approval in order to force a formal break with the Vatican by creating a majority of non-papally-approved bishops. This action was promised, I am told, if the Vatican did not sign an agreement. Those in favor of resistance point to the recent spate of cross removals, church destructions, arrests of priests, and policies forbidding minors from attending religious activities. Those in favor of rapprochement point to the fact that the pope now has final say on the election of bishops, all of China’s hierarchy is at last in full communion with the Holy See, and they note that despite continued persecution the situation would be much worse without the agreement.

Whether resistance or rapprochement is the best course for China’s Church at this historical moment is a question that will not be resolved anytime soon, but the outlines of both strategies have been shaped by decades of Jesuit experience with party policies.

One Final Comment: There Are More Factors Than Politics at Play

I’ve entitled this column “China’s Catholic Leviathan” because it ambiguously asks whether the leviathan is the Church’s challenge to China or China’s challenge to the Church. Few women or men born into Western culture can imagine the tremendous authority that cultural identity has upon someone born into East Asian society. The Japanese Protestant, Uchimura Kanzō (1861-1930), once pronounced, “I have two Js and no third; one is Jesus and the other is Japan. I do not know which I love more, Jesus or Japan.” And the famous Japanese Catholic, Endō Shūsaku (1923-1996), the author of Silence, referred to his Catholicism as an “ill-fitting Western suit,” and he noted how he could never wear it comfortably since it is not part of the Japanese wardrobe.

In China, there is a common saying that, Duo yige jidutu bianshao yige Zhongguoren, or “One more Christian is one less Chinese.” I suspect that to Western ears these assertions are either unfathomable or unacceptable, but they are nonetheless a culturally Asian reality one confronts when becoming or being a Christian. Chinese Catholics are pressed between two colossal leviathans, one that tells them to be a Catholic first and another that urges them to be Chinese first. China’s emperors have always held that Chineseness supersedes all other identities, and China’s present rulers maintain the same opinion.

The renewed Sino-Vatican agreement is not merely a religious or political matter; it is couched within larger issues of culture. China’s Catholics are forced to uphold their faith, like Job, within a giant leviathan that is China itself, and no-one living outside the Great Wall can fully understand the challenges involved in their struggle.

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook,
Or snare his tongue with a line which you lower?
Can you put a reed through his nose,
Or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you?
Will he speak softly to you?
Or will he make an agreement with you?”ix


i “Holy See and China renew Provisional Agreement for 2 years,” Vatican News, 22 October 2020.

ii September 8th Editorial Board (Chinese Jesuits), Blessings of the Divine Bounty of “September 8th (Taipei: Tien Educational Center, 1999), 91.

iii Blessings of Divine Bounty, 88.

iv Blessings of Divine Bounty, 87.

v “Document No. 19,” Third Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing, 22-30 May, 1980.

vi “Document No. 3,” General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Beijing, 17 February 1989.

vii “Document No. 6,” General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Beijing, 5 February 1991.

viii “Document 26,” General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Beijing, 16 August 1999.

About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 50 ArticlesAnthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.

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I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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