The Vatican and China

CJ Cowan

10 May 2018

Saint Angelo Bridge over the Tiber River with the St. Peter's Basilica in the background. Rome, Italy.

Saint Angelo Bridge over the Tiber River with the St. Peter's Basilica in the background. Rome, Italy.


The Church is looking east. The Catholic Church and the People’s Republic of China are attempting to end their seventy-year schism with a potential agreement concerning the selection of Bishops. It seems odd in a post-secular world that an emerging superpower would bother reconnecting with a seemingly archaic institution, but it becomes much more pragmatic when one understands the church as a unique international actor with enormous soft power capabilities.

The Catholic Church is the oldest global organization with over a billion followers, found in every country and region. The Catholic Church, especially the papacy, uses its clout as a moral reservoir or megaphone as a form of “Soft Power”. Joseph Nye defined soft power as the ability to shape the preferences of others, which often means getting others to want what is in your interest by co-opting actors as opposed to coercing them. In its most basic form it amounts to the ability to attract, and this attraction leads to acceptance of mutual goals.

It appears that Pope Francis is actively using this political tool. His Holiness has placed himself into global policy debates concerning various issues including climate change, migration and economic justice. The influence the Church has garnered through soft power has allowed it to enter environments typically reserved for states. The Church is among the two entities that have Permanent Observer status at the United Nations, the other being Palestine. The status includes having standing invitation to participate in the General Assembly and have a Permanent Observer mission at the Headquarters. This is obviously unique as this status is not given to other religious entities or NGOs. The Pope’s representatives do not vote in the General Assembly sessions, but they can participate in debates and co-sponsor resolutions. This special status puts the papacy at the same level as Palestine, a geopolitical contender, showcasing the importance the UN places on the Church.

During the papacy of John Paul II, beginning in 1978, the countries that the Vatican had full diplomatic ties with grew from 85 states to 174. John Paul II was instrumental in the growth and success of the church’s contemporary international standing. John Paul II used the church’s institutional and societal influence in furthering church interests. He used this influence to undermine communism in his native Poland, and the support he gave to opposition forces were thought to be crucial to the fall of communism. His unique ability as Pope to operate on multiple levels, which included the state level, like President Ronald Reagan’s United States, and sub-state level, like the Polish church hierarchy, would prove invaluable to his cause.

The Church’s influence goes beyond Europe and is present in Africa. The Catholic Church has grown significantly in Africa. According to CARA, a research group, the global Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980, but the African Catholic population has grown by 238 percent in the same period. This marked increase in followers on the continent has changed the Church’s orientation towards Africa. John Mbiti, a Kenyan writer, described this pivot, “The centers of the church’s universality are no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.”.

The controversy lies in that fact that HIV health crisis in Africa has been costly in human suffering, but the Church’s stance against contraception as disease prevention may be exasperating the crisis. Pope Benedict’s inflammatory rhetoric against contraception caused outcry from the UN and Health Care Professionals, but Pope Francis’ language surrounding the issue has been more guarded and cautious.

The importance of the Church’s international clout is emphasized by the current negotiations between the Holy See and Beijing on normalizing relations. Pope Francis sees restoring ties with China as a priority. Official ties between the Vatican and China were cut off after the Communists took power in 1949. Nearly half of the approximate 10 to 12 million Chinese Catholics practice in underground churches that oppose government interference in religious life. The other half worship in government-managed and approved churches with clergy appointed by the Chinese government. The Vatican appears to be negotiating with ecclesiastical motives, but Beijing’s political motives include legitimizing it’s controversial religious policy.

These negotiations would allow China to select a pool of clerical candidates and the Vatican would be free to choose from that pool. This might appear to be veto power, but all the candidates would be carefully selected to ensure their vested interest aligned with the Communist Party. China will likely use the negotiations with Rome to pressure it to end diplomatic ties with the Taiwan in favour of establishing relations with Beijing.

Despite sweeping global secularization the Church still holds a lot of sway on the global stage. It is a large, transnational organization that exists on every continent and in every country. This allows it to operate on domestic, international, and even global levels to seek its goals and interests. Its key asset is its soft power that has attracted countries like China to seek its favour. China in its rise to power requires a favourable image on the world stage and by courting a friendship with the Church it can repair its image of being opposed to religious freedom and reach other geopolitical goals. The fact that China is willing to work cooperatively with the Church shows the value and influence the church has in the global system.