After China became communist, as the government sought to limit foreign influences and unite people in Chinese institutions, it prohibited religious institutions with loyalties to foreign governments. Only government-recognized and approved religious groups could exist officially. Practicing religion was allowed; declaring allegiance to a foreign authority such as the Pope in Rome was not. The government established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957 to exercise supervision over China’s Catholics, and this official body remains the only recognized Catholic authority in China today. Its bishops are subject to approval by the government. Some of them also have approval from Rome, while some do not. Because only the state can regulate social activities, the CPCA prevents bishops from freely presenting Catholic moral teaching on certain issues, such as abortion and contraception.
Meanwhile, “underground” or “house” churches continued to meet, to seek approval from the Holy See for the ordination of bishops, and to maintain unity with the wider Church. At some times and in some places these two groups have seemed to be completely parallel and distinct; in other places, Catholics do not even know the difference between the two. Despite these political and historical divisions, the Church in China is one. In recent years, significant efforts at reconciliation have brought the two communities closer together both in terms of hierarchy and practice.
The actual conditions of religious life today for ordinary Catholics in China vary widely. There are seminarians, priests and religious; there are thriving parishes and institutions such as clinics and schools. In some areas, house churches function quite openly and even in tandem with the official church; in other areas the “underground” church is subject to surveillance and repression. While questions about the authority to appoint bishops and the ultimate allegiance of bishops are of great concern to the government, and while on an institutional level the freedom of the Church is restricted, ordinary Catholics are generally able to celebrate the sacraments and practice their religion freely.