Catholic Jesuits, an order to which Francis belongs, arrived in China in the 16th century.
After winning China’s civil war in 1949, the Communist Party took over all organized religion and came down especially hard on Catholics. The Vatican and China broke off diplomatic relations in 1951.
In 1957, China established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to oversee Catholic churches. But the Vatican, despite some recognition of the authority of its priests to administer sacraments, had not fully recognized it.
In striking the deal, Pope Francis succeeded where his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II failed. But he also built on their steps toward reconciliation.
In 2007, Pope Benedict recognized the celebration of sacraments inside the state’s official churches, and selected Cardinal Parolin, a senior diplomat, to guide the negotiations with China. When Pope Francis selected Cardinal Parolin as his secretary of state, it was largely seen as a sign that he had moved a deal with China up the priority list.
In 2014, as the pope made positive sounds about China and Archbishop Celli sought to reopen talks, China allowed the pope to fly over its airspace on his way to South Korea.
Critics of an agreement with China are rife within the church, but also as far afield as the United States, where it has been harshly criticized by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. They have argued that the pope risked setting a terrible precedent by folding to an authoritarian power with a shameful record of human rights abuses and persecution of religious groups.
But the church has been making concessions to secular powers since before Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king, Charlemagne in the year 800. In the 16th century, the pope gave a French king the right to appoint major clerics and Pope Pius VII signed a similar agreement with Napoleon in the 19th century.