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China's Catholics: Sixty Years of Faith, Resistance, and Reaching for Freedom | Anthony E. Clark | Ignatius Insight

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Karl Marx once said that, "History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their own ends." Chinese authorities appear to have listened well to this famous quote about the utility of history; history is often conveniently reinvented to support an official ideology. October 1st is National Day in China. It is the day on which Mao Zedong, the "Great Helmsman," stood above the vast crowds at Tiananmen and proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It commemorates the day that Communism became the official ideological engine of Chinese society, and for Catholic Christians this also marks the beginning of decades of struggle to maintain their faith and identity as members of the world's largest religious community. Indeed, there are roughly the same number of Catholics in the world as there are Chinese.

Just prior to the nation-wide celebration of the "birth of new China," Beijing's Catholic cathedral was ordered to celebrate the sixty-year anniversary of the founding of China's Catholic Patriotic Association, which is most curious as the Patriotic Association was officially founded in 1957, making it only fifty-four years old. No matter, according to the Religious Affairs Bureau, China's Catholics have "enjoyed the benefits of independence from Rome" since shortly after the country's establishment, around sixty years ago.

The reality is that in 1957 China's Religious Affairs Bureau convened a large number of China's Catholic hierarchy and officially established the Catholic Patriotic Association, founded on the principal that China's Church should not "obey a foreign influence". This meant that from that day forward the hierarchy was expected to follow the Chinese Protestant system of "self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation." China's government even tried to pressure a Chinese bishop into claiming the title "pope." When offered this position the shrewd bishop replied, "I'll happily accept the position ... as long as I am elected in Rome and live in the Vatican."

The existence of China's Catholic Patriotic Association, which defines itself in opposition to Rome, has resulted in an awkward sense of ecclesial separation from the administrative authority of the pope. To assert its self-governance, the Patriotic Association has made a habit of selecting priests to be ordained bishops, often without the pope's sanction or approval. In his recent letter to Chinese Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI noted that in China today, it is "persons who are not ordained, and sometimes not even baptized," who "control and make decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of Bishops."

In spite of this present reality, it would be incorrect to assume that China's Catholics and clergy have simply surrendered to state interference in matters of faith—China's Church has never stopped resisting Communist control and pressures, but its resistance is not often seen or heard of beyond the Great Wall. In October, China celebrated National Day with great fanfare, and even the Catholic community was called to applaud its "liberation from imperialist rule." Thus, a few weeks before National Day Beijing's churches announced a concert commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Patriotic Association; all of the capital's churches were expected to send their choirs to the South Cathedral, where they would perform a selection of songs to celebrate the Association's anniversary. It was announced as a grand occasion, and China's highest profile bishop, Li Shan of Beijing, wrote the commemorative address for the official program.

In his address, Bishop Li wrote:
We join together, Catholics and the angels, under the guiding banners of patriotism and religion, holding firmly to the principals of an independent, self-governing, and self-propagating church, conforming to China's special characteristics, serving the whole country and the capital, and serving society in a spirit of great felicity.
He continues to affirm that "Under the Catholic Patriotic Association . . . our church has experienced good development . . . and we wish to join with the Patriotic Association, to add to the utility of its strength." And in a highly nationalistic conclusion, Bishop Li exclaimed, "May God bless our church, and bless our motherland!"

To be fair, I have heard Bishop Li's preaching; he is a beautiful homilist, and it is difficult to know what pressures he is under to satisfy Party demands in order to assure the successful continuation of his diocese. But China is perhaps the few places on earth wherein Church authorities are thus compelled to mix extreme nationalism with the teachings of religious faith. Despite the rhetoric of Li's address, and despite the pre-event propaganda, the actual celebration of the "sixtieth" anniversary of the Catholic Patriotic Association tells us much about China's Catholics. The event was slated as a "Choral Celebration," and when I arrived the cathedral sanctuary was festooned with flowers and banners, and video cameras were installed to record the occasion. A special table was installed near the church entrance with large piles of special programs, each one wrapped in a tidy yellow bow. Normally, at ecclesial functions in China, churches are filled, and people mill around the entrance searching for an empty place to stand.

I went an hour early, fearing that I would not be able to procure a seat, but up until the moment the celebration began there were only a few people in the large church. The cathedral was mostly vacant, except for the Sisters of Saint Joseph (ordered to perform a song), the young men of the two local seminaries (also ordered to perform), the Vicar General (ordered to introduce the political representatives), a few priests (ordered to attend in their collars), and a handful of observers (perhaps family members of the choir members).

It appeared that my wife and I were among the few people not ordered to be present, and I was not there to render my support of an Association that hinders the work of the faith I believe in. As I turned around during one of the performances I saw that the singers were singing to a mostly empty space, and as I left I saw a table brimming over with programs that few had taken.

After Mass on Sunday I chatted with members of the church choir, and later with the assistant pastor, Father X, who, incidentally, had recently applied to visit Rome, but was encountering "visa complications." Father X informed me that the priests of the diocese had been required to attend the celebration in their clerical collars as a sign of support, but in the end most of the diocesan priests were "called way" to other responsibilities. Curiously, even the bishop—who had written the commemorative address for the event program—was absent from the concert. Before Mass the following week I asked an elderly Catholic woman, "Why was no-one at the Association anniversary concert?" And rather than answer my question directly, she removed from her bag a series of letters between the Catholic Patriotic Association and her, which demonstrated a rather unpleasant dispute with the Association authorities. "I support the pope," she finally said.

In the 1950s, Catholics resisted the state by filling the streets with banners; today they resist by emptying churches when state-sanctioned banners are displayed.

There is a large difference between the Catholic resistance of the 1950s, when Mao's iconic personality loomed dauntingly over the country, and resistance today, when large commercial advertisement billboards punctuate China's modernizing landscape. In the 1950s, Catholic resistance resulted in mass arrests and ruthless treatment in prison camps. Now, Catholic resistance, which is admittedly less militant, is largely ignored by China's authorities who are now swept away in a religious frenzy centered on the GDP. Nearly all of China's Catholics are aware of the government's new economic distractions, and they realize that they are enjoying a period of less persecution than during the Maoist era. The largest problems facing the Chinese church today are not the Patriotic Association's day-to-day interference in Catholic affairs, but the government's increasing emphasis on Chinese nationalism and isolation from outside influence.

If, as Chinese Catholics often say, "To be Catholic is to obey the pope," then how, they ask, can they practice their faith if they are ordered to limit all administrative decisions to the local church? Catholics in China recognize and appreciate the government's recent retrenching from its previous ideological hard line, and its recent financial generosity in restoring church property. But the Catholic Church is "universal"; it does not endorse nationalistic lines—all Christians share the same membership in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. China remains the only country with only clergy from its own country, and it remains the only country that stubbornly refuses to allow the pope to govern the church hierarchy, which looks after the souls of the faithful. The Catholic Patriotic Association remains a sign of government regulation and interference in religious matters, and so the faithful continue to resist it.

The following Sunday after National Day in China, I heard a brave and spirited homily by one of the priests who had ignored the sixtieth ("sixtieth") anniversary celebration of the Catholic Patriotic Association. He began with a short recollection of a recent dialogue he had with troubled parent. "My child disobeys the Church's moral teachings, Father; what's your opinion of what the Church says about this?" "Priests don't have opinions on such matters," he replied, "it's rather the job of the priest to obey and support whatever the Church teaches."

Being Catholic, the priest asserted, "requires all Catholics to assent to the authority of the pope and the teachings of the faith." Only one week after National Day, one of China's so-called "open church" priests, openly urged autonomy from state interference in religious affairs, while also urging China's faithful to obey Rome, no matter what the cost.

Envoi (October 2011)

As I write this report I see China's dry northern landscape outside of my train window quickly passing by (speed train from Tianjin to Beijing); I just spent several days assisting the good priests of Tianjin's beautiful Xikai cathedral organize and catalog the rare books in their library and archive. Sixty years ago the French Vincentians were exiled from China, labeled "imperialist counterrevolutionaries." In haste (and terror) they left behind their most precious books and fled the turbulence of Republican China as it transitioned into Communist China, and the Chinese priests who remained had little time to attend to rare books, photos, and documents. Religion was viewed, as Chairman Mao said, as "an enemy without guns," to be firmly purged from Chinese society.

In the mid-1960s, Red Guards stormed the cathedral library and bundled the most accessible books and burned them in front of the cathedral while chanting Maoist slogans: bibles, missals, breviaries, and lives of the saints perished as Catholics helplessly stood by. The Church entered its darkest decade in China (1966-1977). The library was mostly forgotten, however, and despite its current condition (dusty and infested with vermin and mildew), most of it has survived, and the priests of the cathedral are eager to restore the library to its former glory.

The Tianjin Catholic library, like the Church of China, is slowly emerging from the ashes of its unsettled past. As the government turns its attention away from religion, and toward economic development, China's Catholics feel safer to practice their faith, renovate their churches, and restore their libraries. But old vestiges of Maoist radicalism persist, and Catholic resistance also persists. As I entered the archive I saw a large anti-Catholic poster from the 1950s prominently displayed, and I asked the cathedral rector why such "art" should be kept. "It's history, right? Shouldn't the truth about what happened be preserved in our memory?" I could not help but agree with him: while history is considered flexible for those whose ideologies are believed to be more important than truth, the God who is the Truth, can tolerate nothing less than honesty about the past.

The truth is, China's Catholics are not interested in politics as much as they are interested in faith, and China's churches are full to the brim with faithful . . . except, it seems, on days when the Catholic Patriotic Association is up to its old antics, inventing a history and reality that is neither true nor real.

Note: The photos above were taken by the author in October 2011 and are reprinted with his permission. From top to bottom: the State-mandated performance in the Beijing cathedral, Tianjin's beautiful Xikai cathedral, and the Tianjin Catholic library.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Interviews, and Excerpts:

Sunday Mass at Beijing's North Church | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | September 16, 2011
EWTN series, "Saints of China", offers personal view of Catholicism, Catholic saints in China | September 4, 2011
July 9, 1900: Remembering China's Franciscan Saints | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 9, 2011
No Easy Answers: An Interview with Shanghai's Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 23, 2010
A Visit to China's Largest Catholic Village | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 12, 2010
"Oh, that I might be found worthy of martyrdom!" | From the Introduction to The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs | Gerolamo Fazzini
On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
"Weaving a Profound Dialogue between West and East": On Matteo Ricci, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
China, Catholicism, and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. and Carl E. Olson | Dec. 29, 2008
The Church in China: Complexity and Community | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | December 22, 2008
China's Catholics of Guizhou: Three Days with Three Bishops | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | October 3, 2008
China's Struggling Catholics: A Second Report on the Church in Beijing | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | September 13, 2008
China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | August 20, 2008
Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson

Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. (second from the left, at the tomb of Matteo Ricci in late 2008) is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.

He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, literature, philosophy, and religion. His current research centers on the history of the Church in China, and he has recently finished a book on the Catholic martyrs saints in China. His other interests include East/West religious dialogue, especially between Catholic and Buddhist ideas of faith and salvation. Dr. Clark has written several academic books and articles on the topic of Chinese history and has been a guest on "EWTN Live," "Catholic Answers Live," and Relevant Radio to talk about Catholicism in China. He is also the host of the EWTN series, "Saints of China", which aired this past fall..

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