China's Catholics: Sixty Years of Faith, Resistance, and Reaching for Freedom | Anthony
E. Clark | Ignatius Insight
China's Catholics: Sixty Years of Faith, Resistance, and Reaching for Freedom | Anthony
E. Clark | Ignatius Insight
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
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:
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 the
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
In the 1950s, Catholics resisted the state by filling the streets with banners;
today they resist by emptying churches when state-sanctioned banners are
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 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
series, "Saints of China", which aired this past fall..
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