Two tormented Chinese Catholic souls

2008-07-31Asia Times

BEIJING - In China, it is now trendy to wear a cross, hanging from a small chain at the neck and fully exposed on the chest. The cross might be made of wood, metal or, even, silver or gold or with precious stones. However, the cross is not always worn for the sake of fashion. While it may be worn as jewelry, it is also worn by many as a religious statement.

Today, when asked about the meaning of the cross, the bearer might answer, proudly and clearly, "Yes I am a Christian." Yet, after that pronouncement, everything becomes blurred. Most people do not know the difference between being Christian (jidujiao in China refers to Protestants) and being Catholic, or of the various branches of the Protestant faith.

A Chinese government estimate puts the total number of Chinese "Christians" at 130 million, almost 10% of the population, and at least five times the percentage of Christians (Protestants and Catholics) as when the communists took power in China in 1949. Even taking into account the country's population increase during the past 60 years, the absolute numbers of Christians has grown immensely from the original 8 to 9 million in 1949.

However, when taking a closer look at these numbers there might, in fact, be little change from 1949. The Catholics, even in their more optimistic estimates, make up no more than 12 to 13 million, or about 1% of China'’s population. Of note, this is the same percentage of Catholics as in 1949. The rest of the Christians are Protestants or members of similar groups.

I conducted a small survey and found that many Chinese migrants in Italy, who are free to express themselves, have become Jehovah's Witnesses. Many of these people report converting to Christianity in their villages (they are mostly from the Wenzhou area, in Zhejiang province) because a wandering pastor stopped by their house and saved one sick relative through his prayers. In return, the family converted.

In the countryside, there are also many Mormons and Evangelicals. Most simply follow the pastor they have met as a result of yuanfen, or fate [1]. Many of those pastors are self-taught, having only recently read a translation of the Bible in Chinese, and the translation may be not be either accurate or scholarly. To this very weak biblical basis they add their own preaching, which is bound to draw more from local Chinese non-Christian lore than from the Bible, simply because the Bible is not part of Chinese education or tradition. Many pastors actually mix Christianity with Taoism and Buddhism.

Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are considered, by Catholics, to be pseudo-Christians and, thus, they might not be very different, theologically, from Hong Xiuquan's Taipings, the religious sect that almost toppled the Qing Dynasty in the middle of the 19th century.

The leader of the rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, claimed to be Jesus Christ's younger brother, according to a vision he had after reading a partial translation of the Bible in Chinese. He was responsible for organizing a religious movement and creating a hierarchical church, where he was the chief leader and his siblings and friends became senior officials. He also edited his own version of the Bible.

At its peak, the tightly knit Taiping organization had millions of converts, and some modern Christians might have sprung from that old, distorted Christian sect while others might be heirs of the highly literate foreign Protestant missionaries who flocked to China beginning in the 19th century. Different from those churches of the past, modern Protestants are not organized into a single vertical Church. As far as it is known, they also do not plan on bringing down the government, they are not rebellious and do not want to establish a new order.

The government, mindful of the past Taiping history, might have been inclined to suppress these new Christians, however, the Falungong, in 1999, changed the order of the government's priorities.

Falungong in the firing line
On April 25, 1999, about 10,000 Falungong (a Taoist-Buddhist sect) followers surrounded Zhongnanhai, China's White House, in a show of force as they demanded greater political power. Top Chinese leaders had no warning from their security agencies, and were caught completely by surprise. They later learned the protest was organized, or abetted, by senior security officials.

Government officials became suspicious that the protest might have been part of some kind of attempted putsch supported by the most conservative, xenophobic wing of the Communist Party and aimed at stopping the ongoing process of reforms. In fact, the Falungong are opposed to modern science and medicine, adhering to an old line of Chinese tradition, and they claim that diseases do not exist, but are manifestations of sins. Thus, without sins there would be no sickness. The Falungong, with a very structured organization modeled after the Communist Party, with cells, a central committee and politburo, claimed to have 100 millions supporters.

"The fact that so many people believed in this mumbo-jumbo changed the debate in the party. It proved that it was not that reforms were going too fast; the problem was that reforms were going too slowly," a senior official told me in 2000 [2].

Additionally, the protest proved there was a "spiritual market" outside of the party's reach. Following Mao Zedong's demise, the party had forsaken all claims to total "spiritual" answers. The party had long stopped preaching "dialectic materialism" as some kind of religion, as it had during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This had created a huge spiritual void and, by the early 1980s, China was rife with all kinds of breathing exercises, called Qigong, and derived from ancient Chinese tradition. These exercises all assured better health and many went as far as promising miracles and immortality. The Falungong was born in these traditions. Now, people who had lost all faith in eternal communism, and with traditional Confucian values shattered by decades of Maoism, turned to Qigong. And following the crackdown on Falungong, many former Qigong practitioners turned their religious interests to Christianity "with Chinese characteristics", and with the blessings of government officials who preferred Christianity to Falungong.

At first glance, those disorganized, scattered Christians were less of a threat to party rule than one organized church (whatever its creed) and they delved less in mystic, millennial beliefs of the Daoist-Buddhist tradition, rife in China since the times of the Yellow turbans (170-184 AD.), the uprising that brought down the Han Dynasty.

Moreover, Christianity did not preach against science and modernity, as the Qigong practices, deeply traditional Chinese and suspicious of modernity and foreign ideas. In fact, the Western tradition proved that Christianity - of all kinds - could work well, hand-in-hand with modernity and science. It was the feasible and proven religious answer to the modern world. So China, just as it had imported science and was importing "modernity", could also hope to import the religion itself, ie Christianity.

In this process, as happened with modernity and "socialism", religion had to adapt it to its "Chinese characters". Then, the work of its pastors would be fully in line with this tradition, just as it was during the work of the Jesuits, who rose to the top echelons of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In sum, many of these new Chinese Christians are part of some form of the new converts to "modernity", which in China is tantamount to "Westernization", that is, the American way of life. In other words, they pray to Jesus as they may eat at McDonald's or at Kentucky Fried Chicken. But, as they cannot eat hamburgers every day and cannot digest cheese and cannot stand its smell, so they cannot take the whole "pure" overeducated Christianity and even the "purely" American Presbyterians or Evangelicals are hard to swallow.

As in their food, they add soy sauce or rice vinegar, so here, in their Evangelical faith, they may add their belief in Feng Shui (wind and water, Chinese traditional geomancy) and the Yijing (ancient soothsayers' manual).

However, as in food, there are real "gourmets" of faith. A whole legion of Chinese, now in many seminaries, devoutly study Latin as they seek to become Catholic or Protestant priests. These people take the old Chinese beliefs with a grain of salt. They do not believe in the metaphysical power of Feng Shui, but lend an ear to it when it concerns some of its more physical and "realistic" aspects, such as recommending not to reside near polluted rivers because of unclean air or the adage to build your house with its back to a high mountain where it will be warmer in winter and protected from cold winds.

Can this tiny Catholic minority in China, which is, anyway, more numerous than Catholics in staunchly Catholic Ireland, be the backbone of a new worldwide Catholicism? Now, more than ever, only God knows. These Chinese Catholics have a very strong faith because they have converted twice; they accepted a religious belief that was strange to them (the Catholic faith) and have also accepted a culture and rituals totally foreign to them. All the rituals of the mass and of the life of the church were distilled through at least 30 centuries of Western tradition, as Catholicism inherited the Jewish, Greek and Roman traditions, and even the language of the church is Latin. These are all foreign things to the Chinese people and culture.

This double conversion is at the heart of the ancient problem of China and Catholics. Non-Catholic Chinese may be indifferent, or even sympathetic, to the "simple" conversion to the Catholic faith, but the total conversion to a foreign culture is a different matter. Furthermore, for the sake of world culture, the idea of "cultural conversion" is not correct. A cultural conversion of all Chinese people would result in a very important cultural loss to the world: the Chinese. Everybody would lose out; first, the Chinese and second, the rest of the world.

Besides, the possibility of converting the culture of all-Chinese is simply impossible and self-defeating. The Chinese culture is too strong, too ancient, too entrenched, and attempts for mass "erasure" with a new culture would backfire. Therefore, either Catholics limit themselves to convert a tiny minority of "religious connoisseurs" or, if they have bolder ambitions, they have to first convert the "Catholic culture" into a Chinese mold. This was first attempted by the Jesuits who worked as true "translators" of culture, as they brought Western ideas to China and Chinese ideas to the West.

In this, it is important to consider religion separately and in two parts. There is the kernel of belief about divinity and there is the cultural wrapping that enables the delivery and the acceptance of the belief. These differences are not absolute, they can be reconciled once the different cultures are fully understood and "translated". But this translation work has, presently, been lagging behind.

This is not a theoretical issue, but is very practical as it trickles down to present day Chinese Catholics, split between the official and underground church, with many people caught in-between. This is also a political issue, though not simply a political issue.

Very briefly, in 1951 the Holy See and the newly founded People's Republic of China broke diplomatic ties. To ensure the party's control over religion, China established "patriotic associations" to oversee all major religions. These associations were designed to keep the local religions independent of foreign influence. The move aroused little controversy, as many Chinese remembered that foreign religions had been used, at times, as instruments by colonial powers.

Isolated from Rome, but with its hierarchy basically intact, the Chinese Catholics held on, as they were mostly deployed in the patriotic associations. Some of them might have found solace in the fact that Jesus had commanded: "To Caesar what is of Caesar's, to God what is of God's." The patriotic Catholics then remained loyal to Rome on religious matters, but bowed to the communist state for all else. Even so, all Catholics suffered, at one point or another, at the hands of the Maoist government and remained unreconciled between their two souls, one Chinese and one Catholic.

In the time of the Cold War, Rome had no inclination to look for compromises, and the hostility was warmly reciprocated in Beijing. In this situation, as the local clergy grew old and many elderly bishops had died, Pope John Paul II granted the Chinese Church, in the 1980s, the privilege of a "special condition". Thus, under conditions of duress and with clear difficulties in communicating with Rome, Chinese Catholics could appoint their own bishops without consultation with the pope.

This privilege allowed the underground church to appoint its own bishops who, then, were not recognized by Beijing. However, the privilege was also called on by the patriotic association that appointed its own bishops who were, at times, not recognized by the pope.

In reality, as the years went by, the situation became confusing due to many gray areas. Most newly appointed bishops were, in fact, recognized by both parties, and by the mid-1990s the concept of an "underground church" had changed its meaning. These people were no longer clandestine nor were their activities unknown to the local government. Rather, they were people well known to Chinese authorities who refused to register with the patriotic association, loyal to the principle that the association was not recognized by the pope.

The underground priests and bishops were mostly free to lead their own services, except for some occasional government harassment. This is not to be complacent about the harassment, but to stress that times had drastically changed from a period

when priests had to totally conceal their identity and activity.

This de facto legalization of underground church activity, the fact that by 1999 and 2000 most underground bishops had come to terms with local governments, and the fear caused by the Falungong threat, created the premise for China's first attempt to normalize relations with the Holy See. Furthermore, despite decades of harsh repression, Chinese Catholics had never rebelled and, even during the Tiananmen movement in 1989, they did not join the protests. In that particular case, Bishop Zen of Hong Kong ordered priests and seminarians to stay clear of the demonstrations. In a way, this proved to the government that the Catholics were reliable. However, this first attempt of reconciliation failed miserably under still-mysterious circumstances.

Beijing, basically, had decided to normalize ties in 2001, giving in to most of the Vatican's requests. However, China learned that the Vatican had decided to canonize 120 Chinese martyrs on October 1, China's national day. Beijing saw this as a provocation because the Vatican had chosen national day as, seemingly, to conceal the Catholic religious celebration during a busy national holiday, and because the martyrs were all people killed by the Chinese government (although none of the saints were killed after 1949). The long list did not include people like Matteo Ricci, highly respected in China, whose tomb has been preserved and restored within the Beijing Communist Party School area.

The Chinese signaled, many times, their concern about the canonization, but all alarms went unnoticed in Rome. To this day, it is still not clear what happened. Beijing still suspects that it was a deliberate act of provocation, created with the support of the Taiwanese government of that time [3].

The Holy See claims it underestimated the gravity of the situation until, in September 2001, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray returned from Beijing carrying a very strong warning for the Pope. The Chinese were hoping the Vatican could, at least, postpone the canonization, but it was already too late for that.

It was a major loss of face for China, and for then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who had personally pushed for the rapprochement.

A total freeze of ties followed.

The Chinese were suspicious of the Vatican for several reasons. The Catholics were an organized Church with their foreign head located abroad, out of reach of Chinese authorities, as was the case with the Dalai Lama residing in India with Tibetan Buddhists, and Li Hongzhi, head of the Falungong, living in America. Moreover, unlike the Dalai Lama or Li Hongzhi, the pope had an international stature, as he had a state, though minimal, and official representatives, nuncios, in all world capitals and international organizations.

The nature of this relation was different from that of other states. In other bilateral relations, trade was the largest conveyor of communications. Typically, if something went wrong on the political side, rising or falling trade could signal the state of health of relations or provide little stings that reminded the other party to pay attention. China and the Vatican would have no trade, meaning, if Beijing were unhappy about Vatican policies it would have to arrest Chinese priests. However, since these priests were, first, Chinese, it would be like, as an official put it to me, "Slapping my own face to show it to you. Then you don't care and I slap my face some more. In the end, you have suffered nothing and I am sick."

Last, but surely not least, there was the ancient difficulty in drawing a line between religion and politics, or faith in divinity and ideology. This last point was the most controversial because it interfered directly with the party idea of its being the ultimate decision maker on issues of state and civil behavior.

A new era is born

These differences were eased by moves on both sides. The pope sent several messages in 2006 and 2007 to Beijing, stressing that he wanted Chinese Catholics to be good Chinese citizens. In fact, he claimed that there was no contradiction between the two, and in his letter to the Chinese people, issued in June 2007, he canceled the state of emergency in China, and, for the first time fully recognized the legitimacy of the People's Republic of China. Because of this, he also ended the practice of appointing bishops made by the underground church and stressed that all new appointments had to be agreed on with the Chinese authorities. The common choice of the new bishop of Beijing, in September 2007, was evidence of this new relationship.

Furthermore, at the party congress held in autumn of that year, party secretary Hu Jintao praised the role of religion in building a "harmonious society" and on December 26, the day after Christmas, he chaired a politburo study meeting on religion, the first ever in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Here, again, there was repeated only praise for the role of religion in society.

However, the most outspoken controversies seem not to be between the pope and Hu Jintao, as between the two souls of Chinese Catholics. For both fear being crushed by the new normalization of ties.

The official Catholic Church worries over losing its standing, its direct contacts with the government leadership, its control of the physical assets of the church and its power over the hierarchy. The underground church fears being completely swept under the carpet and sacrificed by the official church. Both know that a time of total freedom has ended. So far both groups, in fact, have not responded to the Chinese government or to the Vatican. Church officials did not respond to the government, claiming they were loyal to Beijing. At the same time, Beijing did little to interfere in the internal life of official Catholics, seeking not to arouse opposition. The underground church did not obey the government, as it hardly recognized it and was, also, quite independent of Rome, claiming the distance, the particular conditions, and the official persecution kept it separate.

Over the years, things have grown so confused and so messy that in some dioceses there are now three bishops: one official, one underground, one "conciliatory", and all fighting with each other for authority.

It is as if parts of the same separated body are fighting with each other, knowing they will be sewn together again but not sure how they are going to live with each other.

At the moment, there are two possible solutions.

First solution: To reach a minimal agreement and then build slowly on successive revisions. This would require sending a nuncio to Beijing to manage all the conflicting streams of Chinese Catholicism.

Second solution: To first reach a comprehensive agreement and begin a normalization, while sending a nuncio to Beijing.

Some middle-ranking officials, on both sides, concerned with the actual implementation of the agreement, would prefer the latter; while top leaders on both sides might go for the former, as they are interested in reaping the broad political fallout of the agreement (the Chinese) or, practically, begin by sorting out the local complications of the life of the Chinese church.

Besides the larger friction, there is a growing trust between the two sides. China and the Holy See reached an informal agreement on the choice for the priest who became bishop of Beijing last year, after the demise of Fu Tianshan. Fu was earlier appointed by the government but not recognized by Rome. Conversely, following intense consultations in 2007, Beijing and Rome jointly picked young Li Shan (born in 1965) to the prestigious and symbolic position of Bishop of Beijing, now the virtual head of the Chinese Catholic Church.

Furthermore, for the first time since the departure of the last nuncio in 1951, the Chinese government agreed to allow four Catholic priests to celebrate one mass each week in five foreign languages during the Summer Olympic Games. The masses, to be held in three central churches, will be conducted in Italian, Spanish, German, French and Korean. English-language masses are already celebrated by Chinese priests. These masses are intended for the foreign community that will flock to Beijing for the period of the Olympics and Para-Olympics, running through September 20 and, thus, their political impact will be minimized. However, this is seen as a major political event as the government will concede some 50 occasions (the total number of masses) to foreign, uncontrolled priests to preach the Catholic creed in "communist" Beijing. The event is being interpreted as important proof of a new trust between China and the Holy See.

Yet, in the end, both sides are clear that the agreement cannot be just a political barter of small clauses on a piece of paper. Present China is the continuity of a millennial tradition, and the Vatican represents the only continuity of 30 centuries of Western civilization, as it inherited the tradition of the Jews, the Greeks and the ancient Romans all the way to the present, and in agreement or in opposition to it, the Christian tradition is largely defined by Rome.

If these two traditions manage to find common cultural grounds, a deeper dialogue, beyond the petty economic or political bartering between China and the Western world could be put in place.

In the end, what will also matter will be to find common values going beyond the issue of national integrity, something that was forced onto China by Western powers in colonial times. China, before adapting to "modern Western concepts" of a nation state, was something close to the American melting pot: you could speak Chinese, you behaved like a Chinese, therefore you were Chinese, despite the color of your hair, your skin or even your accent.

Meanwhile, in the West: "In their rebellion against Christianity, the nations of Europe have exhausted and demoralized themselves. After the catastrophes of the past century, they are neither Christian nor nationalist." [4]

In China, influential thinkers such as Zhao Tingyang, Huang Ping, Li Xiaoning, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui are striving to create new doctrines that go beyond the notion of the nation, as the post-Westphalian nation-states imposed onto China since the 19th century. In this sense, their effort appears parallel to similar elaborations going on in the US. However, this is a whole new subject that goes beyond the scope of the present article.

This new cultural project should be the real basis for the renewal of international organizations like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and others that now are seen as increasingly outdated.

1. The term yuanfen that many people use when talking about how they met the pastor they trust, belongs to Buddhist terminology. Certainly, this is used for a lack of better words and for the common usage of the term. Still, it is a further indication of the syncretistic nature of Chinese Christianity.
2. My conversation with a senior official in 2000, after the severe crackdown on the Falungong.
3. The Taiwanese were very concerned about normalization of ties with the Vatican, something that would have further isolated the island, officially part of China although de facto independent.
4. David Shushon "Zionism for Christians", 2008, First Things (June/July 2008).

(The author would like to thank Professor Daniel L Overmyer for the long conversation and the enlightening readings that have inspired most of this article.) (2008-07-31 Asia Times)


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