China challenge for Pope Francis

2015-03-07 20:01Asia Times

The account of the Catholic Church in China is not one but four narratives together, and the future concerns how these four are going to blend together to make a new story.

It all started in the 1950s when the atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP), loyal to its own special characteristics, devised a peculiar way to deal with religion. Unlike other communist states, the CCP did not ban religions, but chose to organize them in para-party structures, the patriotic associations.

One association for each major religion was devised and put under the Bureau of Religious Affairs, linked to the United Front, a party body dealing with all non-party groups. Catholics were confronted with the uneasy choice of joining the Patriotic Association and giving up their loyalty to the Pope, or going underground. The church split in two with reciprocal hatred and recriminations.

In a nutshell, the ones who went underground for decades blamed the others for betraying the faith. The "official" group used to say that the faith survived thanks to their compromises: they managed to carry on theological education in the seminaries (which remained at time partly open) and stopped the spread of deacons, old non-priestly religious figures whose positions were revamped world wide after the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, but who in China could have caused a deep de-sanctification of the church.

Even with the growing relaxation of policies on religion with the reforms, hostility between the two groups remained strong. For many years people in Hong Kong and Rome claimed that contact and dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing would simply benefit the officials and the "traitors," and make life even more difficult for the loyal "undergrounders."

The stories of these two groups are just two of the four narratives of the church in China, but they make it difficult for Catholics to fully explore the other two important dimensions/narratives that could be told. One is about evangelization. In less than 20 years, Protestants of all denominations went from being less than 1% of the population (their number at the time of the Communist takeover in 1949) to about 10%, according to some current estimates.

The Catholics conversely went from being more than 1% of the population in 1949 to being less than 1% now. That is, they did not grow but decreased in percentage. The numbers may not be exact, as no precise tallies of these religions exist, but there is definitely a diverging trend: the number of Protestants is growing much faster than Catholics.

Certainly there are many reasons why the Protestants grew (they are more loosely organized, their doctrine is less difficult and less demanding, etc.) and the Catholics didn’t, but one is certainly the competition between the official group and undergrounders, which has been the focus of the church both in Rome and in China for many years, not the spread of the gospel to non-believers. The lack of this work also weighed on another role the church has played in other times and places: facilitating political and cultural exchanges.

As China is entering the world, it is undergoing a deep cultural and social earthquake, and the world is just beginning to come to grips with the challenge of this elephant-size civilization joining the world.

Traditionally, the church played an important role in these passages. The conversion of the Germanic and Slavic tribes after the fall of Rome and the weakening of Byzantium eased clashes between formerly Roman and non-Roman territories. The church did convert the "barbarians," but it also transformed the population of former Roman lands and the two peoples eventually came together. After Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 and buried in Cosenza possibly with the Menorah, the holy candlestick of the Jews, most Roman commentators saw the end of the world.

The Christians just a century before had struck a deal with Emperor Constantine and were the official religion of the empire, so they saw the threats to Rome from the heathen barbaric tribes as a threat to their newly acquired position. Augustine, a saint for all Christians (Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants - Martin Luther derived his revolutionary theory of the Grace from Augustine) conversely saw in it the beginning of a new civilization. The invasions similarly were not a success of the German tribes, but the failure of the empire. Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 letter to the Chinese Catholics also quoted Augustine.

In theory, this should be also the task of the church now: to help China understand the Western world and help the Western world understand China. The institution of the church after all has inherited many of the Imperial Roman trappings and represents in many ways the continuity of millennia of Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet it does not want to be trapped in the ancient Roman traditions, so China could be an occasion for renewal, to follow Augustine.

However, both opportunities have been missed as the church got stuck in infighting - or so it seemed. Actually a series of trailblazing interviews by Gianni Valente [1] published recently on Vatican Insider tell a different story. The three bishops, all undergrounders, who suffered heavily under the Chinese government in the past, were under a lot of pressure from the authorities and spoke openly of the need to have a dialogue with Beijing. These stories de facto belie a common narrative in the church out of China that argues that to protect the underground bishops, we must not normalize ties with Beijing. Here some of the bravest and most heroic clerics say just the opposite.

In fact, since Benedict’s 2007 letter, the situation between the two churches (underground and official) has dramatically improved. Moreover, the official government policies toward believers have also improved. This may be all something hard to appreciate for people outside of China, but possibly some near the Pope and his secretary of state, Cardinal Parolin (an old China hand), have grasped the new reality.

The new reality may present two more important opportunities: the spread of the faith and a cultural and spiritual role of the church in dealings between China and the Western world. Yet it remains to be seen if the memories of the old fight in China has not spread outside China, to Rome. In other words: the fight between undergrounders and officials may have subsided in China but that story may be a new weapon in the harsh fight that part of the Curia is conducting with this new revolutionary Pope.

What is the role of the Church in the world? Pope Francis has signaled time and again he wants to move out of the old roman walls, many in the Curia are conversely too comfortable within those walls and dread to move out. In this China perhaps becomes part of an existential issue for the Church.

1. See Vatican Insider, Il vescovo di Lanzhou: la pace Cina-Chiesa un 'dono dall'alto' and Cina, il vescovo 'clandestino': la Santa Sede faccia il primo passo.

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People’s University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.

(Copyright 2015 Francesco Sisci.)


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