Not since the Boxer Uprising in 1900 has world media given as much attention to Christians in China as it has in recent weeks. One can barely keep up with the deluge of reports and articles, not to mention numerous works of punditry and commentary, attempting to explain the Vatican’s recent negotiations with China’s government. It brings to mind a warning from Marshall McLuhan, who once wrote: “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”1 That is to say that media accounts, however necessary, are not always reliable sources of information, especially when they are laden with rumors and speculation. Only those who are in the private meetings in Rome with Pope Francis and his followers are entirely privy to what, precisely, is being discussed between the Holy See and China’s authorities.
But what is certain is that negotiations are indeed underway, and that leaders of the Catholic Church are negotiating with a government that is communist and a state that has openly professed its aim to eradicate religious faith, having time and again persecuted Christians. Anyone who believes that China’s communist party has changed its attitudes and behaviors toward Christianity should pay closer attention to what has transpired over the past several months.
Now is an appropriate time to provide some basic historical information about the Church in China, and to provide some remarks on the present Sino-Vatican negotiations between Beijing and the Holy See. Allow me to preface my comments with a disclaimer: I have spent many years of my life living in China, and I deeply love and admire the culture, history, and people I have encountered there. That said, I have sat on church doorsteps in Beijing and many other places listening to story after story of how much suffering the communist party has inflicted upon China’s Christian faithful. I once sat in a small room, which was probably wired by the state authorities, while a holy bishop whispered in my ear accounts of brutal persecution committed against Catholics in China, both during the Maoist era (1949-1976) and in recent decades. In 2013, I wrote an essay for Catholic World Report about how communist soldiers under the command of Chairman Mao Zedong’s (1893-1976) top general, Zhu De (1886-1976), seized a Trappist monastery in 1947 near Beijing, at an area called Yangjiaping. What I did not mention in that article was that some of the very men who took the monks on a death march, leading to the the deaths of 33 holy monks, stood near Chairman Mao at the gate of Tiananmen and founded the People’s Republic of China only two years later.
Having taught Chinese history—especially the history of Christianity in China—for two decades, it has become evident to me that a simple timeline of China’s Catholic history can helpful for readers seeking to understand the issues that continue to define China’s Church.
A timeline of Catholicism in China
635: According to a stone monument erected around Xi’an in AD 781, the Syrian missionary Alopen was the first Christian to arrive in China in AD 635; he was a monk of the Church of the East (Nestorian).2 These Eastern monks were later the competitors with Catholics in the field of Christian evangelization.
1294: The first Catholic Church is established in China by the Italian Franciscan friar Giovanni da Montecorvino, OFM, (1247-1328). Montecorvino was China’s first Catholic bishop, who built his cathedral in 1299 in Khanbaliq, known today as Beijing.3
1368: The Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) collapses and Catholicism is forbidden in China. Thus, the Catholic Church disappears in East Asia.
1582: China’s most famous missionary, Matteo Ricci, SJ (1552-1610), inaugurates the Jesuit mission during the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Ricci published several popular Chinese books to promote Catholicism in China, the most famous of which was his Tianzhu shiyi, or the “True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,” which he published in 1603.
1685: The first Chinese priest, Gregory Luo Wenzao, OP (1616-1691), is consecrated a Roman Catholic bishop in China. It was not until 1926 that other Chinese priests were consecrated bishops.
1692: Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) publishes an edict that expresses toleration of Christianity in China. The edict stated that “all temples dedicated to the Lord of heaven, in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies practiced according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore, let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.”4
1706-1723: Emperor Kangxi retracts his support of Catholicism because of the Catholic debates over whether the traditional Chinese rites may be allowed for Christians. Most Roman Catholic missionaries are expelled from China.
1898-1900: Approximately 30,000 Christians are massacred during an uprising against foreigners and Chinese converts to Christianity called the “Boxer Uprising.” The most intense area of anti-Christian persecution occurred in Shanxi province under the orders of the local governor, Yuxian (1842-1901).5
1926: As China’s missionary bishops would not agree to consecrate Chinese bishops, Pope Pius XI (1867-1939) invites six Chinese priests to Rome and ordains them himself in St. Peter’s Basilica.6 Additional vicariates were then created in China that were administered by these Chinese bishops and Chinese clergy.
1949: Chairman Mao Zedong announces the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 before a massive crowd assembled at Tiananmen. There are approximately three million Chinese Catholics and one million Protestants who are forced to accept this new regime based upon atheistic communism.
1950-1955: All foreign missionaries and non-Chinese Christian teachers are systematically exiled from China. Roman Catholic nuns and priests are forced to leave China, while many are arrested as “ideological saboteurs.”
1954: 138 Chinese Protestant leaders issue a document entitled “The Christian Manifesto,” which inaugurated the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM). This established the so-called “Three-Selfs” model for Chinese Christians: self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. One of the founders of this movement was Pastor Y. T. Wu (Wu Yaozong, 1893-1979), who sought to harmonize Christianity with Mao Zedong and the communist party.
1955: The bishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Gong Pinmei (1901-2000), is arrested along with the bishops of Taizhou, Hankou, Guangzhou, and Baoding, and more than a thousand Catholics. They were imprisoned for long terms—Bishop Gong was imprisoned for 30 years—because of their loyalty to the pope.7
1957: The People’s Republic of China establishes the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) along similar contours of the Protestant-founded TSPM. In response, Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) issued his encyclical, Ad Apostolorum Principis, on July 29, 1958, in which he condemned the activities of the CCPA and declared bishops who participated in consecrating new bishops selected by the CCPA to be excommunicated.
1966-1976: The Cultural Revolution is orchestrated by Chairman Mao Zedong, and Catholic priests, nuns, faithful, and churches are attacked by communist youth called “Red Guards.” Churches are gutted of their religious symbolism, seized by the government, and refurbished for secular uses. Unknown thousands of Catholics are imprisoned, executed, or sent to labor camps.
1981: China’s officials remove the requirement for Chinese Catholics to swear independence from Rome and the Holy See, though the pope is only allowed to be viewed by Chinese Catholics as a “spiritual leader” who has no administrative authority over the Chinese Church.
1982: Including the pope’s name in the Canon of Holy Mass is allowed after decades of being illegal in China. Until this year Chinese priests normally mentioned the pope’s name silently, as they offered Mass according to the 1962 missal and intoned the Canon silently while facing liturgical east.
1994: The state passes the “Regulations Concerning Places of Religious Worship,” which requires all places of worship to be registered with the government.
2000: Pope St. John Paul II (1920-2005) canonizes 120 martyrs of China, including 87 who were ethnically Chinese. The Chinese government responded by publishing virulent criticisms of the Vatican’s “interference” with Chinese affairs, and accused several saints of sexual impropriety.8
2014: Local Chinese party officials in several provinces order the removal of crosses from Christian churches, and some are completely demolished. The party’s explanation is that these Christian churches are “unregistered” or “unruly.”
The Catholic Church in China: The numbers
It is impossible to assess exactly how many Catholics there are in China, since there remains a very large number of unregistered “underground” faithful; scholars estimate that unregistered Chinese Catholics account for one-third to two-thirds of the total population of Catholics actively attending Mass in the People’s Republic of China.
According to the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, there are approximately 12 million Catholics in China, which includes both registered and unregistered faithful. In informal scholarly meetings, however, estimates range from 10 to 30 million Catholics in China. Perhaps the most contentious issue today regarding the Church in China is the situation of its bishops; this is so because the state authorities have insisted that all priests eligible to be ordained bishops be selected by the party-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), rather than the pope. In China today there are around seven bishops who are not in communion with the pope, and are recognized only by the CCPA. There are around 60 bishops who are both in full communion with the Holy Father and are recognized by the CCPA. And finally, there are around 30 bishops who are recognized only by the Holy See, and operate as “underground” prelates in constant danger of arrest.
I intentionally use the word “around” when providing these numbers, because precise accounts are difficult to arrive at due to the somewhat chaotic administrative structure of the Church in China. There were many bishops who were clandestinely consecrated during the Maoist era, for example, and the Holy See was unable at that time to identify how many bishops existed in China, though their secret ordinations were considered both valid and licit since they were conducted under a state of ecclesial emergency. What this means is that the Vatican must rely on Chinese state numbers, which are unreliable, and “underground” numbers, which are dangerous to circulate, in order to assess the demographic landscape of the Chinese Church.
The “aboveground” and “underground” churches
The most common question I receive about the Church in China is, “Aren’t there two communities in China: a ‘true Church’ that exists underground and a ‘false church’ that is run by the communist party?”
This assumption has been disseminated for several decades, and it has served more to confuse than clarify the reality of one, but somewhat divided, Catholic Church in China. There is no such thing as a “state-run Catholic Church” in China; there is a state-monitored association, the CCPA, that was established to oversee how Catholics worship. The tension in China, if there is much tension at all nowadays, between the so-called “underground” and “aboveground” Catholic communities has not been about whether one community is more or less “Catholic” than the other, but rather around the question of “selling out” to state influence over the day-to-day operations of Catholic life—especially regarding the issue of how bishops are selected and ordained. Chinese Catholics view themselves as part of “one suffering Catholic Church” that is still working out how its two communities can come to an agreement about how to best practice the Catholic faith under a communist government.
Few non-Chinese know that priests and bishops in many—perhaps most—Roman Catholic dioceses in China collaborate in the administration and evangelization of their regions. One example will serve to illustrate how this operates. In the diocese of Guiyang, the state-recognized ordinary of the diocese was Andrew Wang Chongyi (1919-2017), who died last year as the administrator of the diocese at the age of 97. The unregistered, “underground” bishop during Wang’s service was Bishop Augustine Hu Daguo (1921-2011). When I met these two bishops—one “aboveground” and the other “underground”—I merely had to cross the hall at the bishops’ residence; both men lived in the same building and served their respective communities in a spirit of fraternal collaboration.
In addition, it is common that the CCPA offices attached to diocesan chanceries or cathedrals are a diversion and are not used for any official Catholic business. CCPA offices are often identified with exterior signs, but those entering the front door discover that the interior space is merely a storage area. That is, the CCPA is in many places little more than a sign, and is essentially ignored by the bishop and his clergy. Even the CCPA office at the cathedral in Kunming, administered by the excommunicated bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, is nothing more than a sign with an empty room inside. Again, it is important to know that the “line” between the sanctioned and unsanctioned Catholic communities is often nonexistent, and that even the state-run CCPA is often no more than a façade at the officially-sanctioned cathedrals of Roman Catholic dioceses.
China’s Church under Pope Francis
After Pope Francis’ election in 2013, China’s Catholics wondered if the situation for them might edge closer to normalization. A Sino-Vatican rapprochement seemed closer than ever in 2014, when the Chinese government allowed Pope Francis to fly over Chinese airspace. Yet when Pope Francis invited China’s hardline communist leader, Xi Jinping, to visit Rome, Xi refused the invitation. The pope’s continued attempts at reconciliation with China’s government have been met, at best, with sardonic appreciation. Xi Jinping’s policy vis-à-vis religion has been consistent and effective. During his address to the Central Conference on United Front Work in May 2015, Xi proposed the “sinicization of all religion” (中國化方向) in China. President Xi argued that the party should tighten its control over religion, which he suggests is “a dangerous political threat to party legitimacy.”9
China’s Catholics are now witnessing what “sinicization”—that is, conforming to Chinese characteristics—looks like for churches. A recent article published by UCAnews on March 1, featured images of cranes removing the Christian symbols from a Catholic church in Xinjiang province. Local party officials ordered workers to remove and destroy the crosses and bell towers of the church because these symbols were “incompatible with sinicization.”10 Pope Francis’ current maneuverings in China appear to align with the Church’s previous success at attaining ecclesial independence in Vietnam under its communist government. But China is much larger than Vietnam, and Xi Jinping has a more resolved anti-religious view than the recent officials in Vietnam. To be fair, Pope Francis admires China, and certainly hopes that his strategies will improve matters for Chinese Catholics. In a 2016 interview with Francesco Sisci, he stated:
For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a great country, a great culture, with inexhaustible wisdom. For me, as a boy, whenever I read anything about China, it had the capacity to inspire my admiration.11
No one can doubt the sincerity of his sentiments towards this great culture, but one wonders, as does Cardinal Joseph Zen, if the Holy See’s present negotiations in China might be imprudent and, perhaps, might engender more pain and confusion than clarity and reconciliation.
The Holy See has entered into an intricate situation in China by ordering two unsanctioned bishops to render their obedience to two bishops who are not in formal communion with the pope, and who are in fact excommunicated. Unless these bishops were indeed accepted into communion with the Holy See in secret beforehand, the Holy See has contradicted the stipulations set out by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter to the Chinese Church in 2007. In his letter, Benedict XVI insisted that:
Concerning bishops whose consecrations took place without the pontifical mandate yet respecting the Catholic rite of episcopal ordination, the resulting problems must always be resolved in the light of the principles of Catholic doctrine. Their ordination – as I have already said – is illegitimate but valid, just as priestly ordinations conferred by them are valid, and sacraments administered by such bishops and priests are likewise valid. Therefore, the faithful, taking this into account, where the Eucharistic celebration and the other sacraments are concerned, must, within the limits of the possible, seek bishops and priests who are in communion with the pope: nevertheless, where this cannot be achieved without grave inconvenience, they may, for the sake of their spiritual good, turn also to those who are not in communion with the pope.12
In other words, directing Bishops Peter Zhuang Jianjian and Joseph Guo Xijin to step down in obedience to two excommunicated bishops is to require Chinese Catholics to receive the sacraments from illicit prelates when licit ones are already serving the Catholic communities in their dioceses. This has caused both bewilderment and pain among the Chinese faithful, especially those who worship in the unregistered community. Many perceive what appears to be the Holy See’s betrayal of faithful Catholics.
I recently spoke with a bishop I deeply admire about the Vatican’s current negotiations in China, and he noted, “The Holy See must consider long-term realities – perhaps it knows what it is doing.” Perhaps. Perhaps I should be more prayerful than pessimistic regarding the Sino-Vatican negotiations now underway; there are many bishops and media sites that are more optimistic than I am. But, for the first time in my life as a Catholic scholar of China, I cannot help but ask, “Quo vadis?”
Related reading: Cardinal Zen: Chinese Catholics’ “continuous harassments…would take volumes to be narrated,” interview with Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | March 9, 2018
1 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 199.
2 See Matteo Nicolini-Zani, Christian Monks on Chinese Soil: A History of Monastic Missions to China (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016), 48-50.
3 For a general history of the Franciscan mission to China see, Arnulf Camps, OFM, and Pat McCloskey, OFM, The Friars Minor in China (1294-1955) (Rome: General Curia, Order of Friars Minor, 1995).
4 Quoted in Don Alvin Pittman, Toward a Modern Chinese Buddhism: Taixu’s Reforms (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001), 35-36.
5 See Anthony E. Clark, Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).
6 See Pasquale M. d’ Elia, Catholic Native Episcopacy in China: Being an Outline of the Formation and Growth of the Chinese Catholic Clergy, 1300-1926 (Shanghai: Tusewei Print. Press, 1927).
7 See Paul Mariani, SJ, Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
8 See Anthony E. Clark, China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing (1644-1911) (Bethlehem PA: Lehigh University Press/Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).
9 Sergio Ticozzi, “The Catholic Church and Sinicization,” Tripod, vol. 27, no. 184 (Spring 2017).
10 “Church in China Has Religious Features Forcibly Demolished,” UCAnews, 1 March 2018.
11 Francesco Sisci interview with Pope Francis, “Pope Francis urges world not to fear China’s rise: AT exclusive,” Asia Times, 25 February 2016.
12 Pope Benedict XVI, “Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons, and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China, 27 May 2007, 10.