New Crosses in the 21st Century

A report on the Church in China

A church worker arranges flowers for Christmas at a church in Kunming

A church worker arranges flowers for Christmas at a church in Kunming, Yunnan province, China, Dec. 23. (CNS photo/Reuters)

China has an old adage: “The closer you are to the emperor, the closer you get to the dragon’s claws.” This is as true today in Communist China as it was in imperial China. In a 1724 imperial edict, Emperor Yongzheng stated, “The Catholic religion from the West is not to be regarded as orthodox…and our laws cannot tolerate it.” And 216 years later, Chairman Mao Zedong declared, “In the field of political action Communists may form an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal united front with some idealists and even religious people, but we can never approve their idealism or religious doctrines.” Whenever Mao became displeased with China’s Catholic bishops, he labeled them “counter-revolutionaries,” which was convenient, for in 1951 he exclaimed, “Please make certain that you strike surely, accurately, and relentlessly in suppressing the counter-revolutionaries.”

China’s rulers, throughout the Church’s long history in the Middle Kingdom,  have often struck out at the Catholic faithful who have grown steadily since Matteo Ricci first founded his Chinese mission 400 years ago. The Church of the 21st century, now only a decade old, has encountered new crosses under China’s leadership, and recent months have ushered in renewed restrictions on the fragile Catholic community. Two bishops in particular have become the authoritative voices to speak to, and about, the Church in China today—Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian and Cardinal Joseph Zen.

I spoke with Bishop Aloysius Jin in Shanghai, and asked the Catholic prelate who is perhaps the most intimately involved with China’s authorities how someone in such close proximity to an officially anti-religious government manages to navigate. Bishop Jin smiled and quoted Matthew 10:16, wherein Jesus exhorts his disciples: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

“The government thinks I’m too close to the Vatican,” he said, “and the Vatican thinks I’m too close to the government.” Jin, who is now more than 95 years old, was consecrated a bishop in 1985 without the Pope’s mandate; he has been called “the government’s bishop,” though since then the Vatican has recognized his return into full communion with Rome.

He notes that the situation for Catholics in China has become increasingly divided, after the close of the more tolerant era of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Whereas in previous years the underground and official Catholic communities had begun to collaborate, Jin notes, “It is not at all true that the line between us [the sanctioned Catholic community] and the underground is disappearing. In fact, the division is now growing worse.” He continued to assert that since the official Catholic community is more visible, it is held under more intense scrutiny. “We live under enormous pressure to acquiesce to Party demands,” Jin states. Among Bishop Jin’s principal complaints is that Cardinal Joseph Zen “encourages China’s underground Church to remain firm in its opposition to the sanctioned Church.”

Less than a month later, I met with Cardinal Zen, who now resides at the Salesian House of Studies in Hong Kong. Zen is considered the most informed person alive today regarding what happens to Catholics within the Great Wall, and he is also known for his outspokenness concerning the government’s treatment of Christianity. Bishop Jin is correct about Cardinal Zen; he does advise the underground to remain separate from the “open” Church.

“Why should the underground surrender to the open Church?” Zen asks, especially since the open community is already burdened under Party control. The Catholic Patriotic Association is the mechanism the Chinese government employs to bridle the Church in that country, and Zen describes China’s sanctioned bishops as the “slaves” of Liu Bainian, the Association’s controversial chairman.

Given the disagreements between these two prelates, Jin and Zen, it is a testament of Christian charity that these two men met with such equanimity when Cardinal Zen visited Shanghai last October. In an interview with the Catholic online news source Asia News, Cardinal Zen exclaimed that the “meeting of two brothers in the Lord after years was great joy,” though he also stated that it was “like a fly in the ointment. We are great friends, but we knew that there were some words that couldn’t be said…as the ‘system’ doesn’t warrant it.”

Under the current restrictions imposed on the Church in China, especially on members of the Patriotic Association such as Bishop Jin, the “system” that Cardinal Zen laments has become “a wall in people’s hearts and a lock in people’s mouths.” One rumor surrounding the cardinal’s visit to Mainland China suggested that Bishop Jin’s spokesman denied media access to Jin without first attaining official permission from the Patriotic Association. As China’s most high-profile bishop, and one firmly attached to the Patriotic Association, Jin is understandably hesitant to tempt the dragon’s claws.

China’s rising shortage of clergy

While China’s bishops remain pressured under state restraints, and while the authorities devise methods of further deepening the divisions between the underground and above-ground communities, priests in the trenches are experiencing their own difficulties. Unlike the cathedral churches in large metropolitan cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guiyang, which often have several priests in residence who offer Mass daily, rural churches more commonly see a priest only once a month.

In the bustling diocese of Taiyuan, for instance, priests are often assigned to the pastoral care of four, five, or six large churches, sometimes hours apart. In this diocese, China’s most active, priests hear several hours of confessions at each stop on their routes, as well as offer Masses, teach catechism courses, administer final sacraments to the ill and dying, witness marriages, and settle the inevitable disputes that in arise in parishes without a permanent pastor. The number of Catholics in China has risen from three million at the time of the Communist takeover in 1949 to around 20 million today, despite—or perhaps because of—unremitting persecutions. But vocations have not risen along with the number of faithful, and priests are greatly burdened by demanding schedules and the expectations of their flocks.

In December 2010, I spoke with Father Zhang Jingfeng, a priest from China’s vast Inner Mongolian steppe, who informed me that within his diocese priests presently bear pressures from two main sources. Firstly, they are overtaxed by the demands precipitated by the increasing shortage of clergy, and secondly they often endure extremely strained relationships with their bishops. Bishops of the sanctioned Church in China are themselves squeezed between governmental coercions and pastoral exigencies. The result is that bishops feel a need to manage their priests closely for fear of official harassment, and their priests in turn do not trust their bishops, sensing that they are political puppets. Father Zhang informed me that the unfortunate consequence of these two factors is that many priests are tempted to leave the priesthood.

Father Peng Xin, from the Catholic Diocese of Wuhan, has experienced this climate of distrust firsthand. He received his theological education in Paris, and thus China’s local authorities are hesitant to trust him; his phone, email, and room are all bugged, and his fellow priests are nervous about associating with him. His bishop, who is a member of the Patriotic Association, also maintains a certain distance from him. It is precisely these kinds of pressures that lead Chinese clergy to disappear into secular life.

China’s growing political control over the Church in that country has also resulted in tremendous uncertainty among the faithful. While visiting Kunming’s beautiful cathedral, I was struck by the unusual number of images of and quotations from Pope Benedict XVI; bulletin boards, cathedral columns, inside and outside walls all featured large posters of the Pope and the Vatican. Interestingly, the local ordinary, Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, is one of the few prelates in China who still does not have the Vatican’s approval. When he was consecrated a bishop on April 30, 2006, the Vatican’s spokesperson, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, immediately announced Ma’s excommunication. Navarro-Valls reported, “The Holy Father has learned of the news with profound displeasure,” and he noted that Ma’s consecration “is a grave wound to the unity of the Church.”

In fact, the Vatican describes such illicit ordinations of bishops as grave violations of religious liberty. The faithful are naturally confused to see their cathedral decorated with images of the Pope, the very Pope who excommunicated their bishop; in this diocese the underground community has grown larger than the above-ground, causing deeper grievances between fellow Catholics. As of this writing, the Diocese of Kunming features a prominent image of Pope Benedict XVI on its official website. And some clergy who are loyal to Rome in this region feel compelled to at least temporarily leave the priesthood, thus leaving the faithful with few places to receive the sacraments necessary to Catholic life.

New bishops and new divisions

Despite ongoing disputes between the Vatican and China’s government regarding who has the right to select priests to be ordained bishops—a right the Pope reserves exclusively to himself—China’s Catholic Patriotic Association persists in selecting and forcing the consecration of clergy it believes can be politically influenced by the state. In November 2010, Father Joseph Guo Jincai was ordained a bishop at Chende without a papal mandate, and the Vatican responded precisely as it did when Ma Yinglin was similarly consecrated, with a firm criticism of China’s interference with religious freedom:

This ordination not only does not contribute to the good of the Catholics of Chengde, but places them in a very delicate and difficult condition, also from the canonical point of view, and humiliates them, because the Chinese civil authorities wish to impose on them a pastor who is not in full communion, either with the Holy Father or with the other bishops throughout the world.

Compounding the problem, eight other bishops, all in communion with Rome, were obliged to attend the ceremony and concelebrate, which Cardinal Zen described as “shameful” and “illegal.”

For its part, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs retaliated against Vatican complaints by asserting, “The Vatican’s position is well-known. It works to promote political ideas under the pretext of religious belief, which is very dangerous and will seriously harm the healthy development of Chinese Catholicism in China.” Most recently, Chinese state authorities have maneuvered Bishop Fang Xingyao, who does not have papal approval, into the driver’s seat of the Catholic Patriotic Association, further damaging Vatican-China relations.

Renewed persecutions

It is no secret that Marx was opposed to institutional religion. In his 1843 study of the philosopher Hegel, Marx famously wrote:

The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion…. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

In other words, religious attachment is, according to Marx, a method of escapism from real social injustices and suffering. While he indeed suggests that people should be called to give up the “illusion” of religion, Marx does not demand the ruthless anti-religious persecutions advocated by totalitarian governments. In the case of China, the Catholic Church suffers because of its religious nature, but even more acutely because of the state’s perception that Catholics are a threat to national control; Marx’s somewhat humanitarian, if deluded, view that freeing people from religion clarifies their awareness of social injustice is distorted in China’s official treatment of Catholics.

And how has the government’s reinterpretation of Marx’s anti-religious views manifested itself in China’s Catholic community? It resulted in the murder and almost wholesale destruction or confiscation of Catholic property during the Maoist era (1949-1976). Shortly after 2011 began, the Catholics of Hebei, the province surrounding China’s capital, reported the sudden and unexplained arrest of Father Peter Zhang Guangjun. On January 13, public security officers knocked on the door of a Catholic household that Father Zhang was visiting, and abducted the priest; he had been offering pastoral care to underground Catholics in the area. Sources in Hebei have suggested that the government is cracking down on priests who do not carry “priest identification cards,” in hopes of forcing more Catholic clergy to function under the observant auspices of the Patriotic Association. As of this writing Father Zhang’s whereabouts are still unknown.

In addition, Chinese authorities arrested Bishop Joseph Li Liangui of Cangzhou (Xianxian) in December 2010 when he refused to attend the state-organized National Conference of Catholic Representatives. Bishop Li was forced to go to “study sessions,” and was threatened with removal as Cangzhou’s bishop if he did not “repent.” The bishops who did attend the conference—all but Joseph Li—met with one of China’s senior Party officials, Jia Qinglin, at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen. Jia reiterated the government’s resolve to prevent foreign influences (that is, papal influences) in China’s affairs, and some of the bishops attending the conference refused to raise their hands during voting. Their un-raised hands were, however, counted as positive votes by the state officials present at the proceedings. Bishop Li has since been returned to his cathedral, but his recalcitrance has not gone unnoticed, and some expect him to be replaced once the government can locate an “acceptable” prelate to fill his chair.

Old wounds and new healing

Like Janus, a god in Greek mythology, China’s Catholic Church still has two faces; it appears that for every tragedy and incident of division there is also a victory and opportunity for healing. Even as China continues to defy Vatican pleas to stop forcing the ordination of Chinese bishops without papal support, and as priests and bishops have suffered from state persecutions, the government extended an olive branch to Catholic prelates of Taiwan. The secretary general of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Liu Yuanlong, led a Mainland delegation in early January 2011 to discuss how to improve relations between China’s Catholics and those in Taiwan. Liu stated his purpose for visiting Taiwan was “to enhance understanding, harmony, and peace through these kinds of exchanges, and eventually move towards unification.” The representative of the Patriotic Association did not clarify whether the Mainland’s desired “unification” involved China’s sanctioned Church and the Vatican, or simply the unity the Mainland’s Catholics with those of Taiwan. Whatever motivations bring China’s officials to Taiwan, it can be seen as a positive step toward normalizing the Church in China.

While visiting Guiyang’s splendid Catholic cathedral, near the place where martyrs spilled their blood, I asked Father Liu Xianjun, a priest in the open Church, what China’s Catholics desired most. “We wish above all that the Pope could be free to walk on Chinese soil,” he said. The history of the Church in China is not unlike the history of the Church in Rome. Like Roman Christians, China’s early Christians suffered extreme persecution and martyrdom, from the blood of the martyrs the Church grew, and now China boasts its own saints to remember at Mass. But one difference remains tragically persistent: not a single Pope has visited the Middle Kingdom. The very center of Christian unity has been barred from his flock in the world’s largest nation, and China’s present political climate, still under the shadow of Mao, shows no signs of opening the Great Wall to the bishop of Rome.

In fact, Sino-Vatican tensions have reached new heights, especially after Pope Benedict XVI prayed at the 2010 Midnight Mass that the spiritual message of Christmas will “strengthen the spirit of faith, patience, and courage of the faithful of the Church in Mainland China,” sharply attacking China’s government for imposing limitations on “their freedom of religion and conscience.” The Pope then called the Church of China to endure the “discrimination and persecution” imposed upon it. China responded by reaffirming old battle lines between it and the Vatican. A spokeswoman from the government’s foreign ministry stated: “We hope the Vatican side can face the facts of China’s freedom of religion and the development of Catholicism, and create favorable conditions for the improvement of China-Vatican relations through concrete actions.” While low-level accords have grown between the Patriotic Association and the Catholic bishops of Taiwan, high-level antagonism has also grown between China’s Party and the Vatican.

In his book about the Church under Communism, James Meyers writes, “The fate of the Catholic Church in China over the years since 1949 has been closely linked to the twists and turns in Chinese domestic politics.” Today’s domestic politics have turned decidedly toward a new isolationism based on China’s quest for world economic dominance, built as it is on heightened nationalism. By defining itself distinctly against foreign nations—China against all others—even its religious groups must remain independent. Thus, Roman Catholicism is problematic in today’s China precisely because it is viewed as more “Roman” than “Chinese.” China’s new “emperors” are as suspicious of foreign religion as its old emperors, and as long as the Church’s hierarchy is held so close to the dragon’s claws it will remain afraid to speak and function with freedom.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 55 Articles
Anthony E. Clark, PhD, FRHistS, FRAS, is Professor of Chinese History at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, and the author of several books on Catholicism in China and related topics, including China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911, Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi, and Catholicism and Buddhism: The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom. In 2021, he was elected a Fellow of the London Royal Historical Society. Visit him online here.