A 65-year-long split between China and the Vatican may finally be getting repaired. Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong recently indicated that there might be an agreement over the thorniest issue between the two sides – Vatican’s right to appoint its own bishops in China.
The repair entails more than a renewal of official relations between the world’s most and least populated states.
Over the last 40 years, Christianity has grown at a previously unimaginable rate in China. But Catholicism in China finds itself in a difficult circumstance: There are two Catholic churches, one official and the other “underground” or at least unofficial, existing at the same time in China.
China has wanted all religious practice to be led solely from within the country, while the Vatican regards it as inherently contradictory to think of a Catholic church whose bishops it cannot select.
My research focuses on the lives and practices of ordinary lay Catholics in cultural contexts such as China. The relationship between the government and the Vatican has a significant impact on ordinary Catholic life in China, far more than in most other countries.
So, what is the history of this dispute and how does it affect the life of people in China?
How we got here
Communist attitudes toward religion are an obvious source of difficulty underlying the present state of affairs. However, a longer, sometimes fierce tradition of Chinese nationalism is essential to understand as well.
For millennia, imperial China was remarkably averse to foreign influence. Emperors generally closed the country to outside influence, except in ways that suited China. A series of famous Jesuit missionaries established a Catholic foothold in China in the late 16th century, managing to overcome imperial resistance only by virtue of their ability to bring knowledge of western astronomy, mathematics, arts and inventions to China, and their ability to learn and accommodate to Chinese ways.
They and members of other orders who followed were successful in converting some 200,000 Chinese to the faith. However, as foreigners they also faced serious resistance.
The Jesuits’ mission ultimately came to an end due to a cultural gulf between the East and the West. While Jesuits treated Chinese cultural practices like ancestor veneration as matters that could be accommodated in Catholic practice, the papacy eventually rejected these as incompatible with Christianity. The emperors, perceiving a threat to the whole structure of Chinese society, suppressed the Catholic mission. Christian practice was almost entirely suppressed in 1724 and the status of Christianity as an alien religion was reinforced.
In 1844, in the aftermath of the first of the Opium Wars, between the Qing dynasty and France and Great Britain, China was compelled to reopen itself to Christian missionaries. Subsequent Sino-European Wars in 1856-60 and 1899-1901 enabled a remarkable growth of the Church in China for a century.
To many patriotic Chinese, however, Christianity came to be indelibly tied in this era to national humiliation and foreign imperialism.
After the Revolution
After coming to power in 1949, the Communist Party easily harnessed these nationalist sentiments to its own ideology. It mounted a series of fierce campaigns against the Catholic Church, expelling foreign missionaries and jailing many Chinese bishops, priests, nuns and lay people who refused to renounce the pope or their faith. All Catholic Church buildings were taken over by the state.
Recognizing the difficulties of eliminating the faith in the short run, the party developed a parallel strategy of control. A State Administration for Religious Affairs was created in 1954 to appoint “patriotic” bishops and keep tabs on Catholics. In 1957, the party established the Patriotic Catholic Association, a lay association that was (and is) the legally recognized Catholic church in China. The Patriotic Catholic Association was to renounce all ties to Rome, but would allow Catholics to practice under government oversight.
Many Catholics joined this “aboveground” church, seeing it as the best strategy for coping with the situation. Whether in prison or elsewhere, however, many other Catholics refused to see the Patriotic Catholic Association independent of the pope as religiously legitimate, and with Vatican encouragement took their practice underground.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) shut all religious practice down, and Catholic churches were destroyed or relegated to industrial use. But the patriotic church system ultimately endured as a model.
Religious rebirth, but a divided legacy
When the country finally began to recover, the Patriotic Catholic Association was legally restored in 1978 and its churches were rebuilt by Catholic communities across the country over the course of decades.
Patriotic Catholic Association bishops and lay people played a remarkable role in rebuilding Catholic life and practice, but never supplanted the underground church, which gained added moral legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese Catholics for its willingness to struggle for the faith.
With Vatican sanction, the underground church named its own bishops and ordained priests and even apparently operated seminaries.
A definite count of underground membership is impossible to ascertain. Officially, there are 5.1 million Catholics in the “aboveground” churches. Two scholars suggest there are “at least as many Catholics” who belong to the underground Catholic church.
For years there were significant conflicts between the churches over their moral authority, but over the years these have diminished significantly in most places. In Patriotic Catholic Association churches I’ve visited, aboveground priests and people often mention some educational opportunity they had with a Catholic theologian from the West, or signal their affection for the pope.
Few of the “underground” churches are in hiding today. Generally, they meet in plain sight, and many priests are said to work in both churches Patriotic Catholic Association churches often openly display photos of popes. Church officials and scholars prefer to use the much less polemical terms, “official” and “unofficial.”
Eliminating a black market?
Over the decades, in piecemeal fashion, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Vatican have often worked to ensure that bishops who were appointed were acceptable to each side.
But there have been major bumps, too, as in 2012 when a mutually agreed-upon bishop, Thaddeus Ma Diqin, announced at the end of his episcopal ordination that it would no longer be “convenient” for him to remain a member of the Patriotic Catholic Association. The government stripped him of titles and he spent years out of public sight being “reeducated.”
Gray as the lines may be in practice, the legal split between aboveground and underground churches has clearly resulted in lost opportunities for the Catholic Church. Before 1948, the great majority of Christians in China were Catholic. And in recent years, the combined Catholic population above- and underground at 9-12 million has caught up to the same percentage of the population that Catholics represented in 1948.
The really rapid growth in recent decades, however, has been among independent Protestant churches in China, which have not been constrained by the same aboveground and underground split.
Sociologist Fengang Yang suggests that it is helpful to think of the underground church as a sort of “black market,” and suggests that the cooperation of “aboveground” churches with the Vatican constitutes a kind of religious “gray market.”
From my perspective, if the government thinks in the same pragmatic terms, it may conclude that the best way to eliminate a black market is to eliminate its reason for being. A Sino-Vatican rapprochement over the power to appoint bishops would accomplish that, allowing “underground” and “aboveground” churches to fully unite.
Such a deal, I believe, would not eliminate all of China’s or the Vatican’s concerns, but would probably allow a situation that both can live with. It would certainly make life less complicated for lay Catholics in China.