The challenge of reconciliation

Describing religion in the People’s Republic of China is a bit like eating peanuts with chopsticks—it is a difficult process, even for the most adept. Talking about the Catholic communities is more complex still.

Confucius, in his Analects, valued above all else the right naming of things—the ‘rectification of names’. As such, it is important to dispatch some of the unhelpful terms that are often used to describe Catholicism in China. Throughout this article I refer to the ‘Catholic communities’ as a way of side-stepping the problematic dichotomies that have been applied to these faith communities—dichotomies like ‘patriotic’ and ‘suffering’, ‘loyal’ and ‘schismatic’. These words have been used since the 1950s, when the Chinese Communist Party sought to separate the Catholic communities from the universal church. This process of wedge politics, the application of ‘united front’ doctrine, was not without its successes and certainly not without its costs, at times terrible ones.

Simplistically, in the People’s Republic of China there are Catholics who belong to ‘official’ communities, ones which have been recognised by the government through a process of registration; there are members of ‘unofficial’ communities (the so-called underground), which refuse to register with the government; and there are yet more Catholics who live in an undefined area in between, participating in both types of communities.

Nevertheless, to continue to describe these official Catholic communities as schismatic, as does the United States-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, for instance, is both unhelpful and erroneous. Interestingly, for an organisation that prides itself on its devotion to the See of Peter, such descriptions also hinder the desire of the previous pope, John Paul II, for unity among the Chinese Catholic communities.

Throughout his papacy, John Paul II consistently recognised the difficulties faced by Catholics in China, praised their faithful witness and asked everyone in the church communities to work towards reconciliation.

At the World Youth Day in Manila in 1995 he addressed the following words to the church in China:

Your witness will be all the more eloquent if it is expressed in words and deeds of love. Jesus said so: ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (Jn 13:35). Love among yourselves, first of all, but love also for all your Chinese brothers and sisters: a love which consists of understanding, respect, forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation within the Christian community, a love which involves service, self-sacrifice, fidelity, hard work, honesty and justice in society as a whole.

Some Catholics outside the country are often less eager to implement such a program of reconciliation, and continue to talk of a divided church—dogmatically using words that hinder rather than enhance mutual understanding. Eminent China church scholar Jean-Paul Wiest comments further on this problem in an article in the January 2003 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research:

There are no perfect terms to identify these two clearly distinct manifestations of the Chinese Catholic Church. I would recommend avoiding labels such as ‘patriotic church’ to describe the government-recognised segment of the church because it implies either that all its members wholeheartedly support the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or that the underground church is not patriotic minded, neither of which is true. Likewise, the names ‘suffering church’ and ‘loyal church’ to describe the underground segment of the church are wrong and divisive, as they falsely imply that the government-recognised church has not suffered or is not loyal to the pope.

A consensus is forming among China church-watchers and, more importantly, among the Chinese church communities themselves, that it is best to talk of one church, wounded but not torn asunder, and hopefully on the road towards reconciliation, as Wiest describes it.

Those who continue to maintain their either misinformed or malicious divisive linguistic distinctions often appeal, in the last resort, to the process of the appointment of bishops to demonstrate one section of the church’s ‘orthodoxy’ over another. This too is a complex area, but reliable analysts equally dismiss this as a basis for claiming the existence of a schism.

Fr Jeroom Heyndrickx is an Immaculate Heart of Mary priest, director of the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation (part of the China-Europe Institute of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium) and a long-time China church watcher who has often taught pastoral theology in seminaries in China. In an article in The Tablet on 15 January 2000, he wrote: ‘[T]wo-thirds of the Patriotic bishops (appointed by the CCPA and the government) have already secretly applied for and received recognition from Rome. Doubts about faithfulness remain only of a few CCPA leaders.’

More recently still, in an article written after John Paul II’s death, the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing, Philip Pan, wrote along similar lines. Pan named as his source Ren Yanli, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, and reputedly the foremost mainland Chinese expert on the Holy See, when he wrote on 29 April this year that ‘all but nine of the 70 bishops in the government’s official church have secretly declared their loyalty to Rome and are now recognised by the Vatican’. Pan’s words might be unclear (when he talks of the ‘government’s church’) but his use of numbers is not. Rome considers itself to be in union with the overwhelming majority of bishops in China, whatever Catholics elsewhere might think or say.

This movement towards a reconciled and unified church community in China might well be a desire held by the new Pope, Benedict XVI. Hopefully, for the upwards of 12 million Catholics in China, it proves to be so. Many have commented on the fact that the previous bearer of that papal name was known as a ‘Pope of peace’, as one who strove to bring about harmony in a war-torn world. Less commented upon is the fact that although his successor, Pius XI, has been referred to as the ‘Pope of the missions’, because of the ways in which he sought to institute local church hierarchies and for his great missionary encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae (On Catholic Missions), in many ways he was bringing to fulfilment one of Benedict XV’s great dreams.

Benedict XV, on 30 November 1919, issued an apostolic letter, Maximum Illud (On spreading the Catholic Faith throughout the World) that revolutionised the way the Church was structured in the non-Western world.
He was highly critical of missionary methods that had kept local clergy and church communities subservient to foreign, European, missionaries.

In this letter, Benedict XV wrote:

It is a deplorable fact that, even after the Popes have insisted upon it, there still remain sections of the world that have heard the faith preached for several centuries, and still have a local clergy that is of inferior quality. It is also true that there are countries that have been deeply penetrated by the light of Faith, and have, besides, reached such a level of civilisation that they produce eminent men in all the fields of secular life—and yet, though they have lived under the strengthening influence of the Church and the gospel for hundreds of years, they still cannot produce bishops for their spiritual government or priests for their spiritual guidance.

—Maximum Illud, paragraph 17

His main target was the colonial-minded church hierarchy in China. Specifically he was critical of the way the majority of European missionaries had limited the growth of the Chinese church, and harassed those, like Belgian Vincentian Vincent Lebbe, who had sought to do otherwise.

Pius XI brought Benedict XV’s dream to fruition on 28 October 1926 when he personally consecrated six Chinese as bishops. They were their country’s first bishops since Dominican Bishop Luo Wenzao in the 17th century. The statement was all the more emphatic given that the consecration took place at the Vatican. Benedict XVI might well desire to hold the Chinese Catholics in his heart too.

He will find communities that are experiencing much growth. There are websites (, lay formation classes and a multitude of Catholic publications. Liturgies are often vibrant and catechumenate classes are frequently full.

At this year’s Easter Vigil in Beijing more than 1000 people gathered in the South Church. This church traces its roots back to a community established by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in 1605. During Lent, there were usually about 150 people gathered each Saturday evening.

Crammed into the church this Easter night for almost two-and-a-half hours were people from all walks of life. There were students studying religion at university, business people facing ethical dilemmas in a burgeoning economy and workers seeking respite from their labours. There were Catholics who trace their heritage back for over ten generations and newcomers. Fifty people presented for baptism—predominantly adults, many of whom were young. All present were united in prayer and in beautiful song. The face of one young man was lit by the glow of his candle and, as the Easter Candle was carried by, he smiled at me as he sang ‘thanks be to God’.

If Benedict XVI can continue the work of both his immediate predecessor and his namesake in encouraging reconciliation, let alone bringing this about, then there will be cause for thanks indeed.                    

Jeremy Clarke sj is completing a doctorate in history at the Australian National University, researching the contemporary Catholic communities in China. Photos by Jeremy Clarke sj.



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