China and the Catholic Church — Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

The thousand-year history and present state of affairs offer a mixture of hope and concern.

Hundreds of Catholics take part in a solemn procession of the Way of the Cross in Macau, China, March 10. The procession began at the cathedral and finished at St. Augustine’s Church.
Hundreds of Catholics take part in a solemn procession of the Way of the Cross in Macau, China, March 10. The procession began at the cathedral and finished at St. Augustine’s Church. (photo: Imaginechina via AP Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy came and went last month, and the meeting that many anticipated might take place between the Chinese leader and Pope Francis never happened.

The missed opportunity means that the only tie between the two leaders is the secret and tenuous September agreement between the Vatican and Beijing. In the meantime, concerns grow that the communist country is isolating the Church in China even as the country’s leadership continues its crackdown on religion in that country.

The Vatican had hoped that the September agreement with China would pave the way to greater unity between the underground Catholic Church (recognized by Rome but apparently still illegal in China) and the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Among the provisions of the agreement made public, Pope Francis has recognized seven Chinese bishops illicitly but validly consecrated and appointed them to dioceses in China. The Pope and the Chinese government both recognize all bishops currently appointed in China.

Those critical of the agreement, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, believe the agreement has compromised the Church in China and undermined the Church’s authority in dealing with Beijing.

Since at least December 2018, not three months after signing its agreement with the Vatican, Beijing has increased religious persecution as it seeks to “Sinicize” religion in the country. In the western part of the country, China watchers believe that about a million Uyghur Muslims are being held in concentration camps and the government has removed Islamic symbols from mosques in the region.

Among Christians, evangelical Protestants have been targeted, with churches demolished and congregations disbanded or arrested. For Catholics, conditions remain oppressive, too, as shrines in the country have also been demolished, Catholics under the age of 18 are prohibited from attending Mass, and bishops’ positions remain vacant.

It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis’ gambit to enter into formal relations with China through the September agreement will yield fruitful and lasting results for the faithful in China, but the complexity of the situation highlights the fact that the Church’s efforts to evangelize China have been historically difficult.

The history of the Church in China reveals both promise and frustration, and the current relations between China and the Church seem to pick up where the Christian missionaries of the eighth, 10th and 17th century left off — with an intricate dance of clashing cultures and heightened concern for the tensions between the Church and the Chinese government.

Today, the Church is contending with its old 20th-century rival — Marxism —  for the soul of the Chinese nation. For this reason, the future of Catholicism in the Middle Kingdom hangs in the balance — as the rising generation of Chinese Catholics attempt to understand their history and mission, even as the Church hierarchy addresses its concerns with the Chinese government’s increased pressure to conform to the will of a secular state that, on the one hand, has been favorable to opening financial markets to foreigners, and especially to the West, but on the other has, through its oppressive domestic policies and procedures, stymied the Church’s growth.


Christianity and China

The history of Christianity in China is much older than most people may think.

While mostly discounted now, at one time it was supposed that St. Thomas (who evangelized India) or his fellow apostle St. Bartholomew (who evangelized Armenia) may have brought the Gospel to China. Clearer evidence of Christianity’s first appearance in China points to the seventh-century missionary Alopen, whose name appears on a stone monument erected a century later, by Nestorian Christians — a heretical sect that erroneously preached that Christ was a composite of two separate persons, one human and one divine.

These eighth-century Nestorians left evidence that they had made spiritual inroads into the Middle Kingdom before disappearing from the region a few centuries later.

But the fizzled efforts of the Nestorians led to a second mission in the Middle Ages, when the Franciscans came to China in the 13th century.

According to Jesuit Father Paul Mariani, professor of Chinese history at Santa Clara University, California, the Franciscans set up a bishopric in Beijing and missionary outposts along the Chinese coast. In 1294, the first Franciscan to arrive in China was John of Montecorvino, who established missions in the country and became archbishop of Beijing. But this effort also lost momentum.

In the mid-16th century, St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) led his fellow Jesuits to the East, first to India and then to the Far East, including Japan and China. Soon after the Jesuits arrived in China, Dominican and Franciscan missionaries followed. St. Francis was excited at the missionary prospects in China, but he never stepped foot in the country, as he died of fever on an island 14 miles from China while waiting for a boat to take him to the mainland.

Nonetheless, through his and his fellow Jesuits’ efforts, Christianity established a permanent if not always tranquil presence in China. “The first arrival of Christianity, the Nestorians, disappeared,” Father Mariani told the Register, “and the second arrival, the Franciscans, also disappeared, but the third, the Jesuits, stayed; and that’s the reality we have up to the present day.”


The Ricci Moment

One of St. Francis’ collaborators in the Chinese missions, Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, arrived in China in 1583 and died in Beijing in 1610, after having converted at least 2,000 Chinese to the faith.

Father Ricci recognized in China something more than a backward pagan nation; rather, as Father Mariani noted, he saw a higher culture — one that in many ways rivaled and sometimes exceeded Western civilization in learning and governance, if not spirituality.

In fact, Father Ricci tried to integrate Christianity with Chinese culture. He recognized that the Chinese already had great reverence for those who have passed beyond this life, but he also knew that they did not yet see how passage from this life could lead to eternal life with Christ.

Father Ricci urged Rome to grant the small but growing Chinese Church its own liturgical rites, which would have incorporated Chinese reverence for ancestors.

As historian Bernard de Vaulx writes, Father Ricci believed the traditional rites of ancestor worship were “certainly not idolatrous and perhaps not superstitious,” and the “manner in which he had tolerated them with an easy conscience had been the reason for his success with the upper classes” in China, which had great influence on the emperor, whose acceptance of the Christian religion would facilitate converting the people of China to Catholicism.

More than a century after Father Ricci’s death, Rome resolved the controversy when Pope Clement XI issued the 1715 papal bull Ex Illa Die condemning the traditional rites of ancestor worship as unacceptable to Catholic teaching.

In particular, the Holy See took issue with the traditional Chinese terms for heaven (Tian) as synonymous with God and the term for the emperor as a “supreme deity” (Shangdi), although it accepted the Chinese term for God as “Lord of heaven” (Tianzhu) coined by the Jesuit missionaries.

In addition, the Pope rejected worship of the Chinese philosopher Confucius and prohibited Chinese Catholics from reverencing ancestors within familial temples constructed for that purpose.

Nearly 250 years later, Pope Pius XII tempered the Church’s position on the question when, in 1939, he permitted Chinese Catholics fuller expression in how they honor their ancestors in a nonreligious context.

“Ricci was very forward thinking and leaned into Chinese culture to understand it and make accommodations for it,” Father Mariani said.

“He was onto something; and when the rites were proscribed [by the 1715 papal declaration], it was the death knell for the missions.”

This missed opportunity serves as one of the greatest “what-ifs?” of Church history.

For had the Church in China received its own liturgical rites, much as the Western Church was formed by and flourished under the Roman Rite, Father Mariani said, the Chinese emperor might well have embraced the Church in a way that would have led to the rise of Christianity in the East, as it had risen in the West after Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion.


The Coming of Communism

In 1949, the greatest blow to relations between the Church and China occurred with the rise of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party. In a few short months, the work of the Church was practically undone by the introduction of Karl Marx’s rival Western worldview into China. But Mao understood that for such a formidable enemy of communism as the Church, it was better for the communist-controlled Chinese government to co-opt the ecclesial structure rather than suppress it. As a result, in 1958, Mao split the Church in China in two by forming an official state-sanctioned church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which the authentic underground Church recognized by Rome refused to acknowledge as legitimate. From that time to this, the underground Church has struggled to maintain its independence from state control.

For Luna Chou, a member of the Marian Catechist apostolate in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, the communist takeover of China is more than a lesson in a history book. Her father, Edward Ping Chow, was a journalist during World War II who witnessed the savagery of the invading Japanese army and a decade later the similarly brutal oppression of Mao’s forces.

When Mao’s Communist Party came to power in 1949, Chou’s father and thousands of other Chinese escaped to Taiwan, the island-nation to which Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), leader of the anti-communist nationalist Chinese forces, had transferred the Republic of China he had helped establish after the war.

Chou grew up in Taiwan and came to the United States in the late 1970s to attend Georgetown University for a business degree in the early 1980s. A year after graduation, in 1983, she became Catholic. Chou told the Register that she decided to convert to the faith after one of her Georgetown professors began tutoring her in the Western tradition and Church history, showing her how Catholicism shared basic principles with the Confucian worldview in which her parents raised her. (Her parents later in life also converted to Catholicism.)

“Grace builds on nature,” Chou said. “So I had the preparation in Chinese culture, the Confucian understanding of natural law, the respect for elders and the virtues. ‘The superior man is a man of virtue.’ That’s what Confucius teaches.”

While Chou did not experience firsthand Mao’s persecution of China and the Church, her sister-in-law Mary, who was visiting mainland China when Mao launched his Cultural Revolution, was trapped in the country for a decade. Chou said Mary doesn’t share much about the horrors she witnessed during her time in China, but she related the story of her calligraphy teacher who had been tortured by Chinese Communists during the Communist Revolution.

“This teacher was a Confucian scholar,” Chou said. “The Confucian scholars pride themselves on an upright posture because the emphasis on the virtuous life requires that their exterior appearance has to correspond to their interior virtue. So the Red Guard broke his back so he couldn’t stand up straight.”

Because of what her father and sister-in-law experienced, Chou has learned to never underestimate the Chinese Communists.

“My father lived in fear most of his adult life because he was afraid the communists would track him down and identify who his parents were,” she said. “I have no illusions about the Chinese Communists.”

The Catholic Church recognizes that history is progressing toward an endpoint, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which will usher in the advent of a new timeless creation of heaven and earth. Yet there are patterns in Church history, especially in the Church’s dealings with China, which seem more cyclical than linear. The early efforts by the Church to evangelize China met with much of the same confusion and cross-purpose that are taking place in the current situation between the Vatican and the Middle Kingdom.

After the Church grappled with the “Rites Controversy” in the 17th and 18th centuries — the question of whether Chinese Catholics could remain faithful to Christ’s teachings and to their tradition of honoring their ancestors — Clement XI issued his papal bull condemning the practice of ancestor worship, but in doing so, the Church may have missed an opportunity to stabilize relations between the Church and China.

Since that time, in the wake of the Communist Revolution of 1949, China has embraced pure atheism, and the Church, guided by the Second Vatican Council, has sought a more open dialogue with the modern world. Yet those paths seem to be leading the Church and China to a clash similar to those that have defined part of their common history. Today, the Chinese government recognizes no authority that is not its own, while the Church in China seeks to find a solid footing for the faith, especially after the September 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China.

Bishop emeritus of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen sees the agreement as a step toward the annihilation of the Catholic Church in China. On the other hand, there is great optimism in seeing Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping of China developing a diplomatic relationship. All agree, however, that to avoid the mistakes of history, cultural unity in China and unity of the Church in China cannot be mutually exclusive terms.


The Current Religious Crisis

Like Cardinal Zen, Steven Mosher, a sociologist and president of the Population Research Council, is critical of China’s current regime.

“Anything that is not completely registered with the Chinese government is deemed an illicit activity,” said Mosher, who in 1979 became the first American social scientist since the Cultural Revolution to be granted permission to conduct anthropological research in mainland China. “The punishment for such activity is to have your money confiscated, the building you’re operating in confiscated or torn down, and to have the leaders of that illicit activity arrested.”

In the secret provisional Vatican-China agreement, Pope Francis reportedly recognized seven of the Chinese bishops in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and gave the Pope veto power for future episcopal appointments by the Chinese government.

“Will the signing of the Vatican agreement improve the situation for Catholics in China?” Mosher asked. “It doesn’t change the situation of the members of the CPCA, because they’re already in officially registered venues with officially registered priests and officially sanctioned bishops. But it does change substantially the situation for the underground Church. Communist authorities in China are using the provisional agreement to tell priests and bishops and ordinary laypeople in the underground Church that the Vatican has told them they must register with the CPCA.”

Adding further evidence to the growing crisis for the Church in China, a month after the China-Vatican agreement was announced, the Chinese government demolished two long-standing Catholic Marian shrines in China, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows of Dongergou (Shanxi) and Our Lady of Bliss in Anlong (Guizou).

“The shrines were torn down on the grounds that they have never been officially registered with the government,” Mosher said. “But these shrines have been around long before the Chinese Communist Party came into power.”

Soon after the September agreement, Father Mariani wrote that “the new agreement is not without its unresolved questions. A major one is finding a proper understanding of the Church. In short, is the Church the church of the diplomats and functionaries, or is it the Church of the martyrs and prophets? Does it stand up to or does [it] acquiesce to it? In sum, is it the Church of the comfortable or of the catacombs?”

According to Father Mariani, the agreement represents a gamble for the Vatican — one which they hope will allow the Church to grow after years of stagnation.

“The Church had emerged stronger from those years of persecution under Mao’s rule,” Father Mariani told the Register. “There were 3 million Catholics in China in 1949 and maybe 10 million in the 1980s. I thought it was continuing to grow and worked with that assumption — but it looks like the numbers have leveled off as more people moved into the cities. So you can’t fool yourself — it looks that the data coming in is confirming that the Church is not growing, and we have to do something.”


China Today

Today, as Father Mariani noted, Chinese Catholics remain about 10 million in a country of almost a billion and a half people. But this increase from 3 million of 7 million new faithful took place during an economic springtime for China, when the severe oppression of Mao’s Marxist regime transitioned to the more relaxed and capitalist-friendly rule of Deng Xiaoping, who served as paramount leader of China from 1978 until 1992.

Catholic businessman Dan McClory serves as the managing director, head of equity capital markets and head of China markets for Boustead Securities of Irvine, California. McClory has seen the relaxed economic attitude in China translate into a greater opportunity for the Church and the Chinese people.

“I’ve seen a lot of emerging markets — Turkey, Brazil, Eastern Europe, West Africa,” he said. “Whenever I go to Mass in those places, the congregation is predominantly local. China is another emerging market, and I’d like to see Chinese nationals embrace these other aspects of life, including religion, but I’m pleasantly surprised at how accessible religion — and Catholicism in particular — is in China.”

For the last 15 years, McClory has been making weekly business trips to China. His own experience of public worship among Chinese Catholics in Beijing belies the fears of a Chinese government crackdown on the faith.

“I haven’t gone to many Catholic churches in the rural areas,” he said. “My experience is big-city-based, primarily Beijing. There are several large churches and cathedrals in Beijing, which are all well attended, and depending on the location, it might be ex-pats and immigrants or native Chinese attending Mass. They have Masses in different languages, and sometimes the priests are Chinese, sometimes from Hong Kong and sometimes from Europe and the U.S.”

But McClory acknowledges more work needs to be done in building the relationship between the Chinese government and the Church. The way forward, he said, is for the Church to emulate Father Ricci’s approach of adopting Chinese customs and introducing Western innovations as a way to bridge the cultural gap between East and West.

“There is so much more that ties the Church to China that is visible than there is that can tear the relationship apart,” McClory continued. “We need to build on the historical facts of that relationship and those absolutes. That’s the best way, just as Mateo Ricci did 600 years ago, to move forward.”


Generation Now

For the new generation of Chinese Catholics, the future is not quite as clear as McClory sees it. Jason Wang was born in Arlington, Texas, but his parents, who are Taiwanese natives, own a business which takes them — and their son — to mainland China on a regular basis. Wang is an American citizen but spent much of his grammar and high-school education at an American school in China. A recent convert to Catholicism, Wang is a junior at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. It was the Western literary tradition he is now studying at this Great Books school that first brought him into the Church.

“I began my path to Rome, as it were, by reading the ancient Western classics in my junior and senior year of high school, especially the Greeks and Romans, and I liked how commonsense and down-to-earth those writers were,” he said. “They saw that each person must be responsible for his actions and must balance his life with an active and contemplative part.”

Wang knows that communism in China remains a force to reckon with for both the Chinese people and the Church. Wang said that state censorship has kept firm control of what the country knows about the outside world, a perspective he gained only by coming back to the United States after attending school in Shanghai.

“I didn’t really find out about YouTube and Facebook [while attending school] in China,” he said. “I knew what these things were, but I didn’t really set up a Facebook account until I came back to the U.S. You knew from a young age that everything on a computer was censored.”

The private Chinese citizens worked around the steady online gaze of the state, Wang said, by installing VPNs (virtual private networks) on their computers and other devices.

“In China, everyone knows you can’t use Google or other search engines since they’re monitored closely by the government,” he said. “So everyone I knew started using VPNs.”

 All the same, Wang said, the level of information in China is well below what the rest of the world can access.

“For instance, people don’t know much about things like the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989,” he said, referring to the communist regime’s bloody response to pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing 30 years ago. On June 4, 1989, tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the square to disperse the estimated 1 million people who had gathered to protest the government’s strict authoritarian policies. Observers from outside China estimate that as many as 10,000 people were killed in the massacre, although the official state report claims that less than 1,000 were killed.

But Wang sees greater hope for union between East and West through the Catholic Church  

“When I went to Mass in Taiwan this past Christmas, I was struck by the fact that the Gloria and other parts of the Mass were sung in Latin,” he said. “I had a friend with me from college at Mass, a homegrown Kansas white guy, and he could follow every single one of these parts of the Mass perfectly. The Mass doesn’t change, and the kind of stable unity that the Church provides is an incredible opportunity for East and West.”

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.