Parish Boycotts Catholic Items Made in China

JONESBORO, Ark. — Look underneath the last statuette of Mary you bought. It likely says “Made in China.”

But because of Beijing's policies that intersect with human rights, one Catholic parish recently decided to boycott religious items with the “Made in China” label.

“Basically, we were of the opinion that supporting a regime that's persecuting your fellows doesn't make much sense,” said Deacon David England of Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro, Ark. “If there's a regime hurting my immediate family or my Church family, I'm certainly not going to support that regime in any economic fashion or any other fashion.”

What products are boycotted? “We don't buy religious articles made in China,” whether for resale in the church's gift shop or use in the parish, Deacon England said.

The boycott that began in March arose out of a social justice reading group started by the permanent deacon. The group read and discussed “everything,” he said, from summaries of Catholic social-justice ideas and encyclicals such as Pope Leo XIII's 1891 Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) to an introductory book on liberation theology “just because we didn't know anything about it.”

A parishioner noticed that goods in the church's gift shop and some items used in church were made in China, and that led to the question, “Why the purchase of religious articles made in a country that persecutes the Roman Catholic Church and has tried to control it with a Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association?”

Bishops, priests and laity of the underground Church are routinely arrested, fined and given stiff jail sentences simply because they are loyal to the Pope instead of part of the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

At the same time, other Catholic promoters of social justice are shying away from China boycotts arguing that they target the wrong people.

Arthur Hippler, director of the Justice and Peace Office of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., said, “Some lump together ‘Made in China’ with ‘Made in Prison Camps.’ But what if it's made by someone in Shanghai in a factory that's not state-owned or in prison camps?”

Finding New Sources

Father Mark Wood, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, also saw the great number of religious goods made in a country where the Church is persecuted.

“A couple of years ago I was in Mexico,” he said, “and even noticed there — it seemed so bizarre — images of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the stores said, ‘Made in China.’ It made me curious what happened to the religious goods in the West.”

With the blessing of Father Wood, Blessed Sacrament's social justice group acted to stop getting Chinese-made religious items for the gift shop and the church.

“Basically, we're committed to do all we can to find alternate sources for the goods not made in China,” Father Wood said.

Parish volunteer Nancy McFarland, who works in the gift shop, is all for finding new sources.

“I truly believe that if we are going to mouth social justice, then we need to practice what we preach,” she said. “And providing income to a country that does not provide its citizens with human rights is not providing social justice.”

Deacon England pointed out that “‘Made in China’ is so ubiquitous, it's hard to avoid [purchasing goods made there]. So we're just really going to concentrate on religious goods.”

Even with these products, the question of slave labor making them in the Chinese Laogai “labor reform” prison system came up.

“These are low-tech articles and there's a good possibility they're made by slave labor,” the deacon said.

“Even if the items were not made by slave labor, the suppression of the Church would support our boycott,” he added. “And if they are made by slave labor, that would just add fuel to the fire.”

Another Side

Arthur Hippler of the Diocese of La Crosse examined another side of the boycott picture.

“Sometimes it's hard to make sure a thing is from [the prison],” Hippler said. He pointed out that Harry Wu, a prisoner in the Laogai system, explains how different products are indeed made in them yet gives both sides of the picture (www.

“When you can identify injustice, you would never want to support injustice,” he continued. “I would boycott if I could be fairly certain the boycott was hurting the people carrying out the injustice and not the people in the society.”

“But on the other hand, you would never want to boycott people so you spread injustice and punish the people not involved,” he said.

He noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Social Development and World Peace has criticized government embargoes more than private boycotts — including the Iraq and Cuba embargoes.

Hippler noted that Pope John Paul II in his January 1995 address to the diplomatic corps observed that the embargo issue was “a means of exerting pressure on governments that have violated the international code of good conduct and of causing them to reconsider their choices.”

“But in a sense it is also an act of force and, as certain cases of the present moment demonstrate, it inflicts grave hardships upon the people of the countries at which it is aimed,” the Pope said.

Before governments impose such measures, “it is always imperative to foresee the humanitarian consequences of sanctions without failing to respect the just proportion that such measures should have in relation to the very evil they are meant to remedy,” John Paul said.

“Some people will only buy and sell with ‘my own,’” Hippler said. “I don't see how that's compatible with solidarity and recognizing all men are my brothers. All this has to be done with the view of solidarity.”


Joseph Kung, director of the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn., also noted the difficulty of identifying items made by forced or slave labor.

“If it's not slave labor, it must come from the factory run by the open church authority [the Patriotic Association],” he said. “A huge quantity comes into the United States.”

“If you keep buying religious goods made in China you are in effect supporting the religious policies and the human-rights policies of the Chinese government, which includes forced abortion and the severe restriction of religious practice,” Kung emphasized. “And you are supporting the ‘open church,’ which openly defies the authority of the Holy Father.”

Kung discourages people from buying Chinese products.

“I give examples of many religious stores around the country where the majority of religious items are made in China. Most of the people are not even aware of it,” he said. “They can replace the religious items with those made in other countries and made better. China isn't the only cheap import.” He advised looking to countries such as Taiwan or the Philippines.

Deacon England would like the boycott to extend statewide. He plans to present the idea to the Diocese of Little Rock's social action advisory board.

Father Wood believes the policy would have a great effect if it spread nationwide.

“If enough Catholic parishes and Catholic bookstores stopped buying goods from China and [started] buying them [for example] from the Philippines,” he said, “that would have an impact and give a message to the Chinese government to change its policies.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.