The Catholic Church in China

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The Catholic Church in China

At St. Fran­cis Catholic Church in Xi’an, China, the con­gre­ga­tion flowed out into the court­yard for Sun­day Mass. Church­go­ers include many young par­ents with children.

The ser­vice lasted more than 90 min­utes, includ­ing a ser­mon that ebbed and flowed for nearly 20 min­utes. Each sec­tion of the church has one of the Ten Com­mand­ments writ­ten in both Man­darin and Eng­lish for peo­ple to pon­der dur­ing Mass.

The scene was much the same the fol­low­ing week at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bei­jing, where the Com­mu­nist Party allows only state-​approved places of wor­ship and the Vat­i­can has with­held diplo­matic ties since 1949 when the party came to power.

DaTech3.jpgSim­ply put, the Catholic Church has endured sub­ju­ga­tion and hard­ship under an athe­is­tic gov­ern­ment. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how Catholics have sur­vived the vagaries of Com­mu­nism, impris­on­ment, eco­nomic ret­ri­bu­tion, and polit­i­cal intol­er­ance. But the church has served as a bea­con of resis­tance for decades.

The sta­tus of the Catholic Church may soon change. But it is unclear whether a com­pro­mise between the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and the Vat­i­can will make things better.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and the church have been engaged in dis­cus­sions to make rela­tions bet­ter. In an usual move, the government-​controlled press recently pub­lished a pho­to­graph of Pope Fran­cis meet­ing Chi­nese pil­grims in Rome.

Catholics can only legally prac­tice their reli­gion in main­land China in state-​sanctioned churches, which are not over­seen by the Vat­i­can. Under the cur­rent sys­tem, bish­ops are appointed by Bei­jing rather than the Pope.

The Chi­nese Catholic Patri­otic Asso­ci­a­tion was estab­lished in 1957 to ensure state-​sanctioned churches toe the Com­mu­nist Party line, with the state-​controlled Bishop Con­fer­ence of the Catholic Church in China select­ing and appoint­ing its cler­ics.
Most appoint­ments have qui­etly received recog­ni­tion from the Vat­i­can over the years, but the Holy See has inter­vened and excom­mu­ni­cated seven who it deemed to be “illic­itly ordained.”

The appoint­ment of bish­ops has been one of the main sources of con­tention between the two sides, with Bei­jing say­ing it must have a full say in the deci­sions made by the state-​controlled Chi­nese Catholic Church.

Other issues remain, includ­ing whether about 30 “under­ground” Catholic bish­ops already approved by the Vat­i­can, but not sanc­tioned by Bei­jing, will be for­mally rec­og­nized by the Chi­nese authorities.

In an inter­view with The South China Morn­ing Post, Tou Chou-​seng, an aca­d­e­mic at Fu Jen Catholic Uni­ver­sity in Tai­wan and the island’s for­mer ambas­sador to the Vat­i­can, said Bei­jing and the Holy See hoped a com­pro­mise over bishop appoint­ments would ulti­mately lead to a nor­mal­iza­tion in their rela­tion­ship. But there was still a long way to go.

Resolv­ing con­flicts over bishop ordi­na­tion is the first step, but it doesn’t put things right once and for all,” Tou said.“Historically it’s always been a long walk from reach­ing a bishop ordi­na­tion agree­ment to ties being for­mal­ized,” he said.

Other Com­mu­nist coun­tries have tried to estab­lish rela­tions with the Vat­i­can. For­mer Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­bachev vis­ited the Holy See in 1989 vow­ing to build full diplo­matic ties, but it took a decade for that to happen.

Viet­namese Pre­mier Nguyen Tan Dung saw for­mer Pope Bene­dict XVI in 2007, express­ing Hanoi’s wish to build full ties with the Vat­i­can, but they have yet to be established.

He added that increased num­bers of under­ground Catholic churches in China would be more, but a crit­i­cal indi­ca­tion of the suc­cess of any deal was whether it would lead to greater reli­gious freedom.

If they are con­tin­u­ously treated unfairly after going pub­lic, the Holy See would cer­tainly feel apolo­getic to the under­ground church,” Tou said.

What­ever hap­pens, it is heart­en­ing to see just how strong the Catholic Church is in China despite the numer­ous dif­fi­cul­ties the faith­ful have faced over the years.

At St. Francis Catholic Church in Xi’an, China, the congregation flowed out into the courtyard for Sunday Mass. Churchgoers include many young parents with children.

The service lasted more than 90 minutes, including a sermon that ebbed and flowed for nearly 20 minutes. Each section of the church has one of the Ten Commandments written in both Mandarin and English for people to ponder during Mass.

The scene was much the same the following week at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Beijing, where the Communist Party allows only state-approved places of worship and the Vatican has withheld diplomatic ties since 1949 when the party came to power.

DaTech3.jpgSimply put, the Catholic Church has endured subjugation and hardship under an atheistic government. It is difficult to imagine how Catholics have survived the vagaries of Communism, imprisonment, economic retribution, and political intolerance. But the church has served as a beacon of resistance for decades.

The status of the Catholic Church may soon change. But it is unclear whether a compromise between the Chinese government and the Vatican will make things better.

The Chinese government and the church have been engaged in discussions to make relations better. In an usual move, the government-controlled press recently published a photograph of Pope Francis meeting Chinese pilgrims in Rome.

Catholics can only legally practice their religion in mainland China in state-sanctioned churches, which are not overseen by the Vatican. Under the current system, bishops are appointed by Beijing rather than the Pope.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established in 1957 to ensure state-sanctioned churches toe the Communist Party line, with the state-controlled Bishop Conference of the Catholic Church in China selecting and appointing its clerics.
Most appointments have quietly received recognition from the Vatican over the years, but the Holy See has intervened and excommunicated seven who it deemed to be “illicitly ordained.”

The appointment of bishops has been one of the main sources of contention between the two sides, with Beijing saying it must have a full say in the decisions made by the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Church.

Other issues remain, including whether about 30 “underground” Catholic bishops already approved by the Vatican, but not sanctioned by Beijing, will be formally recognized by the Chinese authorities.

In an interview with The South China Morning Post, Tou Chou-seng, an academic at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan and the island’s former ambassador to the Vatican, said Beijing and the Holy See hoped a compromise over bishop appointments would ultimately lead to a normalization in their relationship. But there was still a long way to go.

“Resolving conflicts over bishop ordination is the first step, but it doesn’t put things right once and for all,” Tou said.“Historically it’s always been a long walk from reaching a bishop ordination agreement to ties being formalized,” he said.

Other Communist countries have tried to establish relations with the Vatican. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Holy See in 1989 vowing to build full diplomatic ties, but it took a decade for that to happen.

Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung saw former Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, expressing Hanoi’s wish to build full ties with the Vatican, but they have yet to be established.

He added that increased numbers of underground Catholic churches in China would be more, but a critical indication of the success of any deal was whether it would lead to greater religious freedom.

“If they are continuously treated unfairly after going public, the Holy See would certainly feel apologetic to the underground church,” Tou said.

Whatever happens, it is heartening to see just how strong the Catholic Church is in China despite the numerous difficulties the faithful have faced over the years.