The Underground Catholic Church in China

On the morning of June 30, 1706 in the grand imperial garden Yuanming Yuan near Beijing, the Papal Legate Carlo Tommaso Maillard de Tournon was carried with elaborate ceremony on a sedan chair for his third and final meeting with the Kangxi emperor. Tournon had been sent to China to formalize relations between the Vatican and Beijing, but a sticking point had emerged over the veneration of Confucius and ancestors. Whereas the Jesuits had proposed an accommodating interpretation of the practice of the Chinese rites, which would allow their precarious mission to continue in China, Tournon argued that the veneration of Confucius and ancestors was idolatrous and incompatible with Christianity. At this meeting, the Kangxi emperor bluntly told Tournon that if Christianity was incompatible with the teaching of Confucius, then Christianity could not be propagated in China.

China has a long history with Christianity and recurring patterns reverberate throughout its past. Three centuries later, on July 7, 2012 at the St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daqin was consecrated as coadjutor/auxiliary bishop. Ma received the laying on of hands by Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian and two co-consecrating bishops, but avoided consecration by a bishop not recognized by the Holy See. He then announced his resignation from his offices in the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to a standing ovation of one thousand parishioners, although some, perhaps anticipating the consequences, are said to have wept. Shortly afterward, Bishop Ma was placed under house arrest in Sheshan Seminary. The Shanghai seminary was closed along with the diocesan publishing house. In June 2013 Shanghai diocese priests and nuns were punished with “reeducation classes.”

The Chinese Catholic Council of Bishops (Zhongguo Tianzhujao Zhujiaoyuan) revoked Ma’s appointment as bishop of Shanghai. However, the Vatican denied that the revocation had any juridical power. Ironically, this consecration had marked a rare case of agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (Zhongguo Tianzhujiao Aiguohui) in that both had sanctioned Ma’s consecration.

After four years of incarceration, Ma made a surprising apology, writing that he had been “tricked by outside elements, and made errors of words and deeds against the Patriotic Association [CCPA].” The Sino-Vatican affairs specialist Fr. Gianni Criveller questions the validity of this expression of regret and compares Ma’s statement to a type of “self-criticism imposed on victims in perfect Cultural Revolution style,” a type of remorse that has resurfaced with greater frequency under the government of Xi Jinping. Some believe that the Holy See encouraged this apology.

There are signs that Bishop Ma is being rehabilitated and restored to his office. One week after his apology, a video with his image was shown at the centennial anniversary of the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian’s birth. Shortly afterward the CCPA chair, Bishop John Fang Xinyao, gave a television interview in which he referred to Ma Daqin by the title of bishop and spoke of Ma’s need to be more sensitive to blending the Church with Chinese culture. He referenced the model of the famous Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) who was sensitive to this blending and respected Confucian values.

The situation is complex. To some, Bishop Ma is a hero and martyr faithful to the Holy See. To others, he has been injudicious and harmed the unity of the Church. Another group believes that Ma’s criticism of the Chinese government has been misinterpreted. They argue that he was trying to be a unifier but failed to anticipate the enthusiastic response from his consecration audience and the media reports of his actions, which forced the government to respond harshly. Echoes of the Rites Controversy continue to reverberate. Eighteenth-century rites antagonists were composed, on one hand, of the Jesuits who sought to accommodate the Chinese rites for the sake of the survival of the Church in China and, on the other hand, theological purists who believed the Chinese rites were idolatrous and violated the First Commandment. Today’s debate between the government-sanctioned church and the underground church pits those who believe that a compromise with the Chinese government is necessary for the growth of the Church against those who feel freedom of religion in China is essential to the life of the Church.

Since 1949, the Catholic Church has been forced to face official headwinds that have impeded its growth: while Catholics grew from 3,500,000 to 12 million, Protestants grew from 500,000 to 25 million. Of course, the question of growth cannot be separated from the fundamental questions about the nature of the Church – should it be a church of sacrifice and martyrdom or one of compromise and reconciliation? Do greater numbers of converts mean more spiritual vibrancy or does a church of martyrs achieve the ultimate triumph? These are not easy questions to answer.

The division between the government-sanctioned and underground Catholic churches emerged during the aftermath of the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49. Atheistic communist leaders like Mao Zedong believed that religion would fade away over time with the progress of democratic socialism. Consequently from 1949 to 1966, Chinese Communists focused on the ways of controlling rather than destroying religion. When religion had not faded away by 1966, Mao urged a more aggressive approach against it through the Cultural Revolution, calling upon Red Guards to attack and destroy religion as part of the campaign against the “Four Olds” (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas).

Zhou Enlai was active in early negotiations with Chinese Christians. In 1950 he told a group of Christians that the Communist government was going to allow Christians to teach and try to convert people due to the belief that the falsehood of Christian teachings would eventually cause them to fail. When Chinese forces were sent to fight in the Korean War in 1950, the Vatican’s control of Catholicism was attacked as an appendage of foreign imperialism. In a burst of patriotism, some Catholics called for a break with imperialism by the establishment of a self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating Chinese Church.

In 1957 the government created the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) to control Catholics under the Religious Affairs Bureau, later replaced by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) (Guojia Zongjiao Shiwuju). [The Protestant counterpart of the CCPA was the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) (Sanzi Jiaohui), which had been founded in 1954 and which, as with Catholics, caused a split of Protestants into official churches and unofficial house churches (jiating jiaohui).]. Further politicization was carried out in campaigns to discredit missionaries through their association with imperialism. Religious groups throughout China held self-study meetings in which suspected reactionaries were denounced. The diverging tendencies toward reconciliation and martyrdom led to the split between the government-sanctioned Patriotic Catholic Church with its loyalty to Beijing and the underground church, which was loyal to Rome. A central issue became whether Beijing or the Vatican had the authority to name bishops.

Shanghai was a particular flashpoint for Catholic resistance against government attempts to control religion in 1954-57. The Jesuit Aloysius Jin Luxian (1916-2013) served twenty-seven years in prison and after his release in 1982 accepted, without Vatican approval, the invitation of the Patriotic Church to become the bishop of Shanghai. By contrast, the Shanghai Bishop Ignatius Gong Pinmei (1901-2000) pursued his martyrdom to the end, serving thirty years in prison, and still refused to join the Patriotic Church. In 1988 he emigrated to the United States and later flew to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II, who in 1979 had secretly (in pectore) named him cardinal. We come now full circle to the rich irony of Ma Daqin’s post-consecration announcement of his withdrawal from the CCPA and his consequent house arrest. The Bishop whom he was supposed to eventually replace was none other than this same Jin Luxian who is said to have been broken-hearted over events and who died the following year.

In 2014, while flying over Chinese airspace to South Korea, Pope Francis attempted to open a dialogue with his “Air Travel Diplomacy” (hangkong waijiao) and sent a brief, friendly greeting to President Xi Jinping. After arriving in South Korea, Francis spoke of his desire to open up a friendly dialogue with the Chinese in a spirit not only of a “political dialogue, but also a brotherly dialogue.” (Taiwan appears to be an issue on which the Vatican is willing to give way by moving the Papal Nunciature in Taipei—already downgraded in 1971 from nuncio to papal chargé d’affaires—to Beijing.) On his return flight over China, the Pope replied to a journalist’s question of whether he wanted to go to China by saying: “But certainly: tomorrow! We esteem the Chinese people, but the Church asks for freedom for its problems, for its labor, no other stipulation.” The official Chinese response was cautious and welcomed a “constructive dialogue.” At this point, Zhuo Xinping, the director of the Institute of World Religions in Beijing, compared Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit, to the famously accommodating Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Zhou pointedly noted that China has a long tradition of “communicating with the Jesuits.”

What are the prospects for a way forward? The Vatican has proposed an agreement with China that is similar to the agreement that Benedict XVI made with Vietnam in 2010. That agreement led to Pope Francis’ nomination of Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Hanoi as a cardinal in 2015. The current bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon, has promoted the idea of a China-Holy See dialogue. However, Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, believes that Francis is too eager for an agreement with Beijing. It is highly possible that such an agreement with China would lead to the naming of a cardinal from China. However, there is great distrust and enormous resistance from critics of China’s human rights record. A Holy See-China accord could lead to the eventual re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two, which Beijing severed in 1951, but it might come at the cost of the Vatican relinquishing control of the underground church to the Chinese state. This might be viewed as the Holy See’s abandonment of many Chinese Catholics who have suffered because of their loyalty to Rome.

Will a resolution mimic the pattern of the Rites Controversy, which was resolved incrementally over three centuries until a final anti-climactic papal ruling in 1939 allowed for the reverence of ancestors? Or will there be a grand and sudden agreement in which both sides compromise? The political and religious differences between Beijing and the Vatican are grounded in the patterns of the past and will be difficult to navigate. And yet, the election of a Chinese pope is a distinct possibility.

D. E. Mungello, professor of history at Baylor University, is the author of numerous books and articles on Sino-Western history. His most recent book is The Catholic Invasion of China: Reinterpreting Chinese Christianity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).