China's Catholics: Devout and Divided

Persecution nurtures defiance
Tianjin Catholic Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

 

[This article was first published in the April 25, 1997 issue of Commonweal]

From the point of view of an American Catholic, the Chinese Catholic church has three astonishing characteristics: the depth of its devotion, the strength of its hierarchical culture, and the bitterness of its divisions. It is at once inspiring and disturbing, and, in true yin/yang fashion, the disturbing and inspiring aspects are closely interrelated.

The first and most important astonishing characteristic is the level of devotion found among Chinese Catholics. In the northern port city of Tianjin, where Teilhard de Chardin once made his home and where I carried out ethnographic research on the church in 1993, the cathedral is filled to capacity every Sunday, starting with the 7:00 A.M. and ending with the 7:00 P.M. Mass. The morning liturgies are High Masses, which last about two hours, including Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament which follows. The singing is extraordinary. The whole congregation joins their voices with great gusto to the excellent choir, and the stone walls of the cathedral fairly reverberate with the music. On major feast days, worshipers spill out into the surrounding courtyard. For the Easter Vigil, many spend the whole night in the church.

As a sociologist, I would not have anticipated the vigorous revival of Catholicism that has emerged in the period of "reform and opening" begun by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. Christians were bitterly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-67). Church buildings were shuttered or torn down. Priests and nuns were imprisoned. Anyone who openly dared practice the faith risked personal calamity. I and most of my academic colleagues assumed that, for better or worse, this would have virtually wiped out Christianity in China. But the 3 million Catholics of 1949 have now grown to about 10 million.

Missionaries who had spent their lives in China often acknowledged that many in their flock were "rice Christians" who had joined the church mainly to get material benefits, and were in any case only superficially educated in the doctrine. Although some heroic missionaries like Vincent Lebbe (1877-1940) had pushed vigorously for the establishment of a national hierarchy, many other foreign missionaries resisted the idea on the grounds that most local Chinese clergy were neither well-educated nor reliable enough to take full responsibility for church leadership. How could poorly educated rice Christians survive brutal persecution and reemerge with an energy and enthusiasm that would put most American Catholics to shame?

Sociologically, the answer is linked to the "rites controversy" debacle of the eighteenth century. The Jesuits had advocated an accommodation between Catholicism and Chinese culture--in particular that Chinese Catholics could still carry out the rituals of ancestor veneration central to the Confucian tradition. The Franciscans and Dominicans argued that these rites amounted to ancestor worship and could not be permitted. In 1715, Pope Clement XI, ruling against the Jesuits, issued an edict that forbade Chinese Catholics from taking part in their traditional rituals. This was a disaster for the fledgling mission to China, for the emperor declared Catholicism a heterodox religion and expelled most missionaries. The church only began to grow again in the nineteenth century, when evangelists worked under the cover of Western imperialism. But the price of being a Chinese Catholic was still to cut oneself off from the ritual customs of one's society. Although the Vatican ended the rites controversy in 1939 by declaring that Catholics could indeed participate in some of the Confucian rites (such practices are now carried out in Taiwan), Catholics in mainland China, especially in the countryside, refuse to take part in traditional funeral rites.

Funeral rituals define one's connection to the clans which are the basis of rural Chinese social structure. Anyone who cannot participate in such rituals will be truly alone in a world in which survival still depends on the solidarity of extended families. Thus, missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries refused to accept individual converts, for fear that the converts would quickly backslide. Instead, missionaries aimed to convert whole lineages, or even whole villages, all the members of which would be tied to a common chain of descendants commemorated through traditional Catholic sacraments. As a consequence, rural Catholics live in separate enclaves from non-Catholics.

Within these rural enclaves--and the vast majority of Catholics are rural residents--some Catholics are "true believers," while others are "lax." But even for the lax, their Catholicism is an indelible identity. Even if one never prays or receives the sacraments, even if one leads a scandalous moral life, one will have to be buried as a Catholic. It will be the only way to express one's social identity as a member of a particular family and lineage. In a world defined by blood and belonging, Catholic identity is inescapable.

When people are persecuted and discriminated against for an identity they cannot discard, even if they want to, the persecution tends only to deepen their commitment to their identity. This is what happened to China's rural Catholics beginning in the 1950s with the establishment of the Catholic Patriotic Association, an effort by the Communist party to control the church. As a consequence of this attempt to subordinate the church, many lax Catholics became secretly defiant Catholics. And true believers sometimes became genuinely heroic martyrs. Rural Catholicism developed the solidarity, the intense group consciousness, of a persecuted ethnicity. When the government relaxed its strictures on religious practice in 1979, Catholic communities often asserted themselves with great fervor, rebuilding and refurbishing churches and joyfully celebrating the formerly proscribed rituals. This enthusiasm spilled over into urban Catholic communities. In contrast to their comfortable, individualist coreligionists in the United States, the persecuted Chinese Christians became much more vibrant in their faith. What from a liberal Catholic perspective seems like a disastrously wrong decision in the rites controversy became, ironically, the foundation for a heroically devout Chinese Catholic community.

There is, however, a dark side to this inspiring devotion-- a belligerent attitude toward outsiders. Researchers from Beijing University were amazed by the capacity of rural Catholics to cooperate with one another. Catholic villages, the researchers report, were better organized and had less crime than many of their non-Catholic neighbors. But although Catholics eagerly attend church, they won't go to political meetings. When one villager renounced his faith to join the Communist party, his neighbors pelted him with rocks. When a family-planning team arrived in one Catholic village, it was surrounded by an angry mob and had to be rescued by the police.

As hostile as they sometimes are toward government officials, Catholic villagers can be even more hostile toward fellow Catholics whom they accuse of collaborating with the government. This has led to tragic divisions within the church. To understand the genesis of these divisions, an appreciation of the role ecclesiastical hierarchy plays in the religious imagination of Chinese Catholics is needed.

Although the Chinese Catholic church is far poorer than the American church, its liturgies are far more formal and splendid. Chinese Catholics are fond of solemn High Masses in the Tridentine style, with the priest's back to the people, and stately processions with many deacons and acolytes, each office with its distinctive vestments. Although the Chinese hierarchy is steadily introducing the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, still the "new Mass" is more formal than in the United States. An autobiographical short story, written by a Chinese Catholic student who came to study in the West, recalls his shock at attending a Mass with guitars and folk songs. "He couldn't respond to the Sign of Peace...because people were shaking hands and some were even embracing each other. Then, just as he was about to receive Communion, he was startled to see that the host was made of coarse, brown bread. He left feeling that the atmosphere was just a little too warm for comfort. He never went back to that strange church again."

While the Chinese church has only recently been able to learn about Vatican II, that does not account for the formality of Chinese liturgy. Such formality, with its attendant notion of hierarchical order, is deeply embedded in Chinese culture, especially the culture of the countryside. The hierarchical splendors of the liturgy lift peasants out of their ordinary lives and give them a connection with a wonderful, orderly cosmos, not unlike that expressed through the glories of the old emperors. And not unlike that expressed today by China's Communist rulers, who rule from a Beijing Party Center, the atmosphere of which, with its status consciousness and its constant intrigues, is reminiscent of the old imperial court--or of the Vatican.

It was perhaps because the Chinese Communist party and the Chinese Catholic church are so similar in their hierarchical imaginations that they have been such mortal enemies. For the church, its strong commitment to a hierarchy culminating in the Vatican was a pillar of strength in hard times during the Maoist era. A commitment to that structure kept Chinese Catholics, though scattered throughout the country, unified in spite of government attempts to drive them apart. Chinese Catholics also remained clear about who their real leaders were--those courageous bishops, priests, and nuns who in their loyalty to the pope suffered prison rather than compromise with the government.

But the hierarchical commitments that were a pillar of strength in hard times have turned into a foundation of sand in soft times. Since the end of the Maoist era, a partial lessening of religious repression has brought division and confusion. Unlike in the Maoist era, Catholics are now permitted to worship publicly. The government has compensated the church for some of the property it confiscated or destroyed, and has permitted contacts with Christians outside China. The government also has relaxed its attempt to interfere in theological and liturgical matters. However, the government still insists that, to function openly, Catholic communities must be properly registered with the party and that their leaders must accept supervision by the so-called Catholic Patriotic Association.

The demands the state now makes through the Patriotic Association are loose enough that it is possible for many Catholics to work pragmatically in good faith within the association's framework. When the Patriotic Association was established in the late 1950s, the price of membership was explicit repudiation of the Vatican. The few clergy who paid that price were soundly rejected by most Chinese Catholics. But now, the "spiritual primacy" of the pope is in some sense acceptable, though clergy are not supposed to take orders from the Vatican. Moreover, in many places, bishops working within the Patriotic Association framework have quietly received authorization from the Vatican to carry out their ministry.

At the same time, the underground Catholic church continues, often led by bishops who were given secret faculties by the Vatican in 1978, and which allowed the underground to choose new bishops without going through the normal bureaucratic procedures. They were even able to ordain new priests, without giving them formal seminary training. In some places this has led to more than one bishop claiming legitimate authority over the local church, leading to ambiguity in the hierarchical order of the church. For people deeply devoted to hierarchy, the results can be devastating.

For instance, in Tianjin, where I was doing fieldwork, there were three men who claimed to be the bishop of the diocese. All of them had started out as underground bishops. During the 1980s, Catholics in the diocese were fairly unified because the government-approved bishop was widely seen as a collaborator who had no legitimacy. But when this despised bishop died in 1991, an apple of discord was introduced into the diocese. One of the underground bishops was invited by the political authorities to take over as ordinary of the diocese. He did so, apparently with the belief that he could meet the pastoral needs of a growing flock without making excessive compromises. The other bishops and some of their followers disagreed. During Mass every Sunday in front of a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes outside of the cathedral, a sizable group of underground Catholics kneels (under the watchful eyes of secret police) praying the rosary. Exiled to a parish in a remote rural area, the leading underground bishop distributes mimeographed messages bitterly denouncing the new official bishop. If the Vatican had normal diplomatic relations with China, a papal nuncio could be sent to sort out the mess. That way, says a priest friend of mine, "all the Catholics could hate Nuncio instead of hating one another."

In some places, the divisions among Chinese Catholics are so deep that they have led to violence. In 1992, an above-ground priest died from a poisoned chalice, and there have been physical battles between underground and above-ground adherents in some rural communities. The ties of blood and belonging that lead to great solidarity among some Catholic villages and clans can set them in rivalry with other such communities. It was the hierarchy that brought these family-like local communities into a larger community of communities. With the hierarchy in disarray, the virulent forces of localism have taken over in some places. The forces are intensified when, say, one community is jealous of another because the rival got official permission to rebuild its church. The intensity becomes white hot when underground clergy associated with one community are arrested and tortured. Under such circumstances, the blood of martyrs can be the seed of division as well as devotion.

The divisions are also exacerbated by the mixed messages Chinese Catholics sometimes receive from abroad. In the United States, for instance, the Cardinal Kung Foundation strongly advocates the cause of the underground church, while other American church groups are willing to reach out to the public church. These differences often reflect theological arguments within the American church about the nature of papal authority and political controversies within the American public about how China should be engaged or contained. The problem for the church in China is that these foreign differences become exacerbated when they come into contact with the Chinese political climate.

There are signs of hope within the Chinese Catholic church. In some places, genuine reconciliation is taking place among contending factions: Underground and public church congregations peacefully share the same church building and even walk in procession together. Still, in other places tensions remain high, especially in north China where the government has launched an ugly new crackdown on underground communities.

Some of the major difficulties might be resolved through normalization of Vatican relations with the People's Republic of China, but there remain many diplomatic obstacles to this. Other difficulties might be alleviated if contending Catholics in the West were to resolve their own differences first and then interact with the Chinese church in a more informed and sensitive fashion.

If we want to help China's Catholics, we should be willing to accept their gifts of devotion and courage practiced in an environment far more hostile than most of us have ever experienced, and learn from their creativity in the face of moral dilemmas far more complicated than most of us can imagine.

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