Chinese Puzzle

The Catholic Church’s presence in China dates to 1246, when a Franciscan friar and papal envoy led the first known Catholic mission to the Mongol court at Karakorum. By the early fourteenth century the Franciscans had a missionary presence throughout China. Those missions ended in 1368 with the fall of the Mongols to the anti-Christian Ming emperors. In 1565 the Jesuits established a mission south of Canton, and in 1582, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived and was soon traveling widely in China. Ricci immersed himself in Chinese language and culture, and thus sought to reconcile Catholicism with Confucianism and traditional practices such as ancestor veneration.

Following Ricci’s death in 1606, the question of whether Chinese rites could be incorporated into Catholicism became a century-long debate. In 1704, Pope Clement XI condemned and prohibited the Chinese rites, including ancestor veneration. In response, the Kangxi emperor banned Christian missionaries from China. Catholicism went underground until treaties signed during the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars provided missionaries unfettered access to China. Nevertheless, the church’s close relationship with colonial authorities rendered it a target of the Boxer Rebellion against foreign influence in China (1899-1900); hundreds of missionaries were killed.

The Chinese church remained under the direct control of the Vatican Office of the Propagation of the Faith until 1946. Three years later the Communists assumed power, and by 1952, most foreign missionaries had been expelled. To control the church, the government established the Catholic Patriotic Association [CPA] in 1957 to oversee church operations. Clergy and laity were required to join. Those who refused were imprisoned.

In 1979, as part of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Cultural Revolution reform program, clergy began to be released from prison and some churches reopened. In the mid-1980s, regulations were changed so that clergy were no longer expected to belong to the CPA, though they were expected to obey it. Meanwhile, the Vatican quietly began to recognize bishops of the registered church. During the early 1990s there were indications that the Vatican was trying to reestablish diplomatic relations with Beijing. The momentum halted abruptly, however, in 2000, when the Vatican canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, some of whom Beijing claimed had aided “imperialist” aggression in China.

At the time of the death of Pope John Paul II, relations between the Vatican and Beijing were still strained. Though China was one of the very few countries that did not send an envoy to John Paul’s funeral, it did offer condolences. Likewise, though Taiwanese President Chen Shui Bian attended the funeral, the New York Times reported that he was snubbed by Vatican officials. This was significant. The Chinese have two requirements for re-establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican: first, transfer of the diplomatic mission from Taipei to Beijing; second, a substantive role for Beijing in choosing bishops. Shortly after the funeral, Archbishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong stated publicly that the Vatican was ready to move its embassy to Beijing. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict has made several public statements hinting at his desire to reestablish relations with China. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has expressed a desire to open a dialogue with the Vatican.

“There will be a dialogue,” says one leading registered church figure. Whether or not that dialogue will lead to reestablishment of relations depends on the willingness of both parties to make concessions concerning the appointment of bishops. This could be difficult, since the Vatican has shown little willingness to let local churches, let alone governments, have a hand in these decisions. Meanwhile, the Vatican is supporting efforts to unify registered and unregistered Catholic communities in China. In the past year, several unregistered bishops have emerged from the underground and become registered bishops, thus unifying—at least in spirit—their divided dioceses. Regardless of whether or not diplomatic relations are re-established, these regional movements toward unification will continue with the tacit approval of both the Vatican and Beijing.

Published in the 2005-08-12 issue: 

Adam Minter writes about China for the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Rake, and other publications. He lives in Shanghai.

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