Villagers walk near a Catholic church in the village of Huangtugang, Hebei province, China (CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)

For more than 30 years I have been in Europe living among men of the West and pursuing university studies and historical research in the archives of some of your largest cities. In this way I have made personal contact with the civilization, history and living conditions in your traditionally Christian countries, noting particularly the relations between Church and State.

I was born in Shanghai of a family which was Catholic for several generations. From childhood on I lived continuously in a Catholic environment. But when I came to live among you, my friends, I learned how a person can be at the same time a good Christian, a good citizen and a good patriot. According to Cardinal Mercier: "The religion of Christ makes patriotism an obligation; there is no perfect Christian who is not a perfect patriot."

Actually, in my study of the history of the Church in Europe, especially in France under the Revolution and the First Empire, in Italy at the time of the Risorgimento (particularly after the taking of Rome in 1870) and finally in Germany under Bismarck, etc., I could understand much better and much more deeply the present situation of the Catholic Church in China and the problems that confront Chinese Christians.

With you, my friends, the Christian religion is, by tradition, that of a majority of the people; in China there are only 3,000,000 Catholics in the midst of 700,000,000 inhabitants, less than half of one percent: an insignificant minority with no influence on the life of the people. On the other hand the Buddhists, and also the 40,000,000 Moslems, comprise a considerable national force the way Christians do in the West.

Of course Christianity is no longer a state religion with you, but it is still a religion of the people because your civilization and the history of your country are based on the Christian religion which is, so to speak, the source of your thought and of your daily life. In China, public opinion holds Christianity to be a foreign religion, but foreign in appearance and presentation rather than in its teachings and principles. The Chinese have a civilization of their own, several thousand years old; they have their own way of seeing things, of thinking and acting, likewise their own moral principles and religious thought.

In depicting the evangelization accomplished in China, the future Cardinal Constantini, when he was secretary of the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, stated: "We have established in the Far East, not a Church with normal foundations but foreign missions . . . and Asia is not converted.., the Apostles and the missionaries of the sub-apostolic era established a Church with native clergy and they converted the Western World .... "

It is well known that in the 17th and 18th centuries the eminent Jesuits, Ricci, Shall, Verbiest and their learned colleagues, in order to undertake the evangelization of Chinese high society, began by studying the thought, customs and history of the Chinese empire. While evangelization was proceeding with great vigor, the tragic quarrels over the so-called Chinese rites arose. In Rome they provoked controversies, misunderstandings, anxieties and finally condemnations and excommunications. In Peking they brought about the expulsion of the missionaries and persecution of the Christians. The works of the missions
collapsed like so many packs of cards, and the light of the Gospel was extinguished slowly like the setting sun; it disappeared from the Chinese horizon. 

In 1842, after three years of "the opium war," the English forced the Celestial Empire to sign the treaty of Nanking, the first unequal treaty, which opened the five large Chinese ports to foreign trade. Soon the United States, France, Russia and the other countries engaged in foreign trade forced China to grant them similar concessions. China, overcome, had her hands tied; from then on she was to live at the mercy of her Western rivals. What was still more painful: the temporal affairs of the Church in China were included in all these treaties--so that Christianity became, after opium itself, an article of forced importation. This Western colonial expansion in China placed the Church there under the guardianship of the so-called Christian powers.

That was the beginning of a dramatic and tragic hundred years, a century of ever-recurring and often bloody conflicts: between foreign missionaries and Chinese mandarins duty-bound to defend their ancestral tradition as well as the independence of their country; between Chinese Christians (or rather neophytes, who claimed to be Christians) and other inhabitants of the country. Too often the so-called Chinese Christians were criminals, who, to evade the law of the country, found a secure shelter in the shadow of a Catholic Church protected by foreign flags.

In 1857, following the murder of a missionary in the interior of China, the governments of Napoleon III and Queen Victoria formed an alliance to wage a new war on China. This led to the second unequal treaty, the treaty of Tientsin of 1858. Clearly in this domain of so-called religious affairs incidents multiplied almost daily; however the massacre at Tientsin in 1870 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 were the most fearful. In the latter case forty-five foreign missionaries and a number of Protestant ministers fell as brave heroes on the field of battle. In all, more than thirty thousand Christians were killed.

During the long century of the unequal treaties all European and American missionaries without exception enjoyed the right of extraterritoriality which placed them above and beyond the laws of the Empire of China and its authorities. Yet they sought from those same laws and authorities protection of their lives, their works and their substantial temporal goods. In short, religious buildings, schools, hospitals, institutes, presbyteries, etc., became de facto, if not de jure, so many affiliates and prolongations of foreign concessions, exempt from the jurisdiction of the Chinese mandarins. This colonial-missionary expansion extended into all the interior provinces and out to the very borders of the Empire. That is why today Chinese public opinion still considers Christianity to be a foreign religion, planted in China with political and colonial hidden motives. The Chinese feel that the missionaries were foreign agents in disguise and that the Chinese Christians were hunting dogs trained by their foreign masters...

To complete this recollection, which I write with a heavy heart, I shall cite another excerpt from the diary of Msgr. Constantini, the first apostolic delegate to China,
from 1922 to 1923: "Chinese judges, when they had to deal with cases involving Christians, dreaded the intervention of the missionary. Thanks to the treaties imposed on China by force, and especially because foreigners were exempt from Chinese jurisdiction, the missions came to be a state within a state... If a missionary in the interior of China was involved, soon there loomed up the countenance of the foreign consul, and, in the distance, that of the foreign minister in Peking. If missionaries suffered any material losses, or if a missionary was killed, China was compelled to pay an indemnity." These indemnities were very heavy, often requisitions of real estate, always in the nature of compensation or payments by the Chinese of "the price of blood."

In the thorny affairs of the missions, it must be said, French diplomats in China had to face three ways--toward the court in Peking, the imprudent and demanding missionaries (who sometimes provoked incidents) and the government in Paris. These clever diplomats varied their language to suit their discourse with each group.

Happily in the course of World War II all the unequal treaties were abrogated. But with the Chinese the works of the missions still evoke shameful memories and appear as vestiges of foreign domination. The Church in China has never enjoyed the right sort of status. Today we hope against hope. The Church remains alive in China; she will ever continue to live in spite of everything.

Right after World War I Benedict XV decided to separate the works of the missions from every colonial enterprise, publishing the famous encyclical, Maximum lllud, and solemnly proclaiming to the whole world that, little by little, in every nation, he would entrust the governance of the Church to the native clergy. He reverted to the approach of the Apostles. Pius XI, his immediate successor, soon and with new vigor, pushed the carrying out of the encyclical, the charter of mission reform. He consecrated the first native Chinese bishops with his own hands in 1926.

Coming of Age

In 1946 by the establishment of its own hierarchy the Church in China came of age. The Holy See placed it in the same echelon as the Churches of France, Italy, etc. In this way there was proclaimed the greatness, the splendor of catholicity and of apostolic universality which would radiate at the ecumenical Vatican Council.

In 1949, when the Chinese Democratic Republic was proclaimed, the Church in China had 140 dioceses including several apostolic prefectures or independent missions; some 115 of these territorial divisions were divided among the many foreign missionary institutes. Of the 20 archdioceses, 15 had European archbishops.

Article 88 of the Constitution of the new China declares that the citizens of the Democratic Republic of China enjoy religious liberty and that this liberty is guaranteed by law. The leaders of the new China, in imitation of European governments, place all religious confessions on an equal footing as cults--i.e, the Catholic cult, the Protestant cult, the Buddhist cult, the Moslem cult, etc. The various cults are controlled by the State and protected by law.

In good faith, having sought to put an end to the foreign aspect of the Church, Chinese Christians both Catholic and Protestant have launched a great movement toward threefold autonomy: administrative, economic and apostolic. However, in this national movement there has never been a question of the Catholic Church in China separating itself from the Holy See of Rome; although there have been many unfounded assertions on the subject.

In Peking, in the course of a reception sponsored by Chou En-Lai January 17, 1951, in honor of Catholic diplomats, the First Minister told his guests of his admiration and warmly praised "the work of the Church in China, from the standpoint of education, charitable works and the dedication of the missionaries." Above all he clearly indicated that he understood that Catholics had to remain united to Rome in spiritual matters. In the begining, then, the new China extended a hand of friendship.

But Msgr. Riberi, the nuncio since 1946, was accredited to the Nationalist Government in Nanking. In 1949, after that government had departed and the city had fallen, Msgr. Riberi was permitted to remain in Nanking for another two years and to carry out his work. In 1951 he was expelled from the Chinese mainland.

This was an extremely delicate and painful matter. From Peking's viewpoint and in Chinese public opinion, as well as in accordance with international usage, Msgr. Riberi no longer qualified as a diplomatic representative in China after the departure of the Chiang Kai-Shek government from Nanking, since the Vatican did not recognize the Chinese Democratic Republic; in the eyes of the Peking government he was simply a visiting foreigner whose two-year stay reflected an exceptional government tolerance.

But for most Chinese Catholics, faithful to their formation and the judgment of their Christian consciences, Msgr. Riberi continued to be the official representative of the Pope in their country. Therefore they viewed his expulsion as a break with Rome and with the Pope, and acceptance of his expulsion as tantamount to apostasy. That was the origin of grave misunderstandings and the beginning of conflicts, which were political rather than religious, between church and state in China. It was the starting point for the departure of all foreign missionaries and of a movement of severe purges against certain bishops, priests and Chinese Christians who were considered to be reactionaries, anti-revolutionists and servants of foreign imperialism.

Could this change of attitude on the part of the Peking government have been avoided? History will one day give the answer to this complicated question. In the West, church history constantly tells of conflicts between church and state. Because of their experience in this domain Christians have learned how to meet such difficulties and to arrive at equitable solutions acceptable to both church and state. For they distinguish what is Caesar's from what is God's. Furthermore, they know the way to Rome.

Alas! Chinese Christians, especially the Catholics, find themselves in a very different situation. The affairs of the Church in China had been in the hands of foreigners, and even the Chinese clergy had not had the least chance to become familiar with various situations which the Church in Europe has had to meet continually. So, for the first time and without preparation they were forced to deal with problems of the Church face to face with their government, without support, alone. Besides, most of them were not in touch with the history of the Church either in China or the outside world... The poor Chinese Christians could only rely on their own consciences in regard to God, in regard to their country. Rome and China are so many miles apart.

It breaks my heart, my friends, every time people without thinking say to me that in China there is a "schismatic" or "national" Church separated from Rome and condemned by the Holy See, and that the Chinese bishops have been excommunicated by the Pope. What a calumny and what an insult! Let us at least respect the supreme authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, who alone has the right and the competence to pronounce such a canonical sentence. Nobody can override his decision.

As with the Chinese people, the Church of China has been enduring humiliation, opposition and sacrifice. In his encyclical Rerum ecclesiae of forty years ago Pins XI clearly predicted the political and social happenings which have taken place in the past two decades in nearly every mission country: national independence, changes of government and types of political regime, expulsion of foreign agents, soldiers and missionaries.

Two years later in 1928, in his letter addressed to the bishops of China, Plus XI declared: "In the course of her long history the Church has demonstrated that she adapts herself to every nation, to every form of government. She has preached and still preaches respect for, and obedience to, all legitimately constituted authority. She asks for her missionaries only liberty, security and protection of the general law of the land."

In October 1963, barely four months after his accession, Paul VI in a message to the leaders of the new China recalled the duty of Catholics toward their country: "The name, Catholic, takes nothing from the intensity of their love for their country, for adherence to the Church, far from weakening, exalts and reinforces their love of their country and makes citizens guarantors of its security, peace and true progress... The Church does not wish to dominate but to serve."

At present, in China, not counting Taiwan, there are some 60 bishops for about 140 dioceses and prefectures. One third of the bishops were consecrated before 1956; the rest were chosen and consecrated after 1958 without the papal seal of approval because of extraordinary circumstances. The Church could not exist without her bishops, successors of the Apostles. The new prelates act in good faith solely with the pastoral intention of preserving the Church and protecting their flocks. The Church in China is on the march, living from day to day. Except for the great missionary efforts of the Nestorians and Franciscans in the Middle Ages, the Church in China, that vast vineyard of Christ, was definitively founded some four centuries ago by the first sons of Ignatius of Loyola. It was cultivated and made fruitful by missionaries from many congregations with the active collaboration of the clergy and Chinese Christians from every epoch, in good as well as in dark times. The works of the missions in China are the result of tremendous labor, many sacrifices and sometimes the shedding of the blood of these unflagging workers, worthy of all praise.

Yet the Church, instituted by Christ Himself, is also a society situated in the midst of the world and of men, in the compelling circumstances of political, economic and social life. Therefore human weaknesses are difficult to avoid even in works consecrated to the glory of God. That is why the Chinese episcopacy and clergy are heir to a great work whose temporal and administrative past brings with it a heavy debt that must be paid. Today these big problems are difficult to control. After a rapid sweep over the trials and secular evils which ceaselessly thwart the increase of the Church in China, we must now seek the best and most efficacious remedy to restore her to health and strength. The remedy is obvious: direct contact and dialogue with the government of the country.

In 1801, to restore peace between the Church and the government resulting from the Revolution, Plus VII signed a concordat with Napoleon. The Pope renounced all claims to the temporal goods confiscated by the State in order to protect solely and strictly the moral and spiritual interests indispensable to the life of the Church in France. Similarly it is through a dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese government that a just solution can be hoped for: the concluding of a modus vivendi so that the Church may live and spread the faith, while obeying the legitimate authorities in accordance with the duties of the good Christian and the good citizen.

In China, as elsewhere, a peaceful coexistence is not impossible in human justice and Christian charity. It is in this spirit that the Holy Apostolic See from John XXIH to Paul VI has concluded a series of agreements with the governments of several countries in East Europe--above all, and primarily, to safeguard, according to the needs and possibilities, the spiritual interests of the Church as welt as her very life.

We live in a post-conciliar period, a period of dialogue, reconciliation and peace, in the spirit of Pacem in terris and in the pastoral thought which Paul VI expounded so clearly in the aforementioned speech he addressed to China: "The mission of the Church is not to divide but to unite. Far from seeking to stir up trouble, she intends to be the artisan of order and peace between the world's peoples."

His Holiness Paul VI, the Pope of peace, extends his hands to all nations, all countries, all peoples. With a deep love of peace between the peoples he sent President Mao last December 31 his first message of sympathy and good wishes. It contained this remarkable passage: "The prestige which China now enjoys draws to her the attention of the whole world ... We beg you to accept this appeal as well as the fervent good wishes which we manifest before God for the Chinese people on the threshhold of the New Year."

Let us hope that this message of His Holiness, as his address before the UN a few months earlier, is a step toward inaugurating a dialogue with the Chinese government. This dialogue will be the key that will open the doors of the Church to the Chinese of tomorrow. It will also inaugurate a new era for Christianity in China. The time has come to be able to normalize the relations between the Holy See and China for the reestablishment of an apostolic nuncio at Peking, so ardently sought by Leo XIII and Benedict XV.

My dear Christian friends of the West, let us be united, let us be one in our prayers and oar efforts for peace among all men of good will.

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.