Standing Fast

Sixty-plus years after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, the Catholic Church in that country remains split between what is generally called an “underground” church, loyal to Rome, and a “patriotic” church that, though it may respect the pope as spiritual leader, submits to the institutional leadership of the regime and the Communist Party. Paul P. Mariani, a Jesuit historian at the University of Santa Clara, and the son of a noted poet and biographer whose work will be familiar to many readers of Commonweal, examines the origins of that split, concentrating on Shanghai, which since the seventeenth century had become China’s largest and most important center of Catholic activity. The new regime, though promising religious freedom, believed that the truths of Marxism-Leninism would eventually triumph over outdated religious superstition, and insisted that in the meantime religion must not become a cloak for what it defined as imperialist and reactionary activities.

To do this, Beijing sought to replace existing church structures, both Catholic and Protestant, with “patriotic churches” under what was called the Three-Self movement, cutting the financial and administrative links of Chinese Christians to foreign missionary groups. Many Protestants joined the movement, hoping for the emergence of an indigenous church that could work with the regime. Catholics were generally far more resistant, however, understanding that Maoist Beijing would not be patient enough simply to allow old religions to fade away, but would seek to extirpate them by force if necessary.

As it did, of course. While Protestants were often linked to U.S. imperialism through their missions, Catholic Shanghai drew much of its strength from the so-called Catholic triangle in the city, centered in the former French Concession. It had relied on the ecclesiastical and intellectual institutions erected by the French, particularly French Jesuits—Aurora (Zhendan) University, the seminaries and schools, the large church of St. Ignatius, and other smaller ones. Now, however, this historic French role proved a major weakness. Not only had the French opposed any real Chinese ecclesiastical leadership, but ever since the mid-nineteenth century, Paris had used Catholic missionaries to enhance France’s imperial power and interests, and not until the mid-1920s could even the Vatican begin to win back some measure of control.

Seeking to consolidate its position after years of foreign and civil war, Beijing unleashed a series of often bloody national campaigns after 1949 against those perceived as reactionary and imperialist enemies. As the largest, most advanced, and most westernized city in the nation, Shanghai became a chief victim of Communist nativism, and Catholic resistance was part of the problem. This resistance came to center on the question of loyalty to Rome, and acceptance of the pope as the church’s administrative as well as spiritual leader. Kung (Gong) Pinmei, appointed bishop by Rome in 1950, was arrested a few years later, tried in 1956, and drew a life sentence for his alleged crimes. Though the church was not quite dead after his arrest and the jailing of many others, its unity was badly hurt, and a number of its leaders, both Chinese and foreign, broke under interrogation and torture, seemingly coming to terms with the regime. Not Bishop Kung, however, who stood fast. Named a cardinal in pectore by John Paul II in 1989, he was finally released in 1985 after thirty years in Shanghai’s huge old British-built jail and allowed to seek medical treatment in the United States. Meanwhile, the vicious anti-rightist movement of 1957 did more damage, as did the Cultural Revolution (c. 1966–76), which prohibited virtually all Christian activity, Catholic or Protestant, loyalist or “patriotic.”

Mariani does a splendid and careful job examining this resistance, using not only many Western sources, primarily from France and the United States, but also those from China itself, ranging from the Communist press to a trove of formerly top-secret Party documents that he unearthed in the Shanghai Municipal Archives (undoubtedly many more remain locked up). As he points out, young Catholics in particular learned something of clandestine organization and resistance from techniques earlier developed by the Communist underground, and I would add that it was likely they also learned from the waves of  Shanghai student activism that had swept the city ever since the May Fourth demonstrations of 1919.

How valid today is the old division between “underground” and “patriotic” churches? Mariani closes his book with some speculations, but no firm predictions. Since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, and the gradual, if cautious, opening of China, Christianity has made an extraordinary return. Though figures are uncertain, the growth of Protestantism has far outstripped that of Catholicism, which still remains bitterly divided between those who remained loyal to Rome in the bad years and those willing to compromise—for the good of the faith, as they claim. No one, perhaps, represents this latter aspect better than another former Jesuit, Jin Luxian, who himself spent many years in prison undergoing “re-education” prior to being named the regime’s own bishop of Shanghai in 1985, fifteen years before Kung’s death in the United States.

The question of compromise, its uses and its dangers, remains unresolved. Many, like Jin (whose record in rebuilding Catholic Shanghai has been remarkable), would no doubt argue that an open church is more likely to leaven society than a clandestine one. It’s doubtful whether the experience in Eastern Europe offers any useful lessons, for the Stalinoid regimes in places like Poland or Czechoslovakia never mounted the same kinds of unremitting, all-out attacks brought by the Maoists. There are no easy answers, and Rome itself seems uncertain about its policies. In 1985, Rome named Fan Zhonglian bishop, only to see the regime effectively isolate him. In 2005, however, the aging Jin Luxian was one of four Chinese bishops invited to a Roman synod, though an angry Beijing blocked their travel. Benedict XVI’s pastoral letter to China in 2007, for all its historical shortcomings, was remarkably irenic in tone, but has been met by few signs of warming from Beijing. Of course there are factors beyond the control of both the church and of Beijing itself, for over the past few years the Party has shown how frightened it is of perceived threats to its stability, and the slowdown visible in China’s economy today is not likely to help.

Though a fair amount has been written about Christianity in the People’s Republic, I know of no one else who has done such a careful job of research in both Chinese and foreign sources in analyzing the Catholic split. Mariani’s book is not only essential reading for anyone interested in the subject; it’s also an important contribution to our understanding of modern Catholicism and of modern China as well.

A final note (Green-eyed Monster Department): A little more than twenty years ago I was doing research in the Shanghai Municipal Archives, and found myself stymied at almost every turn in trying to run down the material I sought. How on earth did Mariani persuade those dour keepers to shake loose such highly sensitive documents?

Jesuit charm no doubt.

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: 
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Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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