In the (Middle) Kingdom of God: As They Navigate Sometimes Difficult Terrain, Chinese Catholics Can Inspire the Rest of Us with Their Faithfulness, Says a Claretian Who Teaches in China

U.S. Catholic, August 2011 | Go to article overview

In the (Middle) Kingdom of God: As They Navigate Sometimes Difficult Terrain, Chinese Catholics Can Inspire the Rest of Us with Their Faithfulness, Says a Claretian Who Teaches in China


The editors interview Father Francisco Carin, C.M.F.

In 1978, when China emerged from the traumatic experience of the Cultural Revolution and began to open up again to the rest of the world, not even the Vatican knew what, if any, Catholic life had survived.

Since then the Catholic Church in mainland China has seen its numbers grow to an estimated 15 million, about I percent of the population. But that growth has been hampered by the continuing rift between Catholics in the underground communities and those in the officially recognized church communities organized through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

After several years in which an arrangement between the Chinese government and the Vatican provided for new bishops' appointments to get the blessing of both sides, the ordination last November of a bishop who was not approved by the Vatican set relations back again, at least temporarily.

Through its Religious Affairs Bureau and the Catholic Patriotic Association, the Chinese communist government continues to exercise considerable control over religious affairs, but Father Francisco Carin, a Spanish-born Claretian missionary who teaches at the National Seminary in Beijing, also sees hopeful signs. He admires the witness of Chinese Catholics' faithfulness and has found that young Chinese are responding to Jesus' message and are attracted to the kind of community that exists in churches.

Carin thinks it's important "to trust the Chinese Catholics, trust that they really love the church .... They are the ones who are living the faith in the Chinese context."

Most American Catholics know that in China there are underground Catholic communities as well as communities that are recognized by the Chinese communist government. How did that come about, and what's the difference between these two groups?

After the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War and established the People's Republic of China in 1949, one program they worked hard to implement was what they called a united front. All Chinese were supposed to be working together for the development of the country, and as part of that, the country was being "liberated from foreign influences."

It was somewhat easier for Chinese Protestant churches to break ties with foreign countries--now regarded as imperialistic interferences. But even after foreign priests and bishops were expelled, Roman Catholics by definition still needed to have a relationship with Rome. When the government tried to require the so-called three-self principle--a church that is self-governed, self-supported, and self-propagating--Chinese Catholics didn't respond well. Catholics know that we cannot just be "self" because we are part of a larger Body of Christ. So many Catholics refused to go along.

Then in the 1950s the communist government established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Although it had "Catholic" in its name, it was just as committed to preventing any allegiance to foreign influences. When Chinese Catholics realized that, they divided: Some joined the Patriotic Association, while many others went into hiding to practice their faith.

The difficulties for Chinese Catholics--and all Chinese Christians--eventually escalated in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It wasn't until 1978, under Deng Xiaoping, that things in China began to open up again. But since that opening both the officially recognized church of the Catholic Patriotic Association and the nonrecognized underground Catholic communities have continued to exist on two different tracks.

Catholic officials today are careful not to describe the two groups as two different "churches" but rather as different kinds of communities within the one Catholic Church. Why the distinction?

The Vatican is pretty clear about there being only one Catholic Church in China. With regard to those in the Catholic Patriotic Association, from the Vatican point of view there are certainly some troubling aspects and problems, but so far it's not gotten to a breaking point comparable to when the Church of England broke away under King Henry VIII. …

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