Holy See and People's Republic of China

Author: Federico Lombardi, SJ

Holy See and People's Republic of China

Federico Lombardi, SJ

Two hundred years of relations

After the First Opium War (1839-1842), in the context of the weakness of the Chinese Empire and of the affirmation of the political, military and economic strengths of Western powers in China through the so-called “unequal treaty”, the French protectorate over the missions of the Catholic Church was established, which concerned foreign and autochthonous Catholics alike. The link with France (for Catholics, and likewise with other nations for other Christian confessions) reinforced in much of Chinese society the idea of Christianity as a foreign religion and as a result attracted xenophobic hatred toward Christians.

The Holy See for its part was aware of the need to form an indigenous clergy, and the topic of relations with China began to be discussed in the mid-1800s. During Leo XIII’s Pontificate, by Chinese initiative in 1886 there was an attempt made to establish “friendly relations”. But the Pope decided not to send a Nuncio due to the opposition of the French Government and out of fear of a negative reaction on the part of French Catholics.

However, one realizes ever more clearly that the protectorate influences the Church. In 1900-1901 the xenophobic explosion of the Boxer Rebellion, during which some 30,000 Catholics were slaughtered, on the one hand demonstrated the need for protection given the unreliability of the Chinese Government of the time, but on the other, confirmed that Western protectorates made Christianity unpopular with many Chinese. In 1912 the Empire ended with the advent of the Chinese Republic.

The Pontificate of Benedict XV showed great foresight on the issue of missions and a clear awareness of the need to overcome the restraints on the Church in the colonial era, so in this perspective China had a decisive role: Christianity must no longer be perceived as a foreign religion. The Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud of 30 November 1919, considered the Magna Carta of the new path of the missions, was developed above all on the basis of the experience in China.

Peking [Beijing] resumed the initiative to reopen diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Rome responded positively and sought to affirm its right to establish relations with non-Christian nations too, but this time France put pressure on Peking (no longer on the Holy See, with whom in this period it had broken off diplomatic relations, which would be re-established in 1921), and postponed.

Pius XI proceeded with great determination on the line traced by his Predecessor. In 1922 he sent Bishop Celso Costantini as the first Apostolic Delegate to China. He dissolved all the protective bonds of Europe and celebrated the Council of Shanghai in 1924. He then prepared for the ordinations of the first six Chinese Bishops, which would be personally conferred by Pius XI in Rome on 28 October 1926, as a clear demonstration of the will to create a local Church in China. Costantini also made various attempts to establish diplomatic relations, which were unsuccessful however, and in 1933 he returned to Rome, where he would be appointed Secretary of Propaganda Fide, but this period represented great progress in inculturation and would give way in 1939 to the definitive and official overcoming of the centuries-old controversy over Chinese Rites, which in previous centuries had quite negatively burdened the events of the Catholic Church in the country.

The political situation in China was extremely turbulent (Japanese invasion, the rise of the Communist party, internal conflict) and in the end the Second World War broke out. But the Pontificate of Pius XII continued along the same lines with regard to the Church in China and diplomatic relations with the Chinese Republic. In 1942 the definitive “unequal treaty” was officially abolished and subsequently the French protectorate. In the same year diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See were announced. In early 1946, after the end of the World War, the first Chinese Cardinal was created, the Verbite Thomas Tien Ken-sin. Also in 1946 the episcopal hierarchy was instituted in China, according to the structure still to this day indicated in the Pontifical Annuario, which includes 20 Archdioceses, 85 Dioceses and 34 Apostolic Prefectures.

In 1946 Archbishop Antonio Riberi was accredited as Nuncio to the nationalist Government of Chiang Kai-shek in Nanjing. When the new regime succeeded in 1949, the Pontifical Representative did not move to Taiwan with the preceding Government, but remained on the continent and invited foreign missionaries to stay.

Mao Zedong came to power and founded the People’s Republic of China. On 1 July 1949 the Holy Office condemned Communism: its target was above all the situation in Europe, but the condemnation had general value and thus manifested the Church’s position in regard to the ideology of the new regime. In the early years of the new Republic the country’s internal situation developed in a very complex fashion: the Korean war, agrarian reform, the five-year plan. With regard to the religious theme, in 1959 the Three-Self (self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation) reform Movement was launched, with a certain success among Protestants, but not among Catholics. In January 1951 the Office of Religious Affairs was created. After a brutal press campaign, Nuncio Riberi was forced to leave the country on 5 September 1951. Practically all foreign Catholic missionaries were also expelled between 1951 and 1954.

With the Apostolic Letter Cupimus Imprimis (1952), Pius XII responded to the Three-Self Move- ment. In fact this failed with regard to the Catholic Church, and a new Anti-imperialist Movement of love for homeland and religion was launched. With the Encyclical Ad Sinarum Gentem (1954), Pius XII condemned the “patriotic movement” in every form and, with respect to the preceding document, had a more explicit and articulated reproach.

In 1955 Bishop Ignatius Gong Pinmei of Shanghai was arrested, along with many others. At the same time other Catholics agreed to enter and participate in political life. In 1956-1957 Mao Zedong launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign to im- prove relations between the power and the masses. Thus the release of arrested Catholics came about, with a brief improvement in the climate. In this context in 1957 the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association was founded and the first episcopal ordinations took place without Papal mandate. This explains how the so-called “official Catholicism” began. By October 1958 more than 20 bishops would be ordained in this manner. With the Encyclical Ad Apostolorum Principis (1958) Pius XII announced the patriotism of Chinese Catholics, but rejected the Patriotic Association. With regard to the ordinations without papal mandate: they were pronounced illegitimate, but effective.

Referring to the Chinese situation, in the first part of his Pontificate John XXIII spoke of a ‘schism’, but his position soon changed. In fact, between late 1958 and early 1960 a more in-depth reflection led to the conviction that a ‘schism’ should not be spoken of, as there was no schismatic will on the part of the Chinese clergy. The Chinese context in 1959-1960 was complex: the failure of the Great Leap Forward — launched in 1958 by Mao, who was obliged to step down as Chairman of the Republic; insurrection in Tibet, the exhausting rupture between China and the Soviet Union, and the escalation of the anti-America political line. In 1960 the public process took place against Bishop Gong Pinmei (sentenced to life imprisonment) and Bishop James Edward Walsh (missionary from the USA and sole Bishop remaining in China). In January 1962, in its sccond Congress, the Patriotic Association insisted in very harsh tones on a Church completely independent of Rome. John XXIII considered inviting the Chinese Bishops of the People’s Republic to the Council, but declined. Instead, 60 bishops exiled from Continental China, including 49 foreigners, would attend.

Paul VI’s Pontificate largely coincided with the dramatic years of the Cultural Revolution and with the time in which Western countries and the United Nations recognized the People’s Republic of Tawian (Republic of China), which instead the Holy See continued to recognize. In 1970 during the great journey to Asia and Oceania, Paul VI visited Hong Kong, the first and only Pope to arrive in the territory of Continental China.

In 1966 Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution. This meant the prohibition of all religious activity, the closure of all places of worship, a ban on religious practice. Members of the Patriotic Associations would also be hit hard. Mao’s death on 9 September 1976 was followed by the arrest and trial of the so-called “Gang of Four”, and thus the end of the Cultural Revolution.

The beginning of the Pontificate of John Paul II in 1978 more or less coincided with the rise of Deng Xiaoping and the implementation of his reforms. The first signs of opening in the religious sphere appeared in 1979. In 1980 several churches re-opened in different cities. The Office of Religious Affairs was restored, as well as the five religious Patriotic Associations, which held their national congresses. That of the Patriotic Catholic Association was the third, followed by a conference of representatives. This created in its turn a College of Chinese Bishops, which has never been recognized by Rome. In the early 1980s interned bishops and priests were released.

From Manila on 18 February 1981 John Paul II addressed a greeting to all Catholics of China. But in June the Vatican was accused of interference for the recognition of Msgr Deng Yiming as Archbishop of Canton. The Bishop of Baoding ordained three bishops without consulting the Holy See. On 12 December 1981 Cardinal Angelo Rossi, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, authorized Chinese Bishops “legitimate and faithful to the Holy See” to ordain other bishops, if necessary without prior authorization from Rome. However, this privilege (previously granted in the past to European countries under the Communist regime) would lead to abuse, and accentuate contrasts between ‘clandestines’ and ‘officials’ or ‘patriotics’.

In 1982 document no. 19 on the control of the five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism) was circulated to the twelfth Congress of the Communist Party. Article 36 of the new Constitution states that in China “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination”. However in the same year the Church resumed various activities. The Jesuit Aloysius Jin Luxian was able to reopen the Seminary of Sheshan, after the Church had been without formative structures for three decades. Thus at the end of the decade about 200 new priests would be ordained. Various confiscated possessions were returned and gradually convents of nuns, and charitable and formative entities were opened.

Contacts with the Church in China were also increased by Episcopal Conferences and Catholic institutions in other countries. But due to ambiguities and tensions in relations with the Patriotic Association and its members, in 1988 Cardinal Tomko, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, sent to the Western Episcopal Conference some directives (the Eight Points) on relations between ‘clandestines’ and ‘patriotics’, which would be hotly debated. Beginning in 1989, with the events of Tienanmen Square and the Communist crisis in Europe, Chinese diffidence increased toward John Paul II, who in the meantime created Cardinal Gong Pinmei, who since 1988 had permission to receive treatment in the United States. Indeed, in the 1990s too, the traditional governmental line of implementing a religious policy of control continued.

However, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, through reserved channels, many ‘patriotic’ bishops in the new situation requested and obtained recognition by Rome. Thus, the idea of a possibly “schismatic” Church waned. In January 2007 the conclusive communique of the meeting in the Vatican of a commission on China would affirm textually that “almost all bishops and priests are in communion with Rome”. This marked a very important change in the situation, matured in the course of time. In the Church in China, figures of great Pastors, such as Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai, were recognized by the Government and were at the same time in communion with Rome.

In 2000 new difficulties arose in the relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See, due in particular to the ordination of new illegitimate bishops in China and to the canonization in Rome of 120 Chinese martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, precisely on 1 October, the national holiday of the People’s Republic. John Paul II made a considerable effort to overcome these difficulties, particularly with a highly resonant Message on the occasion of a conference on Matteo Ricci (24 October 2001). The Pontiff addressed China, the Chinese people and their Authorities, with an outstretched hand of friendship and esteem and the acknowledgement of “errors and limits of the past”, adding the powerful words: “For all of this I ask the forgiveness and understanding of those who may have felt hurt in some way by such actions on the part of Christians”, and the explicit hope for “concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China”.

In 2005 new Regulations on Religious Affairs entered into force, but one should remember above all the eulogistic declaration made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on the occasion of John Paul II’s death, followed by the resumption of direct contacts.

Despite the contacts new tensions arose, and in 2006 there were again cases of “illicit” ordination, to which the Holy See reacted. Contacts cooled. However, on 27 May 2007 the extremely important Letter of Benedict XVI was published, addressing “the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China”, rich with pastoral indications. The Pope insisted on the unity of the Church, abolished all special faculties (for ex- ample, the ‘clandestine’ ordination of bishops) and hoped for dialogue with Government Authorities.

On 7 May 2008 in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, an exceptional concert was held, offered to Benedict XVI by the China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing, with the Shanghai Opera choir. It was a significant moment of so-called cultural diplomacy, which also included other initiatives, such as historical and artistic exhibitions (in the Vatican and in China) and the participation of experts in scientific and cultural conferences. However, while for some years episcopal ordinations took place with Rome’s consent, between 2010 and 2011 there were several illicit ordinations to which the Holy See eventually responded on 16 July 2011 with particular decisiveness.

Several times since the beginning of his Pontificate, Pope Francis has shown warm and cordial attention to the Chinese people, contributing to the establishment of a new and more relaxed climate that favours the effective resumption of the dialogue of the Holy See with Chinese Authorities. The authorization granted for the papal plane to fly over Chinese territory during the Pope’s journey to Korea, and the messages sent by the Pontiff to the Chinese President (on 14 and 18 August 2014) are clear signs of this new climate. The interview of Pope Francis published in Asia Times on 2 February 2016 is also important, rich in expressions of the Pontiff's esteem for the people and culture of China.

In recent years contacts have multiplied and channels of communication appear more stable and effective. On several occasions, some Chinese Press organizations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself have published reassuring Declarations regarding Pope Francis, both on occasions of international journeys and in commenting on Pontifical Declarations. The remainder is the news of these days.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 September 2018, page 6

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