Keeping the faith with Chinese characteristics: state-run Catholicism turns 60

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 August, 2017, 10:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 August, 2017, 10:21am

Retiree Auntie Wang, 61, doesn’t see eye to eye with state-appointed bishops but she attends mass daily at the officially sanctioned church in Beijing.

“I was a member of the Communist Party and a civil servant but I quit the party as soon as I retired,” Wang said.

“Our faith belongs to the pope and God. I understand the church is endorsed by the state but we are not here to worship anyone but God.”

Auntie Wang has been a Catholic since she was 43 and is one of the 5.5 million members of the officially sanctioned church on the mainland.

The official church is overseen by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, an organisation founded 60 years ago this month to make sure Catholics toe the Communist Party and government line.

Officially established on August 2, 1957, the 60th anniversary was celebrated in Beijing by senior clergy with top officials two weeks ago.

But while the association is largely irrelevant to some parishioners it continues to be a key player in relations between Beijing and the Vatican.

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The association was created after Beijing severed ties with the Vatican in 1951 and refused to accept the pope’s authority over mainland Catholics.

It promotes the party and the government’s religious policies within the Catholic community, and it monitors official clergy and congregations. And while it follows the Vatican on religious dogma, its bishops do not take public positions against issues like abortion or contraception.

For Auntie Wang, the association plays no role in her faith or life.

“I don’t care much about the anniversary of the patriotic church, or the political system. [The government] could tear down the crosses on the church, but never the faith in our hearts,” she said.

But for Liu Bainian, a former vice-president of the association, the proof of the organisation’s virtue is in its longevity.

“These are the best days for China’s Catholic Church and its prospects are even better,” Liu said.

“This proves the development of the Chinese Catholic Church is God’s will and [China’s] religious policy is correct.”

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Over the last few years, one of the association’s key roles has been to “localise”, or “sinocise”, Catholicism. President Xi Jinping first embarked on the localisation push in 2015 and it was raised again at a key national religious work conference in April, where the process was described as “an important step to guide religions to fit socialist society”.

The localisation message was reinforced when Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, greeted leaders from the association two weeks ago at an event to mark the 60th anniversary.

“Interpretations of the teachings and dogmas should match the needs of China’s development and the great traditional culture ... and proactively fit into the Chinese characteristics of a socialist society,” Xinhua quoted Yu as saying.

Liu said the localisation of Catholicism would not deviate from Catholic teachings and dogmas.

“It is about bringing the gospel to China in a fashion to fit the characteristics of communist China rather than replacing the Bible’s teachings and dogmas,” he said.

The 60th anniversary comes after ties between the Vatican and Beijing appeared to warm last year, with both sides inching towards a consensus on the appointment of bishops in China.

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The Vatican has long seen the appointments as its terrain, and Vatican-approved bishops and their priests who reject party control are routinely put under surveillance and run the risk of severe punishment. For example, the Holy See named Peter Shao Zhumin from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, as a bishop last year but Beijing has not recognised the appointment and Shao has been taken away by government officials since May.

The Vatican has occasionally endorsed some Beijing-ordained bishops behind the scenes and, in November, went one step in the conciliatory direction by saying publicly that it had endorsed two Beijing-ordained bishops in Sichuan and Shanxi.

But observers said the full normalisation of Sino-Vatican relations remained a long shot.

“Both sides are done with making goodwill gestures and we are seeing more internal conflicts beginning to emerge,” Beijing-based religious studies specialist Liu Peng said, adding that dialogue between the two could continue to stagnate.

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Another expert with a Chinese think tank said a big sticking point was the “recognition of illegitimate bishops”, clerics not endorsed by either Beijing or the Vatican.

“Dialogue is continuing. Beijing sent delegates to Rome at the end of June. There is largely a consensus on the appointment of bishops. What remains is how both sides would recognise a small number of ‘illegitimate’ bishops,” he said. “Beijing hopes to see the Vatican fully endorse all of the independently ordained. It is not impossible but it is challenging for the Vatican.

“On the other hand, the Vatican might demand the same thing from Beijing to endorse all underground bishops, this would not be easy for Beijing to accept.”

The association oversees roughly half of the estimated 10.5 million Catholics on the mainland – the rest belong to underground churches and have no formal recognition.

For those outside the official orbit, it has not role to play.

One 48-year-old member of an underground Catholic church dismissed the association as unrelated to the Catholic tradition.

“It is nothing more than a tool for the party to control the church,” he said. “It’s just that we don’t dare say this in public.”

Additional reporting by Jun Mai in Beijing