In today’s climate of media hyperbole, rumors, and often-unsubstantiated claims that punctuate op-eds and other commentary, historical context and documentation offer a necessary perspective.
Here, first, is a text of a recent prayer by Pope Francis for Catholics in China, followed by texts from three previous popes and quotes from the 2017 document entitled “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” issued by the communist party of China.
Pope Francis in 2020
The pope’s March 2020 prayer intention “For Catholics in China”, while quite short, is singular in the history of the Catholic Church in China, for it aligns quite well with the rhetoric, ideology, and policies of the Chinese Communist Party, while apparently contradicting the position and official statements of previous popes. In light of what previous Vatican statements have asserted, and in light of China’s communist party documents related to religious practice, it is quite surprising to hear the pope’s recent video message posted on Vatican News (March 7 2020). Here is the text to the Pope’s March prayer intention:
Today, the Church in China looks to the future with hope.
The Church wants Chinese Christians to be truly Christians, and to be good citizens.
They should promote the Gospel, but without engaging in proselytism, and they need to achieve the unity of the divided Catholic community.
Let us pray together that the Church in China may persevere in its faithfulness to the Gospel and grow in unity.
Pope Pius XII in 1955
After six years of observing how China’s communist government had persecuted Catholic missionaries and local faithful, Pope Pius XII published Ad Sinarum Gentem, which contained an emotional appeal that China’s new government slacken its oppression and discrimination of the Christian population. A small minority of China’s Catholics acclaimed a “New Chinese Church,” one that promulgated the ideal that all Chinese should prioritize being “good citizens” above their religious beliefs and duties. Pius XII wrote:
There are some among you who would wish that your Church would be completely independent, not only, as We have said, in regard to its government and finances, but also in regard to the teaching of Christian doctrine and sacred preaching, in which they try to claim “autonomy.” … But – and it is absurd merely to think of it – by what right can men arbitrarily and diversely in different nations, interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ? . . . The promoters of such movements with the greatest cunning seek to deceive the simple or the timid, or to draw them away from the right path. For this purpose they falsely affirm that the only true patriots are those who adhere to the church thought up by them, that is, to that which has the “Three Autonomies.” But in reality they seek, in a word, to establish finally among you a “national” church, which no longer could be Catholic because it would be the negation of that universality or rather “catholicity” by which the society truly founded by Jesus Christ is above all nations and embraces them one and all. (pars 15, 22)
In other words, Pope Pius XII understood plainly that China’s communist leaders insisted (as they still do today) that loyalty to state and its socialist doctrines must unequivocally come before one’s religion.
Pope John Paul II in 1982
During Lent in 1982, Pope Saint John Paul II offered Mass for China in St. Peter’s on Sunday, March 21st, inspired by the sufferings and struggles of Chinese Catholics under the communist state. Shortly afterward he made remarks on the state of the Church in that land, remarks that echo other statements given by his predecessors and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Let us entrust our prayers to the powerful intercession of Mary Most Holy, whom the Chinese faithful fervently invoke with so much confidence under the title of Queen of China. Let us pray to the Mother of God and Our Mother that . . . there may be assured to the Church in China the indispensable conditions to enjoy also visual union with the Church of Jesus Christ, which is ‘one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.’. . . And finally, may these our brothers, so sorely tried, attain the good of peace and human, social, and political progress in their national community. (“Prayer of the Entire Church for the Chinese,” Angelus message of March 21, 1982)
In the same year, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote to the bishops of the world inviting them to pray for the Church in China. In his letter he reminded the world’s bishops to pray for China’s Catholics under communism:
We know very well that our brothers and sisters in China have had to face difficult and prolonged trials in the span of these thirty years. In those severe sufferings they have given proof of their fidelity to Christ and his Church; such courageous witness can well be compared to that of the first centuries of the Church. How consoling it is to receive news of the constant and courageous loyalty of Catholics in China to the faith of their fathers and their filial attachment to Peter’s See. All that, while it arouses our deep admiration, must urge us even more to offer them our affectionate support and fervent prayers. (Pope’s Letter to Bishops of the World Inviting Them to Pray for the Church in China,” February 1, 1982.)
Pope Benedict XVI in 2007
In a lengthy letter to Catholics in China released on the Solemnity of Pentecost in 2007, Benedict XVI wrote:
Likewise, therefore, the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Saviour of the world, basing herself – in carrying out her proper apostolate – on the power of God. As I recalled in my Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.
In the light of these unrenounceable principles, the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church. The civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom. (par 4)
So, while emphasizing good citizenship, Benedict equally emphasizes that compliance with laws that interfere with “the faith and discipline of the Church” is not an option. He later writes:
The Pope, when he issues the apostolic mandate for the ordination of a Bishop, exercises his supreme spiritual authority: this authority and this intervention remain within the strictly religious sphere. It is not, therefore, a question of a political authority, unduly asserting itself in the internal affairs of a State and offending against its sovereignty.
The appointment of Bishops for a particular religious community is understood, also in international documents, as a constitutive element of the full exercise of the right to religious freedom. The Holy See would desire to be completely free to appoint Bishops… (par 9)
China’s Communist Party in 2017
Reaffirming China’s legal policy towards religious belief and practice, the communist party issued a document in 2017 entitled “Regulation on Religious Affairs.” The document predictably notes that religious believers must support socialism and practice the core socialist values (shehui zhuyi hexin jiazhiguan 社会主义核心价值观), and Article Four contains two significant regulations.
The State, in accordance with the law, protects normal religious activities, actively guides religion to fit in with socialist society, and safeguards the lawful rights and interests of religious groups, religious schools, religious activity sites and religious citizens.[And] Religious groups, religious schools, religious activity sites, and religious citizens shall abide by the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules; practice the core socialist values; and preserve the unification of the country, ethnic unity, religious harmony, and social stability. (Chinese Communist Party, Standing Committee of the State Council, “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” Article 4.)
In April 2016, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, offered a few remarks is support of this view, insisting that, “We must develop the socialist theory of religion with Chinese characteristics, … we must continue to walk the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics; actively practice the core values of socialism, promote Chinese culture, strive to fuse together the religious teachings and Chinese culture.” (“Comprehensively Improving the Level of Religious Work According to the New Situation,” April 23, 2016). A key element of what it means to be a “good citizen” in communist China is what state officials call aidang 爱党, or “loving the party.” Therefore, any suggestion by the Vatican that China’s Catholics behave as “good citizens” is complicated and controversial: first because the Church has always insisted that Catholics should indeed be good citizens, and second because being a “good citizen” in China also means subordination to the Chinese Communist Party.
As for proselytization, Article forty-four of the document, “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” states that, “It is prohibited to proselytize, hold religious activities, establish religious organizations, or set up religious activity sites in schools or educational bodies other than in religious buildings.” The party’s law against proselytization in China forbids any attempt to persuade another person to agree with or convert someone to a particular religious view. The Oxford English Dictionary defines proselytization as, “To convert or attempt to convert from one opinion, religion, or party, etc., to another”; nothing in the English meaning of this term suggests that proselytization is conducted by force. This is an important point, for the Chinese party has not prohibited only conversion by force; it has illegalized efforts of any kind to spread religious belief.
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