Communist China, Catholic Church Vie for Authority

Joshua Ciccone

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The Catholic Church in China has been fighting the Chinese government for decades, and the curbs to religious freedom continue. According to the New York Times, Bishop Guo Xijin was temporarily detained on Monday, March 27, and released on Wednesday, Mach 28, for refusing to celebrate Easter Mass with a bishop approved by the government.

The Times also reported that the Chinese government banned Bishop Guo from celebrating Mass, and that the Vatican has now asked Bishop Guo “to step aside in favor of a Communist Party-approved bishop in the region.” The government-approved bishop, Bishop Zhan Silu, was consecrated without the approval of the Church, and was excommunicated. 

The Vatican is attempting a new deal with the Chinese government in order to unite the universal Church in China to better serve the 12 million Chinese Catholics. The plan is as follows:

  • The Vatican will ask underground bishops to step aside
  • The Vatican will approve seven of China’s government-approved bishops
  • The Vatican will have influence over the appointment of future Chinese bishops

The Times reported, “Pope Frances has come under fierce criticism by critics who say he is naïve in believing that the Communist Party would grant the church influence over Chinese government religious policy. An array of theologians, political commentators and clergy have said that the deal is a sellout of the underground church.”

Currently, the Catholic Church in China is divided between the underground Catholic Church, and a state-sanctioned church known as the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, reported by the Catholic News Agency. The CNA noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “new approaches” to religious affairs, and that “recent changes mean control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will shift to the direct supervision of the Chinese Communist Party.”

CNN reported in early March that religious oppression has increased in China after President Xi took power in late 2012, and that “religious practice in China is tightly controlled by the government.” 

According to US-based Christian NGO ChinaAid, China has forced the demolition of 20 Protestant and Catholic churches, along with the removal of more than 1,000 crosses. The group also reported that hundreds of Christians who resisted the demolition were detained or arrested. 

In contrast with the physical destruction of Chinese Christianity, Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, said in a CNN Opinion referring to the removal of the crosses that “the most important point is that virtually none of these churches have been closed…Some pessimists see it as a precursor for a campaign that might spread nationally, but so far that hasn’t happened and there is no indication it will.”

Former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, said that new deal proposed by the Vatican will undermine the authority of the Pope. “There’s no reason to hope the Communists will change. They already have very tight control of the above ground church, their hope is to have the underground church under their control as well,” stated Cardinal Zen, “how can an atheist government choose bishops for us?”

Cardinal Zen did point out that even if the Chinese government vetoes a bishop’s appointment, it would still be up to Pope Francis to nominate another one. Not all Chinese residents are supported of China’s state-sponsored church, as one parishioner stated to CNN, “They aren’t real churches.” 

The situation in China contrasts the Catholic Church’s heightened appreciation in the United States under the administration of President Donald Trump, but nevertheless, “despite Beijing’s recent crackdown on human rights lawyers and civil society, and the deteriorating situation for religious freedom,” U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida stated, “faith communities continue to grow in China.”