A hard-earned victory for Chinese Catholics


In an historic letter to Catholics in the People’s Republic of China, Pope Benedict XVI has declared victory on behalf of China’s Catholics over their communist rulers.

It was a muted declaration to be sure, but a victory nonetheless, one for which no small measure of thanksgiving to God is in order.

The papal letter, released last weekend, formally revoked the special provisions made for China over the past decades, restoring the Catholic Church in China to normality — or as close to normality as is possible under a communist regime which still denies full religious liberty to its citizens. But the return to near-normality is a great triumph for the fidelity of China’s Catholics.

Some background is necessary. Soon after seizing power in 1949, China’s Maoists attempted the suppression of all religion, as is customary in communist regimes. But by the end of the 1950s, a more ingenious, and insidious, arrangement was advanced. China set up its own Catholic association — the “Patriotic Catholic Church” — which more or less permitted Catholics to practise their faith. They could even acknowledge the pope as their spiritual leader, but China denied the Holy See the right to govern the Church in China as it does universally. In particular, the Chinese state insisted on appointing bishops for the patriotic church without a papal mandate — a grave violation of church law and a cause for schism.

The divine-and-conquer strategy got off to a promising start. Many bishops and priests became members in the patriotic church, accepting the government restrictions as a necessary evil in order to worship freely. Others refused such co-operation, considering it a betrayal of the faith, and so a clandestine church was born. For the communists, the situation was ideal. They could persecute and martyr the clandestine Catholics all the while pointing to the apparently pliant patriotic church as an example of religious toleration.

The Holy See for its part refused to countenance such an egregious violation of the rights of Catholics, which is why the Holy See remains one of the few international actors not to have diplomatic relations with the PRC.

He judged that the Church in China is sufficiently united and faithful that it no longer needs the special provisions made earlier to accommodate what were perceived as two churches; Chinese Catholics can adequately function now with the same law as governs the rest of the Church.

Some 50 years on, the situation has changed. China’s totalitarians have softened, permitting religious freedom in some regions in practice if not in law. More to the point, the clandestine church has not gone away — it is strong, vital and courageous. And the patriotic church, ironically enough, has clandestinely reasserted its union with and fidelity to Rome. All but a handful of patriotic church bishops have asked for approval from the Pope and thus been “legitimized.” It is not quite the ideal — secret union with Rome is not exactly full, visible communion — but it is clear that the patriotic church does not see itself as a Chinese alternative to Roman Catholicism. There are not two churches in China, but one, and one that is part of the Church universal. At the cost of great suffering and much blood, the Catholics of China have not permitted the communists to divide-and-conquer after all.

Benedict’s letter encouraged the Catholics of China to live now as they will one day live after the Chinese communists follow their ideological brethren into the dustbin of history. He judged that the Church in China is sufficiently united and faithful that it no longer needs the special provisions made earlier to accommodate what were perceived as two churches; Chinese Catholics can adequately function now with the same law as governs the rest of the Church.

Benedict’s letter encourages the large majority of “patriotic” bishops who are in communion with Rome to make this fact public. For the clandestine bishops, he asks the Chinese state to recognize them; after all, if the “patriotic” bishops are already in communion with Rome, why should the clandestine bishops have to remain underground to do the same thing? To the Catholic community as a whole, Benedict encourages them to reconcile with each other and to forgive the injustices of the past. It would hand the communists a belated victory if the divisions they sought to sow were allowed to produce a harvest of recriminations.

While the China question is a significant one for the Catholic Church, it does not rank high on the agenda of the Chinese communists, for whom suppressing the Falun Gong is a much more urgent priority. But for world Christianity, the Chinese Catholics are not insignificant. There almost certainly are more Catholics in China than there are in Canada, and qualitatively, the Chinese Catholics are more vibrant and evangelical than their counterparts here or in Europe.

So their faithful endurance is a cause of rejoicing, as evidence that another persecuted Church has survived. There will still be persecutions and religious liberty is still not recognized. There are even now some clandestine bishops and priests in jail. But in largest measure the battle has been fought, and has been won.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "A hard-earned victory for Chinese Catholics." National Post, (Canada) July 5, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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