Votes : 0

Aggiornamento of the Chinese Catholic Church

Thierry Meynard, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Sep 26th 2022

Aggiornamento of the Chinese Catholic Church

China has accomplished much in recent decades with huge social, economic and political transformations. However, the challenges faced by the local Catholic Church are not vanishing. All kinds of difficulties continue to constrain the growth of the Chinese Catholic Church, forcing it to adapt its own framework and to produce new responses. In the midst of this moving and tormented context, many voices from the Church and beyond constantly arise to offer analyses, to suggest practical guidelines or even to propose solutions. The number of these commentators, experts and well-intentioned people is countless. Still, their discourses could be grouped into three main tendencies.

Three approaches to the issue of the Chinese Catholic Church

The first kind of these discourses tends to focus on the Chinese communist state. All Church problems and difficulties seem rooted in the external influence of the Chinese government. Most of these discourses focus on the division between the registered and underground Church, constantly presented as the main and most urgent problem to solve.

But this approach is based on a problematic understanding of modern nation states. Too often, it assumes that the Chinese state is entirely homogenous and anti-Christian. The supporters of these discourses usually dismiss the importance of regional variations, the internal competition among state agencies and the pragmatic nature of the communist power. Then, their approach leads to consideration of the Church and the state in a binary antagonism that condemns everyone to a narrow dead-end. And since most of the attention is given to the Chinese communist state, little is left to look at in the Church per se. To enlarge this political debate, it would be helpful to look at the Taiwanese case where the political context is completely different, yet Church growth and renewal are not more dynamic. Thus, we may conclude that the communist state is not the solution – nor the origin – to all problems.

The second approach is more optimistic and insists on the need for a modern and active education. Most of the time, this approach advocates the need to improve the situation of the Chinese Catholic Church through all kinds of training programs and study groups. Re-educating the clergy, the laity and youth to the true and contemporary Catholic faith seem to be the miraculous solution. Well-prepared catechesis, appealing youth camps, substantial intellectual formation of the clergy and proactive internet presence seem to be key factors to secure a bright future.

But objectifying rationality brings as many benefits as challenges, and does not necessarily fit in with local interests. Giving too much priority to the rational formation approach ultimately neglects a whole range of people, social groups and classes of people. Indeed, the sincere but naive belief in the power of education diffuses the idea that the Catholic Church tends toward an obvious and unique model, more fully understood by its leaders and accomplished in the West. In this approach, the clergy appear more and more as being the only ones knowing, while deep Chinese religious concerns about healing, ghosts, paradise and apocalypse are not considered seriously. Ultimately, many ignore how this belief in a program of rational education is deeply rooted in standards and guidelines defined in the West, by the West, and for the West.

Finally, a third kind of discourse gives the priority to Chinese culture itself. This approach assumes that the current form of Chinese Catholicism is still too much at odds with the true and deep Chinese culture, and that the distance between the two can be reduced. Chinese culture is assumed to be an objective reality aligned with Christ’s teaching. More inculturation would therefore resolve many tensions and difficulties while making evangelization easier.

This discourse insists on ‘Chinese characteristics’ whose meaning is usually built upon a vague ideology of culture that carries a tendency for problematic essentialism and a lack of knowledge of Chinese history and diversity. Often Chinese culture is rigidly identified as Confucian or Buddhist, without any consideration of popular religiosity. What counts as Chinese uniqueness? Who holds the power to answer that question?

Also, hiding behind the need of more inculturation can become a shortcut to avoiding any in-depth debate within Chinese Catholic communities themselves or with any alternative views. The risk is that “culture” becomes an argument that is really authoritarian and aims to keep any challenges at bay. To overcome these problems, only a more serious dialogue with academic ethnography and cultural anthropology, but also with ecumenical ecclesiology and Church history, will help strengthen the legitimate concerns that are folded into these “culturalist” discourses.

In summary, we believe that in most debates about the Chinese Catholic Church, there are three dominating approaches to explain its difficulties and define priorities: a focus on the communist state, or on rational training or on Chinese culture. Sometimes, experts or Church elites combine two or even the three approaches.

To go beyond these recurrent but problematic approaches, each carrying its own benefits and limits, we would like to build on a point of view absent from most debates. If we really want to reflect better on Christianity in China, we should look at the whole of Christianity that is today flourishing in China. We suggest a focus on Christians themselves and take a serious look at Christ’s Chinese disciples. Therefore, we will briefly introduce contemporary Chinese Protestantism. The issue here is not to offer Protestantism as a model, or as a supplementary “miraculous solution,” but to scrutinize the concrete and diverse reality of Christianity in China, and to question ourselves from there. From a closer look at Chinese Protestants, we may rediscover better the reality of Chinese Catholics.

Protestantism in China
So, what is Protestantism in contemporary China? Everyone knows that Chinese Protestantism is extremely diverse, constantly evolving and growing. Scholars and Protestant leaders are still debating the best typology to present the huge variety of Chinese Protestantism. Nevertheless, Chinese Protestantism is not just motions and change. We personally identify four main streams that constitute the large Chinese Protestant river today.

A first type of Protestant Churches is usually labeled as the Three-self Patriotic Churches. They take their name from their official and government-led effort to be self-governed, self-financed and self-propagating. They are the official Churches that are legally registered. They follow most guidelines defined by the Chinese administration, they evolve under the guidance of a recognized and trained clergy, they usually own specific land and buildings. Some of these communities can host up to 10,000 Christians with more than 10 full-time pastors and 100 full-time ministers.

Several Three-self Churches can coexist in a single space depending on the theological and ecclesiological traditions they identify with (Adventist, Pentecostal, Little Flock and so on). But this semi-denominational aspect is highly different from place to place and applying a Western denominational model is misleading.

A second well-known trend within Chinese Protestantism is called the “House Church” movement. This category includes all kinds of groups and communities which refuse any constraining legal recognition. Although many of them secure informal ties with local state agencies, such as the police, they usually cultivate an antagonism against the Chinese state but not systematically against its Communist Party. Hence, they usually avoid being larger than 500 members, easily splitting so as to not become too visible. They operate under a self-trained leader who has studied the Bible and some theology in China or abroad. Most of their meetings occur within private apartments. But larger worship can happen within larger reception halls rented in a hotel. Some of these Churches can join various regional, national and international networks to improve mutual support and religious training.

It is worth noting that the fascination of many social scientists with “freedom,” “resistance” and “underground life” has shaped most of the debate about Chinese Protestantism around these House Churches, downplaying the importance of other trends and romanticizing somehow the analysis. However, many observers insist that the vitality of House Churches should not be reduced to a social resistance against the Chinese state, but also considered in relation to many aspects of Chinese socio-religious patterns.

A third trend that has also caught the attention of social scientists and religious leaders is the one associated with the Wenzhou Churches. Wenzhou is a large eastern port in Zhejiang province where Christianity has become very visible, generating a unique ecclesiological model which today spreads across China and beyond. In the 1990s and 2000s, huge red crosses crowned more and more buildings all around the area. They usually mark the presence of one “Wenzhou Church,” a community generated from several local entrepreneurs who are tied to the so-called “prosperity Gospel” that emerged in the United States in the 1950s and is very focused on personal success.

Because of local religious, economic and political history, these Churches have defined a unique organization where pastors have no leading role. The leadership is shared by a committee of coworkers where members are strictly equal, elected by the Church members every few years, and responsible for every aspect of the Church life, material and spiritual.

The Wenzhou Church operates like a guild, hiring experts to serve its needs (e.g. preachers for Sunday services, bible experts for Bible camps). This form of Protestantism is closely associated with merchant networks and has spread all across China and beyond. It is now well established in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, in provinces like Anhui and Jiangxi, and even in foreign countries like France and Italy. But over the past few years, the Zhejiang provincial administration became more suspicious about this form of Protestantism and its financial organization, ordering the destruction of most but not all huge red crosses around Wenzhou, so typical in these Wenzhou Churches. In some cases, they even tore down entire buildings, citing the lack of proper construction permits as a pretext.

A final influential movement that defines the borders of Chinese Protestantism is what we may call the heterodox groups. Indeed the appropriation of the Christian revelation by various Chinese people has produced new forms of Christian movements that evolve beyond traditional and orthodox interpretations. For example, at the end of the 1980s, a man from Henan province began a cult around a Chinese woman presented as the female incarnation of Jesus Christ. This movement, the Eastern Lightning later renamed Church of the Almighty God, spread quickly across China, proselytizing at the gates of mainline churches, and calling on people to prepare for the soon-to-arrive end of the world. By the end of the 1990s, the movement had become so powerful and ambiguous that the Chinese government classified it as a perverted sect and its founder took asylum in the United States.

Beside this well-known case, there are numerous local teachings and cults that claim a Christian affiliation and challenge other Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. Although most of these movements are too quickly mocked by foreign observers, they are indeed extremely influential and not new in Chinese Christian history. The famous Taiping rebellion in the mid-19th century China claimed the lives of an estimated 20 million people and actually provoked a major political crisis. It was a millenarian Christian cult led by Hong Xiuquan.

Today, the Chinese religious soil keeps producing all forms of hybrid Christian groups that impact the ways in which Chinese Protestantism tries to define itself. Indeed, these disturbing but vivid heterodox movements push more established and conventional Churches to deepen their theological and biblical roots, to slowly move away from basic biblical fundamentalism and to publicly declare their institutional markers. In some cases, they also indirectly motivate state agencies, House Churches, Wenzhou Churches and Three-self Churches to collaborate together against them. Without considering these groups as simply Protestant, it is still important to study their challenging influence in order to understand better some broader evolutions in current Chinese Protestantism.

We can note that these movements are not strictly denominational and that there is mutual influence and a continuous exchange among these four trends: a single person can successively join several types of Churches. Also, it is common to visit churches that are publicly visible, with an obvious cross at their entrance and implicit recognition from some local state agencies, but without any affiliation to the Three-self patriotic or House Churches movements. These Churches stand in between the two categories. Likewise, the True Jesus Church, an indigenous Pentecostal network particularly active in Southern China, is affiliated with the Three-self Patriotic Movement but rejects the Trinitarian faith.

Clearly, Protestantism in China remains more diverse and vivid than any possible categorization, but it is not a mere chaotic mess from which nothing can be discerned. This liquid and changing Protestant reality can help our reflection on Chinese Catholicism.

What can we learn from Chinese Protestants?

Protestant communities remind us that Christ is also acting beyond the visible limits of the Catholic Church and that many Chinese people try to be Jesus’ disciples. They may try through their own way and under the influence of other Christian traditions. But no one can deny how they really care about the presence of Christ.

While we should not minimize problems and issues characterizing Protestant communities, neither should we ignore the presence and hard work of our Christian brothers and sisters. It is in relation to them that we will deepen our mysterious link to Christ who stands beyond all groups, clans and parties.

It is true that many Chinese Protestants do not have a well-informed view of the Catholic Church. But we still need to deepen our ecumenical efforts. No reform program, inculturation effort or social turn of the Church can truly flourish without the clear goal of further revealing the presence of Christ, who always exceeds and anticipates all of our actions and strategies.

Second, the Protestant communities reveal that the ways in which Christ followers organize themselves in the Middle Kingdom is not under the sole influence of the Chinese Communist Party. No matter what many believe, the Chinese state is not the almighty factor that shapes every aspect of Church life. As we see with Protestants, a variety of theological preferences, economic constraints and regional particularities all play a role in the ways in which Chinese Christians organize themselves.
And this is true with Catholics too. Several times, we witnessed how some “underground” Catholics remain as such more because of ethnic and xenophobic tensions than political ones. It is simplistic to say that everything is political. Economic migrations, theological tensions, historical legacy and regional particularism are other factors that often explain divisions across Chinese Catholicism. Thus, reducing Chinese Catholicism to two categories – the patriotic Church and the underground one – is an approach that gives far too much weight to the Chinese Communist Party and does not reflect seriously the reality of the Church in China.

This leads us to our third and final point. While recognizing Protestant diversity, we should also acknowledge the huge variety of Chinese Catholics, of Chinese Catholic spiritualities and theologies, and of Chinese Catholic networks and institutions. This Catholic variety may not look exactly like the four Protestant streams described earlier. But still, the practical reality of the Chinese Catholic Church is far from being homogenous and uniform.

The regional traditions, the merchant networks, the theological plurality, the clerical rivalries, the competing international influences and the national ethnic diversity are some of the factors that make 21st-century Chinese Catholicism diverse and vivid. But this diversity is such that it often appears as hard to describe. Facing diversity can be a frightening challenge! Hence, it is tempting to reduce everything to a single political, theological or economic scale.

But this does not honor the rich life and pious efforts of Chinese Catholicism. The body of Christ is never one-dimensional. We must acknowledge that the flesh of His body and the vitality of His spirit are too often neglected in our debates on Chinese Catholicism. Where, when and how do we reflect on Chinese monastic life, male religious vocations, the actual Pentecostal influence on Chinese Catholicism, the interplay between youth ministry and urbanization, the contribution of lay patrons, the influence of the Hong Kong diocese and other Churches? We need to create new typologies and discursive tools to recognize and better describe Chinese Catholicism.

It may be true that when it comes to the Chinese Catholic Church, we could do more to reflect on its unity in diversity. If we do not seriously face its diversity, our concerns and discourses about its unity are superficial and simplistic. Therefore, moving away from ideological claims and strategic discourses, we should reevaluate whether or not this diversity is a threat to the Catholic identity and unity. Church history has already shown the opposite. Allowing alternative ecclesial forms to survive and encouraging some marginal movements to share their charisma can, in the long run, be a blessing for the whole Church.

In conclusion, we know that Vatican II called for an aggiornamento of the Church. And most of its decisions have since been implemented across China. But while the Church in the People’s Republic of China may have applied liturgical reforms and structural adjustments decided by the Council, Christianity in China and China itself have subsequently changed so much that the aggiornamento is far from accomplished. We still have to open more widely our windows on this changing world.

The Chinese followers of Christ are multiplying, the Chinese body of Christ takes on new traits and His presence becomes more manifest. In this new context, Catholics need to deepen their reflection on the revelation of Christ in China today. Thereby they will find new ways to connect with His unique and central presence, recognizing more openly and thankfully the various commitments He generates among them and beyond their own Church.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.