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Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | An Interview with Fr. Daniel Cerezo,
Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Editor's note (January 21, 2007): In light of the news that Pope
Benedict XVI and the Vatican have given special public attention to the Church in China, I'm posting again this interview from June 2006 that touches
on many related issues and questions.
On a typically hot and humid summer afternoon I walked through the crowded
streets of Taipei to a small Catholic chapel under the care of an Order
of missionaries not known by most Americans. I was welcomed at the front
door by the Italian pastor, Fr. Consonni Paulo, and directed to the fourth
floor where the four priests in residence live in humble rooms. Once there,
Fr. Daniel Cerezo, from Spain, offered me a cup of coffee and a biscuit,
then showed me to his office. A poster of the saints of China hung behind
him and an article about a recently deceased bishop in Mainland China was
on his desk. The bishop, one in the "open Church," was his friend.
The four missionary priests were invited by the bishop in Taipei several
years ago to run a small church in the Jen Ai area of Taipei. They are Comboni
Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus, an Order founded by Saint
Daniel Comboni, a holy laborer in the Lords vineyard in Africa.
Asia is a long way from Africa, but the sons of St. Comboni are now among
the few Orders that still bring the Catholic faith into China.
Fr. Cerezo is in an uncommon position; he associates with Catholic bishops,
clergy, and faithful in both state-registered and unregistered communities
and he is well acquainted with the situation of the Church in China. He
speaks warmly of their devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady,
and St. Joseph. I was honored that he was agreeable to chatting with me
about his impressions of what is happening among the Catholic community
in Mainland China, persecuted as it is under what is still an ideologically
Two Chinese Churches?
The first question I asked Fr. Cerezo was concerning terms. I asked him
if it is correct to refer to "two Churches" in China, one that
is "underground" and another that is state-sponsored, often called
the "open Church." He said that this is an inappropriate distinction,
noting that despite their differences both are persecuted parts of one Chinese
Church. Rather, it is better to refer to these two parts as "communities,"
one that is registered with the state and one that is not. As simple as
this answer seems, it is much more complex than it initially sounds.
In 1949, all of China effectively came under Communist control. From 1949
to 1977 (when the Cultural Revolution ended) the Catholic Church underwent
its worst persecutions in China. Catholic dispensaries, schools, hospitals,
and orphanages were taken over by the state, and several cathedrals were
leveled. Seeking to remove the Catholic faithful from the aegis of the Pope
the government created the "Patriotic Church" in 1957. Since that
time most world media, including the Chinese media, has referred to "two
Churches" in China the "underground" Church and the
Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), or the "open Church."
The "open Church" is overseen by the Religious Affairs Bureau
and is ostensibly independent from outside political influences. This situation
became even more complex when Pope Pius XII excommunicated any bishop who
registered with the state. Most of the bishops, therefore, went "underground,"
choosing to preserve their explicit loyalty to Rome and the Holy Father.
Fr. Cerezo says that the line between these two communities has grown increasingly
vague in recent years. In fact, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI has
ever referred to the "two Churches" in China, but have instead
spoken of the Chinese Church in the singular.
It is better, says Fr. Cerezo, to refer to China as "one divided Church
with two communities" that still have differences. We may accurately
distinguish the two communities, Fr. Cerezo suggests, as "registered,"
or "state-sanctioned," and "unregistered," or operating
outside of the CCPA. The relationship between the two communities is strained
in some provinces, such as Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang, Heilongjiang, and Jiangxi.
In these areas there are unregistered Catholics who understandably feel
that they have suffered for the Church by refusing any affiliation with
the Communist-run state. But there is a growing distinction in China between
the government and the Party, and Fr. Cerezo notes that there are no Catholic
bishops, in either the registered or unregistered communities, who are members
of the Communist Party, since one cannot be a believer and be a member of
the Communist Party. Both communities are aware of this problem. But there
are, unfortunately, a few registered bishops who are quite involved with
Chinas government. At this point of our conversation Fr. Cerezo leaned
back in his chair and said, "Look, the younger priests and bishops
in both communities are less and less interested in the politics between
the two communities, and more motivated to teach the faith." He recalled
that there are cases where clergy from the registered community live with
clergy from the unregistered community.
The governments reaction to the existence of unregistered churches
is varied. There are some areas where, if an illegal (unregistered) Catholic
church is established, the local officials immediately destroy the building
and disband the community. In other areas, however, there are prominent
unregistered Catholic churches that are simply ignored by officials and
are allowed to exist as a parish without interference. While there is room
for optimism about the lessening tension in China between Catholics of the
registered and unregistered communities, there remain several disheartening
challenges facing the Church. Fr. Cerezo notes that the Chinese Church is
still persecuted by the government. Being Catholic in China is to accept
certain persecution; all Chinese Catholics are martyrs to some degree. In
extreme cases, there are still imprisonments in China. Despite the Chinese
governments slowly growing religious leniency, open loyalty to the
Pope remains unacceptable and is seen as a threat to Chinas political
Following Catholic Morality in a Communist Context
While the media appears to be occupied mostly with the state of the unregistered
and registered Church in China, there are larger issues that are often ignored.
The Church is ultimately not a political institution; it is a religious
one, which proclaims its greatest fidelity to its divine founder and his
teachings. When the Chinese Church is viewed this way, the two communities
seem to melt together into one tragically persecuted community of faithful
who must struggle to maintain even the most basic Catholic moral teachings
in a society that is categorically opposed to the Churchs traditional
I asked Father Cerezo how Chinese Catholics maintain their fidelity to Church
moral teachings in a country that has illegalized having more than one child
and enforces this law with harsh penalties. Refusing to use birth control
is itself a punishable offense, but becoming pregnant when one already has
a child can result in more serious punishments having ones
electricity turned off, losing ones salary, being placed in confinement,
or being forced to have an abortion. To violate Chinas one-child policy
is to jeopardize ones own safety and the safety of your family. This,
says Fr. Cerezo, is one of the most painful aspects of being Catholic in
China today, regardless of whether one attends Mass at a registered or unregistered
There are areas in China, however, where the local government overlooks
its one-child law and allows Catholics to have several children. Fr. Cerezo
informed me of an almost entirely Catholic village that is centered in the
activities of the Catholic faith. For example, bells projected on loud speakers
inform the local inhabitants when Mass is being said. In this village Catholic
parents have several children, as many as six, unbothered by the local authorities.
While such situations are rare, there are villages in Mainland China that
are still able to openly follow the moral teachings of the Church. In more
urban settings, however, the Chinese government is less willing to tolerate
religious activity that openly contradicts Party lines, and Catholics who
move to or live in large cities cannot adhere to the Churchs moral
teachings concerning birth control and abortion without danger of legal
punishment. It is simply untrue that Catholics who attend registered churches
are unaware or unwilling to follow moral teachings, but, as Fr. Cerezo says,
officially registered Catholic clergy must walk a narrow and dangerous path
regarding how they teach and enforce the Churchs moral views. Their
homilies must not openly contradict the state.
Catholicism in Chinas Urban Centers
One of Fr. Cerezos concerns is for those Chinese who move away from
small Catholic villages to large urban settings, where, as he puts it, the
three greatest pressures are joining the Party, finding lucrative employment,
and meeting a good boyfriend or girlfriend. It is difficult for these Catholics
to remain connected to a spiritual system that causes tension and conflict
with the social expectations of the majority of his or her countrymen. In
addition, moving out of the routine of a Catholic-centered village lifestyle
into the economically burgeoning materialistic culture of modern China is
a shock that many young Catholics cannot endure without serious hardship,
sometimes even loss of faith. Chinas recent economic successes have
not come without a growing sense of materialism. When I was last in Beijing
I made a habit of asking people what they believed in, and the most common
answer was, "Wo xin wo; wo xin qian" (I believe in myself and
I believe in money). Yet even in Chinas materialistic urban centers,
such as Beijing and Shanghai, deeply devoted Catholics fill churches and
cathedrals every Sunday.
Fr. Cerezo described the inspiring spiritual lives of most Chinese Catholics,
who fill their lives with traditional devotions despite the ideological
and economic pressures they face every day. He recounted that the three
most popular devotions in Mainland China are to the Sacred Heart of Jesus,
Our Lady, and St. Joseph. These traditional devotions are part the core
identity of Chinese Catholics, and in addition to these, Fr. Cerezo notes
that most Chinese Catholics pray the Holy Rosary daily. I mentioned to him
that recent surveys revealed that a large number of American Catholics expressed
their disbelief in the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. Fr. Cerezo says
that this is almost unheard of in the Chinese Church. Devotion to the Blessed
Sacrament is particularly strong in China, and children are raised to display
their adoration for God in the Eucharist during Holy Mass.
Another inspiring aspect of Fr. Cerezos experience of Christianity
in China is how native Chinese sometimes respond to the Gospel. One early
missionary method was to approach catechesis similarly to how it has been
handled in Western countries with a book that begins with an explanation
of the Blessed Trinity. Such an abstract approach, according to Fr. Cerezo,
is not a particularly effective way to catechize the Chinese. Rather, in
his Order, missionaries begin by teaching the Gospels, focusing specifically
on Jesus parables. He told me of one instance when a woman began to
weep while reading the words of Jesus, and when asked why she was crying
she simply responded that she had never heard of such charity and compassion
before. Such catechetics have effectively spread Christs message of
love to new Chinese members of the Church in China.
Chinas Future Catholics?
Finally, I asked Fr. Cerezo where the Chinese Church is headed, a question
I knew would be difficult to answer. To this question he reminded me that
the Chinese Church is becoming less divided, and that using divisive terms
such as "underground" and "open" do not help the situation.
It does not help to suggest that non-Chinese Catholics should take sides,
choosing either the "underground," or "faithful" Church,
and the "open," or "Communist" Church. Both communities
include the Pope in their prayers during Holy Mass and both communities
are cherished by the Vatican.
However, this is not to say that there are no longer conflicts between the
registered (CCPA) community and Rome; there are often serious tension, to
be sure. But the majority of Chinas registered bishops, according
to reliable sources, have either the explicit or implicit support of the
Vatican. This was not the case just a decade ago. The Vaticans approval
of registered bishops is not at all a "betrayal" of the unregistered
bishops who have suffered, and continue to suffer persecution, under Chinas
current government. Rather, the lines between the two communities are growing
increasingly unclear. Both communities are persecuted. Both seek the Lord
in a hostile environment. Both, with a few exceptions in the registered
Church, seek explicit ties with the See of St. Peter.
As I finished my cup of coffee in Fr. Cerezos Taipei office, he leaned
forward in his chair and said that the goal of the Chinese Church, beyond
its dissolving divisions, is to narrate the story of the compassionate Jesus
to love the poor and be a beacon of Christs message in a country
desperately in need of the Gospel. It is time to stop speaking of "two"
Churches in China, and begin acknowledging that there is really only one
suffering Church, struggling to love God and, in turn, bring his love into
a land that seems more and more distracted by its pursuit of material success.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
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at the Feet of the Lord | Anthony E. Clark
Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Asian history at
the University of Alabama.
He did his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied
Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. His more recent research has
centered on East/West religious dialogue. He has also been researching the
history of Catholic martyrs in China.
Dr. Clark has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and has
also been a guest on "EWTN Live."
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