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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.

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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 Lord’s 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 Communist state.

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 China’s 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 government’s 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 government’s slowly growing religious leniency, open loyalty to the Pope remains unacceptable and is seen as a threat to China’s political hegemony.

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 Church’s traditional views.

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 one’s electricity turned off, losing one’s salary, being placed in confinement, or being forced to have an abortion. To violate China’s one-child policy is to jeopardize one’s 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 church.

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 Church’s 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 Church’s moral views. Their homilies must not openly contradict the state.

Catholicism in China’s Urban Centers

One of Fr. Cerezo’s 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. China’s 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 China’s 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. Cerezo’s 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 Christ’s message of love to new Chinese members of the Church in China.

China’s 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 China’s 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 Vatican’s approval of registered bishops is not at all a "betrayal" of the unregistered bishops who have suffered, and continue to suffer persecution, under China’s 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. Cerezo’s 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 Christ’s 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:

Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
Worshipping 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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