Print Version    Email to Friend
Official Church facing authenticity crisis

HONG KONG (UCAN): St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing towers over busy Wangfujing Street, not far from Tiananmen Square. 

On an uncharacteristically humid afternoon in July this year, the courtyard is abandoned, save for three men sleeping on benches.

The church doors are shuttered, but not locked. Outside the main gate, another four homeless people take refuge from the pounding sun and suffocatingly humid air. But inside, there’s not a soul.

For Catholic people in China, worshipping doesn’t always take place in the pews. Churches like the cathedral in Wangfujing are administered by the State Administration for Religious Affairs and a body that falls right under its supervision, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

The purpose of the Patriotic Association is to safeguard the autonomy of the Chinese Church, but these safeguards include a disconnection from the Vatican and tight state control. This, in turn, drives many Catholic people to worship underground.

“It violates the faithful’s freedom of conscience and the essential properties of the Catholic Church,” Or Yan-yan, a project officer with the Justice and Peace Commission in Hong Kong, says.

“The Patriotic Association is controlled by the Chinese government and manipulates a significant part of Church issues, such as carrying out illicit episcopal ordinations, or interrupting personnel appointments,” she says.

In the election of bishops, she points out that the highest decision-makers in state-administered Churches come from the Patriotic Association, so in effect, they are chosen by the government.

“This violates Church autonomy and normal operations,” Or points out.

But there are signs this may change. A recent investigation by Reuters says Pope Francis is pushing to repair ties between Beijing and the Vatican with an agreement on the selection and ordination of bishops.

It also reports that Pope Francis may pardon eight bishops who were ordained without Vatican approval, signalling his ambition to get Vatican influence back into China.

But why Catholicism is allowed to exist and operate so easily in Beijing, whether it is state-sanctioned or not—as compared with the devastating crackdowns on religion in the provinces—is still unclear.

Xinjiang has seen major restrictions on Islamic religious activity over the past years and the central government has reasserted control over Buddhist practices in Tibet.

In Sichuan, the government began demolishing parts of the world’s largest Buddhist institute in July.

And just months ago in Zhejiang, the local government in Shuitou had workers forcibly remove crosses from churches. The crackdowns on Christianity in Zhejiang, where more than 1,500 crosses were removed, have been reported since 2014.

William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher at Amnesty International, says that in Zhejiang, the party leadership may be using the rural province as a petri dish for political experimentation.

“If it is successful, it could be rolled out through the whole country,” Nee says. He adds that Beijing hasn’t been as hostile to religious activity in the capital as in Xinjiang, Tibet and Zhejiang, but it is impossible to know if this will change or not.

One signal, though, is the passing of the country’s new law regulating foreign non-government organisations, which makes China’s climate profoundly less friendly to non-Chinese religious organisations doing work across the country.

Amnesty says that the legislation has already seen some foreign Christian groups operating in the country leaving China.

“In China, there’s always tension between faith, national security and the role religion can play,” Nee says, adding this tension is only getting tighter.

That tension can be what drives people underground and away from the state-sponsored Church to worship. “People don’t trust the authenticity of the Church, even though the official Church has more money,” he notes.

“The official Church sees the underground Church as a threat to a great extent,” Or says. “And I don’t think that people chose to be part of the Patriotic Association-controlled Church—but the government forces them to accept it.”

She continues, “It is well known that the Patriotic Association isn’t popular. There isn’t freedom to choose, there isn’t the freedom of association and the Church does not have the basic right to autonomy.”

Or adds that the president, Xi Jinping, has said that religious groups must submit to the leadership of the Communist Party and not that of religious associations. “I think the main problem is government control,” she says.

In China, all religious venues must be registered with the government for religious practices—otherwise, they can be regarded as illegal. The unofficial Church communities are not registered—and while people risk being arrested for their beliefs, they are able to have more flexibility and they are able to bypass censorship on their religious publications.

“This kind of freedom is fragile indeed,” Or comments.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, from the Holy Spirit Study Centre, says that under certain conditions the Church could tolerate the Patriotic Association.

“If it were just an organisation comprised of a few Catholics, or even some priests for their own gain, who work to promote the government, we would never say no,” he says.

But as Or points out, the problem is that the Patriotic Association is essentially trying to rewrite Church DNA in China.

“The government cannot organise any special institute trying to override the authority of the Church hierarchy—that’s unacceptable,” Lam concludes.

More from this section