Chinese Catholicism: The Predicament of the Underground Church

Jinping Pankrator
( November 24 2018)

Li Ruohan, the pseudonym of a writer from northern China, has compared the September 2018 provisional agreement between the Vatican and the PRC with the 1801 Concordat between the Vatican and Napoleon Bonaparte, finding striking similarities–all of them to the detriment to the dignity and independence to the Church: both validate the restructuring of dioceses by the state; both give the state control over religious activities, allowing merely formal recognition of the powers of the Pope; both work to the advantage of clergy that had previously cooperated with the state over those who had resisted the state’s attempts to subjugate and replace the Church.

There are similarities: but Chinese Catholics might be wishing that the agreement resembled the Napoleonic Concordat more closely. There at least seem to be similarities insofar as one can tell–since the text of the “provisional agreement” remains secret. The Concordat specifies that  episcopal nominations would be made by the “First Consul” (or, in effect, by the French head of state), with the Pope conferring the actual investiture–as in China, the initiative rests with the state. The First Consul was taking over a prerogative exercised by the French kings since the 1500s, and there might actually be sound arguments for this arrangement when the Papacy has pretensions to temporal power, something no longer the case. The Concordat also declares that should some future head of state be a non-Catholic, then a “new convention” will have to be negotiated. In China episcopal nominations are made by the Patriotic Association, a nominally Catholic organization, not the head of state: a distinction without a difference, since the Patriotic Association is a mere apanage of the ruling Party and the government it controls.

In the Concordat the Pope agrees to accept the redefinition of the dioceses and the illicit episcopal appointments made by the revolutionary government, accepts the revolution’s confiscation of Church properties (in China Church property is controlled mostly by the Patriotic Association). He also “confidently expects” that for the good of the Church the incumbent bishops of the French equivalent of the underground will give up their sees, presumably to be replaced by those of the “official” Church. Whether or not this is an actual provision of the Chinese agreement, it does seem in accord with current practice.

On the other hand, the Concordat recognizes that Catholicism is the religion of the great majority of the French citizens (but is no longer the official religion of France), and that those citizens enjoy full freedom of public worship. In China, religious practice has come under stricter control since the signing of the agreement. Most egregiously, it is forbidden for children to attend worship services or to receive religious instruction (this had long been the official policy, but it was not enforced).

Under the Concordat, the Pope apparently had the ability to remove bishops. This was in the context of forcing the ousters of “underground” bishops in the “unexpected” case that they refused the Holy Father’s request that they resign in favor of their collaborationist counterparts. It is not clear whether His current Holiness has the same powers under the provisional agreement. Francis has, of course, requested the resignation of one underground bishop and forced the demotion of at least one other, in conformity with the wishes of the regime. The test of papal power would come should some bishop, who has the full support of the political authorities, fall into overt heresy, or be openly corrupt or adopt an immoral lifestyle: would the Pope be able to fire the guy? It has been noted that at least one of the bishops legitimated in the wake of the agreement has a wife and children, in conflict with the requirement of episcopal celibacy.

The Concordat of 1801 ended a decade of bloody religious persecution. It involved no compromise with core Christian, or even Catholic, doctrine. It applied to a country with a rich Catholic tradition, where a majority of the population were Catholic, where the head of state was, and future heads of state were likely to be, at least nominal Catholics, at a time when the Pope was a territorial prince as well as a spiritual leader in conflict and cooperation with the other princes of this world. It was not what might be wished in the abstract, but an expedient and in the circumstances defensible compromise with Caesar, in the tradition of the Church’s original faustian bargain with Constantine.

What is most distasteful about the Concordat is the short-term consequence, the favor accorded to those hierarchs who had collaborated with the persecutors, to the detriment of the faithful remnant that had endured disgrace, prison, and death in obedience to the Church and their consciences.

And this seems to be how it is going in China. In principle, after the provisional agreement there should be no such thing as an underground Church: all are legitimate, all are part of one big happy Body of Christ. In practice there is an underground, both as an informal structure and as a collection of clergy, religious, and faithful. A little more than half of the faithful affiliate with the underground, and more would probably do so did it not involve so much extra trouble and inconvenience. The regime seems to be taking the agreement as a license (as if it needed one) to attempt to eradicate the old underground, while the collaborationist clergy become ever more fulsome in their pledges of loyalty to the regime and its ways. The Vatican, in the meantime, remains silent.

The core issue is the role of the Patriotic Association. In 2007 Pope Benedict took the initiative in proposing a normalization of the position of the Chinese Church. In a letter to all Chinese Catholics, Benedict went out of his way to emphasize that the Church in China and elsewhere fully accepted the legitimacy of the “civil authorities,” with Catholics obliged to obey those authorities in the exercise of their proper powers. He stressed, however, that the Chinese Church was part of the universal Church, under the spiritual jurisdiction of the successors to Saint Peter, and that the role assigned by the regime to the Patriotic Association was incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

To all indications, the positions set out in Benedict’s letter remain the official positions of the Roman Church, with Francis presenting his own actions as a continuation of Benedict’s initiative. Benedict appealed for the full reconciliation of the official and underground communities, the implication being that the underground would accept the legitimacy of the official church and the official church would accept the legitimacy of the underground. But since the provisional agreement the underground community has been left hanging. Perhaps the provisional agreement does treat of its status: but if so, this is one of the parts that remains secret. So “P. Savio,” a priest of the underground Church, asks: “Dear Vatican, what should we do about the Patriotic Association?” 

Fr. Savio outlines what he sees as his dilemma: Is the underground now supposed to accept the Patriotic Association. “Conscience and obedience are now in opposition. On the one hand, the Letter of Pope Benedict XVI is still valid, and clearly states that the principles of the Patriotic Association cannot be reconciled with the doctrine of the Catholic Church . . . On the other hand, bishops belonging to the National Patriotic Association can replace bishops who have been persecuted for not having joined the Patriotic Association in matters of faith and truth: this places clergy and the faithful in a contradictory dilemma, the very people who from the beginning have been faithful to the doctrine of the Church.”

In effect, the underground clergy (and this issue pertains mainly to the clergy, not to the lay faithful) refused, in obedience to the Pope, to join the Patriotic Association. Now, in obedience to the Pope’s apparent wishes, should they prepared to join the Association? But the reason for the Pope’s initial order was that the Association claimed powers contrary to Church teaching: and this has not changed. “Owing to obedience, must we voluntarily close our eyes, not consider the Letter of Pope Benedict XVI and pay no attention to our conscience and pay no attention to our conscience by accepting the president of the Patriotic Association as our bishop? [Probably referring to Msgr. Ma Yinglin; see below.] Or follow the principle of the supremacy of conscience and adhere to the basis of our faith, not accepting the Patriotic Association and its bishops?”

Can this be posed as a question of logic?: The faithful owe obedience to the Pope, but one basis of for this obligation is that the Pope upholds the truth of Catholic teaching. Can the Pope command something contrary to Catholic teaching? For that matter, can the Pope decide on a whim what is true doctrine and what is not? And if he can, doesn’t this undermine the whole rationale for obedience to Papal authority and, for that matter, the validity of Catholic doctrine itself? As Fr. Savio Says, “Vatican, please tell us what to do.”

There is an unresolved ambiguity in Benedict’s letter. On the one hand, clear that the Patriotic Association is an illegitimate organization and  its control over the Church is unacceptable under Catholic teaching. On the other hand, Benedict takes note that almost all of the illicitly-ordained bishops have subsequently expressed their subordination to the Holy See and have received papal approval. And these gentlemen have retained their membership in the Patriotic Association, some even serving as officers.

The issue came to a head in late 2009. In 1997, Msgr. An Shuxing, an underground priest in Baoding, Hebei province, was arrested along with his bishop. Fr. An was released some years later, although the bishop remained in custody, and in 2010 he was elevated to Coadjutator Bishop of Baoding by the official Church. Probably as a condition for this, he accepted membership in the Patriotic Association, while at the same time expressing to the Vatican his loyalty to the Pope. Apparently the Vatican had requested that he not go ahead with the ordination, and in the aftermath said the decision to join the Patriotic Association “should have been avoided.” “Nevertheless,” the Secretary of State, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone added, “in the present circumstances it seems preferable for Your Excellency not to give up, on your own initiative, the possibility you have at present of acting in an official way and to accompany and lead all your priests, whether official or clandestine.” That is, having joined the PA, Msgr. An might as well stay in it.

Bishop An’s position, tacitly endorsed by the Vatican bureaucracy, seems to be that since formerly illicit clergy can remain in the PA after their legitimation, so, as a matter of expedient compromise, legitimate clergy should be able to join, as a way of appeasing and reassuring the “civil authorities.” This provoked a strong response from Joseph Cardinal Zen, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, who had been one of Benedict’s consultants on the China question. Zen had not approved of allowing clergy who sought legitimacy from Rome to remain in the PA in the first place. The best case for allowing this was that it was a temporary evil that should be corrected. From Zen’s perspective, it was impermissible for clergy who had refused to join (and who had suffered for that refusal) to give in as a price for being accepted by the ruling authorities. Benedict himself declined to clarify his intentions. Subsequent signals from the Vatican seem in favor of collaboration.

Has the underground been sold out by the Vatican, betrayed by the institution it has served at such heavy cost? Probably. The harshness of this judgment may be buffered somewhat: it was always clear that any normalization of the position of the Church in communist China would entail the Vatican’s coming to some arrangement with the official Church, and the energies of the Vatican, from at least the early days of the papacy of John Paul II, have been directed toward somehow coming to terms with the official Church, rather than pushing for the advantage of the underground. If the object is freedom of religion, it is the official Church that can act with the greater freedom. At the parish level the official-underground distinction is nearly irrelevant. There are no doctrinal differences between the official and underground communities, even on the role of the Pope. The objection to the Patriotic Association is in its arrogation of authority in matters properly internal to the universal Church, and there is perhaps no problem in principle with an organization of clergy and lay that administers Church property, educational facilities, and programs in service to the larger society. The Patriotic Association itself was evidently less  than thrilled about the provisional agreement: should there be a genuine normalization of the status of the Chinese Church, there would no longer be a role for the Patriotic Association. Shortly after the agreement, Wang Meixiu, a researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences, published an essay praising the agreement,  in the course of which she noted that the PA is, after all (that is, technically) a voluntary association, and participation in it is not obligatory. The implication seems to be that it is now high time for it to start acting like one.

Be all that as it may, ever since the agreement the regime has been attacking the underground community with greater ferocity than before, and has also intensified pressures and control over the official community. The authorities seem to think the Pope has stepped out of it, accepting their power to act however they think fit. The Vatican can certainly protest what is going on, but in so doing it would be admitting its own naïveté and its pandering after empty glory.

On January 22 Ma Yinglin, newly legitimated bishop of Kunming, Chairman of the illicit Bishops’ Conference and Vice Chairman of the Patriotic Association, excommunicated until the signing of the provisional agreement, spoke in the presence of Wang Zuoan, the Party boss in charge of keeping tabs on religious groups. He pledged that in the coming year Catholics “will work hard, unite as one heart, think seriously, strive to practice, work according to the situation, and continue to make greater and better progress on the path of the development of Sinicization for gaining a satisfactory result for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.”

[NOTE: The blasphemy at the head of this post is not anything circulated by the Communist party, much less by the Church in China. Rather, it is a satire originally appearing in the French version of in November 2108–its own commentary on how things have been going since the agreement.]