When the Church, through the election of Pope Francis, seems to be moving west (from Europe to Latin America), it’s interesting to read Simon Scott Plummer on how it might actually be moving east.
In The Middle Kingdom’s Problem with Religion, Plummer writes about the staggering growth of Christianity in China over the last two generations, which some people are calling ‘the greatest revival Christianity has ever known’.
While church attendance continues to fall in the West and Christians are being driven out of the Middle East under Islamist pressure, China is moving in the opposite direction. In 2011 the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think-tank, estimated that there were 67 million Chinese Christians, about 5 per cent of the total population. Of these, 58 million were Protestant and nine million Catholic. Their number exceeds that of members of the Communist Party (CCP).
A comparison with the situation just before the Communist Revolution — and even more so with that at the end of the Cultural Revolution — reveals the magnitude of change. In 1949 there were about three million Catholics and nearly one million Protestants. By Mao’s death in 1976 religion in China, including Christianity, appeared to have been snuffed out.
The rise in the number of Protestants, many of them Pentecostals, has been described as the greatest revival Christianity has ever known. There is even talk that by the middle of this century, Chinese Christians could outnumber those in the United States, at present more than 170 million and declining, making China the most populous Christian country on earth. The emergence of the Middle Kingdom as the second largest global economy is not the only story of explosive growth since Deng Xiaoping wrested power from the Maoists.
On the one hand, there is a kind of tolerance of Christianity; on the other hand, continuing repression.
Provided you are not seen by the government as disruptive, being a Christian is not difficult in China today. If you do step over that line, defined by the constitution as making use of religion “to engage in activities that disrupt public order”, the consequences can be harsh. The authorities believe in exemplary punishment, what a Chinese proverb calls “killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys” and, having identified a target, pursue it ferociously.
For example, the Shouwang Church in Beijing, the largest of the unregistered Protestant groups in the city, has been hounded by the police over the past two years. Having been locked out of property it had either rented or bought, its congregation has been forced to hold services in the open air. Members have been arrested, evicted from their homes and jobs or deported to the towns from which they came. Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer, currently imprisoned in north-west China, has been in and out of detention since 2006. After one of his releases, he said he had been tortured and threatened with death if he spoke about what had happened.
Ma Daqin, the Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai, has not been seen in public since last July, when he declared at his consecration that he was leaving the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to devote more time to the pastoral needs of the diocese. The CCPA and its associated Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China promptly withdrew recognition from him. The gravity of this case is that Ma’s appointment was approved by both the Chinese government and the Holy See, part of a slow rapprochement between the two sides which has now suffered a severe setback. Reversing it will be one of the toughest diplomatic challenges facing Pope Francis I.
The situation for Chinese Catholics is extremely complex.
The life of Jin Luxian, the 96-year-old Bishop of Shanghai, provides a fascinating insight into the Vatican’s attitude towards China under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A Jesuit, Jin spent 27 years (1955-82) under house arrest, in re-education camps or in prison for being part of a “counter-revolutionary clique”. The devastating experience of the Cultural Revolution convinced him that the interests of Chinese Catholics were best served by co-operating with the government, so he became the CCPA-appointed bishop of China’s most populous city in 1988. The bishop approved by the Vatican, Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, who had been consecrated in 1950, found himself powerless in his own diocese after being freed on parole from a life sentence in 1985. He left to receive medical treatment in the United States and never returned. In 1979 John Paul II had secretly created him a cardinal.
However, the same pope tacitly approved the presence of papal representatives at Jin’s consecration as auxiliary bishop in 1985, and his successor, Benedict XVI, invited him to attend a synod in Rome in 2005, only to have the Chinese government turn down the invitation on his behalf.
The Vatican’s nuanced treatment of Jin recognises his outstanding success in making Shanghai once again the powerhouse of Catholicism in China. He has reopened more than 100 churches in the city, set up the most important seminary in the country, sent seminarians abroad to study, and created a diocesan publishing house and retreat centre. In considering the spiritual wellbeing of Catholic communities around the world, the Holy See thinks long-term and, in the person of Jin, appears to have concluded that his achievements outweigh his apparent disloyalty.
Nevertheless, the bishop remains a highly controversial figure, both within the Society of Jesus and among Christians in Shanghai. The first volume of hisMemoirs (Hong Kong University Press, 2012) is remarkable for its bitter judgment of Kung as someone who put local Catholics at risk by “mindlessly executing anti-Communist orders” at the instigation of the Holy See.
Divisions between the registered and unregistered churches are reflected in the Commission for the Catholic Church in China set up by Pope Benedict in 2007. On one hand are those advocating rapprochement with the government on the lines of the Ostpolitik pursued by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli towards the Soviet bloc after the Second Vatican Council; on the other, those who take a harder line. The present Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon, favours the first approach, his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the second. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is likely to give China a high priority.
The most important thing I learnt about the Church in China when I visited the country a couple of years ago, apart from the vibrancy of its faith, is not to make simplistic judgments about the situation there or the incredibly complex decisions of conscience that Chinese Catholics are constantly having to make.