Interviews July/August 2007

A Church for China

Adam Minter, author of "Keeping Faith," discusses his article about Bishop Jin Luxian, the future of Catholicism in China, and life as a writer in Shanghai

Is such an awakening meeting any resistance at all?

Since the start of his administration, Hu Jintao has emphasized that China needs to build what he calls a “harmonious society.” And not long after he started to emphasize that principle, the government started making it very clear that religion could be part of such a harmonious society. The vice chair of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) has said himself that religion should contribute. Some have perceived Beijing’s support for religion in this context as a somewhat cynical maneuver to strengthen its standing with the people. But even so, one doesn’t find the sort of hard-line anti-religious Marxist element at the top of government anymore. What you might find, in fact, are some party members (in enough numbers to be noticed by higher party authorities and Hong Kong’s media) who are practicing Christians and Buddhists. They’re not supposed to, and there have been dismissals as a result. But such things are happening.

You mention that the reality of daily life in the underground Church is more complicated than most outsiders believe. What do you think accounts for the misperceptions still held by many Westerners looking at China?

Well, first of all, I am not an expert on the underground, and not having any sources there, I haven’t reported on it. But I think that the widely-held images of the underground result from a number of factors. One goes back to these different narratives we have about what transpired here after 1949, particularly during the Cultural Revolution starting in 1966. All religions went underground at that point—they were completely banned. So if there was any religious practice at all, it really had to happen in the catacombs. There are amazing, marvelous stories about how different religious groups sustained their practices and beliefs through 1976, when the Cultural Revolution ended and China started to open up. Some of the people I spoke to for this article—Larry Murphy at Seton Hall, Jeroom Heyndrickx—talked about what it was like when they first started coming to China in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, how they had assumed that Catholicism had been stamped out, that there was nothing left, and that any remnants of it were surely in the underground. As they spent more time here, they began to see that the situation was much different and more complex. Catholicism had survived—but that wasn’t being covered in the media. To an extent, then, the popular image of China’s Catholic Church was frozen in 1976, despite the fact that the real situation was evolving very quickly. There are certainly misperceptions of the underground, but more pointedly I think, there are also great misperceptions of the open Church. It’s a complicated situation.

Why do you think it’s taken so long for the Vatican and the Open Church to officially reconcile with each other? Do you think there were missed opportunities along the way—occasions when it could have occurred earlier?  

Obviously, I’m not privy to the relevant discussion, but it is true that people think there may have been several occasions when a deal could have been reached much earlier. As far back as 1981, there was a lot of buzz around a possible reconciliation of some kind. But then it fell apart when Rome elevated the Bishop of Guangzhou, Dominic Tang, to Archbishop without consulting Beijing. That set off a huge reaction in Beijing and froze things up for years. Another possible missed opportunity happened back in 2000, after there had been a lot of warming between Rome and Beijing. That’s when Jin and Fan sat down to co-name a successor. That 2000 effort fell apart in October, after the Vatican decided to canonize several Chinese martyrs—among them, several Catholics who had been killed during the Boxer Rebellion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which was itself a response to Western imperialism. The Chinese government claimed that some of the people the Vatican intended to canonize were criminals against China. But the Vatican went ahead with it anyway. It might have been ok, but then Rome chose October 1st—China’s National Day—as the date for the event. So that threw that apart.

You’d think that Rome and Beijing would have learned by now how to talk to each other.

You’d think. A friend of mine, a Jesuit, likes to say that Beijing and Rome are the two oldest corporations on earth. And they are! But they still haven’t quite figured out how to talk to each other. Some suggest that both sides have a lot to gain politically by politicking and posturing—pretending that they want reconciliation, but in the end not really wanting it. It’s hard to say whether the intentions are good, the efforts genuine.

I was especially drawn to the line you quote from Bishop Jin’s speech to German Catholics in 1987 about the identity crisis many Chinese Catholics faced in 1949, after the CCP declared independence. “To remain Catholic, they could not remain Chinese.”

To me, that quote gets at the heart of what the Catholic Church in China has struggled with all this time. It’s impossible to overstate the amount of resentment within the Church over what happened so long ago. And this won’t go away if Rome and Beijing ever choose to reestablish diplomatic relations. It’s not just people in Jin’s generation—there’s a whole lot of cultural resentment over how the Church was treated right through the 1950s, until the missionaries were thrown out. It gets back to the question: Was China liberated or was there a revolution? I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Catholic in the world who would say they thought Mao was good for Chinese Catholicism. But on the other hand, the fact that China threw out the missionaries and allowed Chinese Catholics to assume authority over Chinese dioceses was very important and remains, to this day, a matter of pride for many Chinese. So when Jin talks about the identity crisis he felt in 1949 and in the decades that followed, he’s also talking about the tension he and his peers felt under European control—the idea that if you were a Catholic, you had to be part of the European colonial enterprise. Come 1949, I think many Chinese Catholics—especially those of Jin’s generation—desperately wanted a way to assert themselves.

Can you speak more about the role of Joseph Zen, archbishop of Hong Kong? You mention in the piece that he’s very outspoken. What’s that all about?

Zen is an interesting character. His family is from Shanghai, as is he. He left in the 1940s for Hong Kong where he became a priest and returned to China in the late ‘80s to teach in Shanghai’s seminary. Under Jin, he taught for several years before returning to Hong Kong where he was named Archbishop by Rome and then Cardinal last year. I think the hope was that Zen could provide a bridge between the Mainland Chinese Church and Rome. Since moving back to Hong Kong, He’s always been very outspoken and very critical of the Mainland—about Tiananmen and other abuses by the Communist Party. But I think what’s come as a surprise is that since he’s ascended to this role of Cardinal he’s also been critical of the Open Church. For many Chinese Catholics, such criticism has come kind of out of left field, and nobody really knows what to make of it. It also hasn’t proven to be very helpful in his efforts to serve as an informal bridge; Beijing has made it clear that he’s not welcome there, and his relationship with the leaders of the CPA has completely bottomed out. I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that he’s changed since becoming cardinal. And that has surprised and hurt a lot of people who he’s known for decades. They seem to feel like he should know better.

This piece weaves together the accounts and impressions of so many people over so many decades. Was there any piece of the puzzle—or aspect of the story—you wish you could have spent more time unearthing?

The funny thing is that in some ways, this story was reported a few years too late. By that I mean that many of the people that served as a bridge between Jin and Rome are no longer living. Many of them have died in the last few years. The single most important one of these was the Cardinal Archbishop Albert de Courtray, from Lyon, France, who died in 1994.  Jin and de Courtray became very good friends during their student days in Rome in the 1940s. When Jin was finally released from his incarceration in the ‘80s, he reestablished contact with de Courtray who invited him to Belgium—a move for which he was heavily criticized at the time. Many people have told me that de Courtray was key in helping Jin smooth things over with Rome and attesting to his character. Many of Jin’s other friends from his student days in Europe are also now gone—they too would have been great for this piece. Of the deceased who were not classmates, none was more important than Edward Malatesta, a San Francisco Jesuit who died suddenly in 1998. That was a huge loss. Malatesta was the guy in the American Church who started building those bridges back in 1984. And he played an especially important role in Jin’s rapprochement with the Jesuits. These were big disappointments for me, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

The funny thing, and what’s most difficult, is that high-ranking members of the Catholic Church are not really interested in chatting about stuff. Most of them—the Prefect of Propaganda Fide in the 1990s, or the archbishop who’s the Pope’s point man on China—wouldn’t want to talk to me. They could have contributed a lot, to be sure. It’s just lucky that people like Larry Murphy were willing to engage with me.

Related audio:

Hear Larry Murphy explain to Adam Minter how he met Father Dong Guangqing and shuttled his message of reconciliation to the Pope.

As for things I would have liked to include in the piece but couldn’t—there's an amazing story that Larry Murphy told me about Father Dong Guangqing in Hubei Province, near Wuhan. In 1958, he was one of the first two government-appointed, self-elected, self-ordained bishops in the open Church. He just died, actually. Dong was elected by the registered church to become a bishop, but Dong, still wanting to act in accordance with Church law, sent a telegram to the Vatican explaining the situation and requesting approval from the Pope for his ordination. He received one in return, which expressed Rome’s refusal to accept the results of the election and reiterated that only the Pope could select bishops. Murphy told me—and I have no reason to disbelieve him—how he later went about reconciling Dong with Pope John Paul II, even amidst fears that the Chinese government would find out about it. He went to China and found Dong living with acrobats. He gave me the whole rundown on record.  So far as I know, this was the first time anyone has ever gone on record to explaining how such a thing would happen—the process of reconciling an open Church, CPA-registered bishop with the Pope. Unfortunately, there wasn’t space in the piece for this story. If I could have gone 3,000 more words, I could have figured out a way to make it fit.

The forthcoming letter from the Vatican is expected to reopen the possibility of official reconciliation. But you mention that such a reunion could also reopen old wounds. Can you elaborate on that?

I think the biggest issue, from the perspective of the underground, is the sense of: If Beijing and Rome reconciles, what did we go through all this for? Reestablishing an official relationship will press at that very deep wound. Another major concern, which I don’t really address in the piece, surrounds the issue of diocesan control. In 1946, the Vatican established diocesan boundaries when they announced the Chinese hierarchy. But when the CPA took the reins, new lines were drawn. So now you have these two sets of diocesan boundaries, many of which overlap—resulting in two bishops for one “territory.” When the time comes to unite, which bishop gets to retain authority? This is a really sensitive issue in the Church, especially among older Chinese Catholics who remember life before 1949. You have to remember that many of these guys—now on different sides of the aisle, so to speak—knew each other back in the day. In Shanghai, for instance, Bishops Jin and Zhang used to work together. All those guys knew Kung back in the ‘40s. And Fan, the underground bishop of Shanghai—was an old friend of Jin’s from their Jesuit days, when Jin was rector of the major seminary and Fan was rector of the minor seminary. In fact, they entered the Jesuits on the same day! Reconciliation could open very personal wounds for many people.

Presented by

Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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