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

In 1577, the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci left Italy on a mission to bring the Christian faith to Ming dynasty China. He was neither the first Christian, nor the first Catholic, to arrive in the Middle Kingdom. But his arrival marked the beginnings of a Jesuit presence that would survive erratically in China for nearly four centuries.

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Flashbacks: "The Cross and the Star"
Articles from The Atlantic's archives illuminate the history of China's complex relationship with Christianity.

Everything changed in 1949 when the Communists came to power. Western religion—along with all else foreign—was unwelcome welcome in the PRC. Although Pope Pius XII had established an official independent hierarchy for China’s Church back in 1946 (making the China Jesuit Mission null and void), European bishops still retained control over more than 80 percent of the country’s dioceses. In 1951, the Communist Party expelled all missionaries and severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Chinese priests tried to convince the Communist government that the country’s Catholic Church could operate independently, but by 1955, Chinese Catholics had become targets as well, and over the course of two weeks that fall, more than 1,200 Catholic priests, nuns, and laypeople were arrested and detained.

Among those rounded up was Jin Luxian, a Shanghai-born Jesuit who had left his studies in Rome to return to China after the Communists took power. Jin spent the following 27 years under various forms of incarceration, during which time China (and the Catholic Church) underwent myriad changes. When Jin finally emerged a free man in 1982, he found himself in a society that bore little resemblance to the one from which he’d been snatched nearly three decades prior. Catholicism in China was now regulated by a Communist government agency known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Under the CPA, worship was permitted, but only within strict, carefully monitored guidelines. Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral, where Jin had been ordained in 1945, now looked like a shadow of its former self; during the Cultural Revolution, in which all religion had been completely banned, the Cathedral had been stripped of its stained glass, steeples, altar, and converted into a grain warehouse. It was now functioning as a Catholic church again, but as Adam Minter describes in his July/August Atlantic profile of Bishop Jin, things nonetheless felt amiss:

Open prayers for the pope were strictly prohibited, and scant mention of the holy father could be found in any of the crudely printed books used in the cathedral. Mass was still in Latin, unintelligible to most Chinese. The current bishop had been ordained without approval from Rome, by a Communist government determined to erase the memory of Shanghai’s still-incarcerated bishop, Ignatius Kung (Gong) Pin-mei. Everything was under the direct control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Meanwhile, an “underground” movement had been established, composed of Chinese Catholics who swore loyalty to the Vatican, refused to worship in government-registered churches, and remained loyal only to Chinese bishops who had been ordained by Rome. Worshipping in unregistered churches was strictly illegal, and those caught often faced severe punishment.

Jin Luxian was faced with a decision: Should he ally himself with the official, CPA-sanctioned Church, or join forces with the underground church, recognized and supported by the Vatican? He was a devout Roman Catholic, but after an agonizing deliberation, requiring much prayer and consolation, he decided that it was of paramount importance to build a Church in which all Chinese Catholics could practice openly and without fear. In 1985, he accepted the CPA’s nomination and was ordained an auxiliary Bishop in Shanghai.

In his comprehensive article on Jin and the wrenching compromises he has faced, Adam Minter throws into relief not only the longstanding and often turbulent relationship between the Vatican and China, but also the remarkable character of Bishop Jin – a devoutly religious man who, despite having aligned himself with China’s official Church, has nonetheless managed to reconcile with Rome and to create a Church in which China’s faithful can feel free to be both Catholic and Chinese.

Adam Minter has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among others. He has long covered China’s role in the recycling industry, and is currently working on a feature about how the U.S. and Chinese economies have been fundamentally transformed by the transpacific trade in American waste. “Keeping Faith” is his first piece for The Atlantic. We spoke by phone on May 24th.

Abigail Cutler


You’ve been living and working in China for quite some time. What brought you there?

I wish I could tell you it was a purposeful move. When I took my first trip here in 2002, I was working as a journalist in the Twin Cities, doing a little bit of trade publication stuff. I saw China developing from afar and thought there might be an opportunity for me to do some freelance work. I didn’t really know the mechanics of freelancing here, or much at all about China for that matter. And if I knew then what I know today I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do it. Anyway, I lined up about two months of work and came over to Shanghai. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know the language. I had never even had an interest in China prior to arriving here in September 2002. I thought I would stay here roughly six months, complete the few assignments I came over with and, quite honestly, fall on my face. I thought I’d come over here and get a great story about how I had failed. But things worked out. There weren’t (and still aren’t) any rules. And there wasn’t anybody to tell me how to get things done, so I kind of figured things out on my own.

As a journalist, the great advantage of coming over like that is that it forces you to learn the culture and, to an extent, the language—though that’s not as true in Shanghai, I guess. It’s completely different than coming over as a correspondent with The New York Times or something, where you’d be very much ensconced in the western expatriate culture and all its cul-de-sacs, real and figurative. As just a journalist with the barest of lifelines to sustain you, you’re going to learn the culture really quickly. I didn’t know that at the time, but looking back upon it, I’m really grateful that I jumped in that way. Had I come over with more support—as a correspondent or something—I couldn’t have gotten in as deep with the culture, found the sources I did and cultivated those relationships.

So that’s kind of how it worked out. Those first six months went well. So I thought, Let’s do another three. Then it’s a year, and that year becomes two years, and then two-and-a-half years, and suddenly I realized, Wow, I’m here. I think a journalist really needs a couple years here to get their feet wet—to become comfortable working in this culture; it’s so different from doing journalism in the U.S.

What are the biggest differences?

Well, the most obvious one is that there are no press secretaries here. There’s no communications office to call. The state Environmental Protection Agency does not have media outreach; the only way you’re going to be able to talk to people there is by developing relationships and real friendships with people—a relationship tree. The Chinese word guanxi gets at this. It’s often translated as what we call “having connections.” But it’s much more than that. It takes a lot of time to develop, unlike in the States where you can usually find a direct route right to the top. In China, the person at the top is usually not the most informed person; the person you really want to talk to is more often the second in command, or the vice chair. I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s really hard to do a story in this country without those relationships and friendships.

But for that matter, even the whole concept of friendship here is different. For example, when I was reporting on the Catholic Church, I started very, very small. It was something I had wanted to write about for a long time, so I started developing some relationships and trust. The first time I ever wrote about the Church, it was just an innocuous article for a Shanghai city magazine about the city’s international Catholic population; truthfully, that was about the only thing I could have done. Had I called up the Church and said right off the bat, “Hi, I’d like to do something about you for The Atlantic,” that would not have worked. Not here. Doing a smaller story first allowed me to come into contact with some of the players, get to know them, and develop those relationships. Reporting here is really so different—it’s hard even to compare the two.

Looking through some of your earlier writing, I noticed that you’ve written on religion before. Do you have a particular interest in the subject?

I do. I like writing about religion. I find it to be an interesting topic. My specific interest in Catholicism in China comes from my seeing it as the perfect laboratory through which to examine how Chinese civilization interacts with Western civilization. I think there’s probably no institution that epitomizes the West more perfectly than the Catholic Church. Certainly, it’s the oldest Western institution. The role it’s played in China—as far back as the sixteenth century—and the role it continues to play today is just fascinating to me. In addition to that, I find religion interesting in its own right; I also like talking to religious people—especially religious leaders—because they tend to be thoughtful people.

How did you first cross paths with Jin Luxian?

The first time I wrote something about the Church in Shanghai—that piece I did on international Catholics for City Weekend, I got to know a priest who became quite helpful to me. This priest was really supportive of my piece. Over the course of our interviews, I asked him to explain to me how the English mass was first established in Shanghai. He gave me a little bit of the history and then said, “But you know, I think you should talk to Bishop Jin about this because he can give you a much better sense of things.” I thought to myself, Wow, getting the story straight from the Bishop sounds pretty great. He gave me Jin’s phone number on a little piece of paper and told me to call him. I was nervous, so the number sat on my desk for a day or two until one afternoon I took a deep breath and decided to call. I got him on the phone right away and told him about my conversation with this other priest and conveyed my interest in talking to him about the Chinese-language Mass. I could hear papers rustling about on his desk and finally he said, “Why don’t you come by at such-and-such time on Thursday.” So I did. I showed up at the cathedral at the appointed time, was met by a nun at the gate, and led into his office in back.  When I look back on it, given the way things usually operate here, it’s just so utterly absurd that it turned out so well. I’m not sure that I’d recommend trying to do things that way all the time.

Was it very difficult getting Jin or others to open up to you? How hard is it to form these necessarily close relationships?

Journalism really is so much about luck much of the time. I was just fortunate that the first couple of priests I came into contact with had already had extensive contact with foreigners. They were willing to talk to me and they liked my initial idea of doing a story about life in Shanghai for international Catholics. And they liked how that piece turned out. All that made it possible to take the next step and go a little further with the Jin stuff. So, on the one hand, I got lucky. On the other hand, it does take several years to develop and build these kinds of relationships. The analogue is my social life—the relationships I’ve cultivated over time with my Chinese friends. The longer you know them, the deeper the relationship becomes—and the more trust develops. It’s one of the most gratifying things about being in China, actually. You can really see your relationships develop over time.

Speaking of international Catholics in Shanghai: How different is it to practice religion in China than elsewhere? What’s different, for example, about a Catholic Mass in Shanghai?

Nothing. That’s what’s so interesting about it. They have the same Mass American Catholics do; the same sacraments. And that is precisely what Jin wanted to establish. It’s perhaps his most important legacy. He feels it’s a real accomplishment to have set things up in Shanghai and elsewhere in China such that the Catholic sacraments are available to whoever wants them. You can go to Mass on Saturday night; you can go to Mass on Sunday morning. And those Masses are not going to be any different from Masses in the United States or in Europe—except that they’ll be in Chinese, of course. That’s not to say that there’s no local character to the Masses here. But at the end of the day, a Mass is a Mass. That comes as a tremendous surprise to expats here. Even in Shanghai, they’re shocked.

Why do you think that is?

I’ve given that some thought. One of the reasons, I think, is that non-Chinese—particularly Europeans and Americans—have ascribed a very different narrative to what’s happened here since 1949. The West still views China as existing in the same state of things as it did in 1949. They think, China in 1949 vs. 1970? It’s all just a Communist (capital “C”) state. But that’s not really accurate anymore; China’s a very different place today.

A second reason really has to do with simplicity. Most people in the U.S. don’t have much interest in Chinese Catholics, and so a very simple story about an underground loyal to Rome, and a “Patriotic Church” loyal to the Communist Party, suffices. Of course, the actual story—the more complicated one—can’t be explained in a single sentence, or even a single paragraph. So it goes missing.

As Catholicism—and other mainstream religions, for that matter, have increased in strength, what has happened to the more traditional Chinese philosophies, like Confucianism and Daoism? Have they experienced their own resurgence, too?

The way it works here is that there are five State-recognized religions, each of which has its own administrative apparatus: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism (it’s worth noting here that all of the Protestant sects have been placed under one umbrella—an interesting story in its own right), Daoism, and Islam. Daoism is receiving a lot of support from the Chinese government right now. There is also a bit of resurgence happening with the Confucian classics. I don’t think the government tries to hide or suppress this. After all, Daoism and Confucianism were the official philosophies and religions of the Emperor precisely because they support a very ordered concept of the universe, governed by a powerful authority at the top. So it’s not surprising to me that there's a lot of government support for these two philosophies. The really interesting revival though, in my opinion, is the resurgence of many traditional minority religions—things like animist beliefs and stuff you find out in the countryside. That stuff is coming back in a strong way. I don’t know much about it—it’s something I’d like to explore. But overall, I think it’s absolutely fair to say that China is experiencing a huge religious awakening.

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.