Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics: the big problem
José Miguel Encarnação
The uneasy relationship between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China stems from a series of events which have occurred since 1958 – the year in which the first two episcopal ordinations without a papal mandate took place – under the aegis of two new state agencies: the Department for Religious Affairs and the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics.
In the eighties, thanks in part to openness promoted by Deng Xiaoping there was a period of religious tolerance that opened the possibilities of movement and dialogue which allowed the reopening of churches, seminaries and religious institutions. The information that came from the Chinese church communities confirmed that once again, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of new Christians: faith had remained alive in the communities; most Catholics had given a fervent testimony of fidelity to Christ and the Church; and families had become the fulcrum of the transmission of the faith. However, the new climate gave rise to diverse reactions within the Catholic community.
The 2005 annual report on the status of religious freedom in the world, published by the Pontifical Foundation – Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), revealed interesting facts: «Two thousand five was characterized by China’s attempt to present itself before the international community as a country of law with respect for religious expression. For this purpose, on March 1st 2005, New Regulations were published for religious activities, the first at a national level», the document then continues: «This has not prevented the government from arresting believers and religious personnel, torturing members of various communities, destroying or seizing places of worship, prohibiting the education of young people and restricting or prohibiting contacts and movements within the country and abroad. The New Regulations provide a national framework of what is, or is not allowed in religious activities – eliminating potential abuse by local leaders – however, supporting abuses, detentions, forced re-education, bans on publications and activities».
In June 2007, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC, seeking to pre-empt the Vatican, informed through his spokesman that: «China knows that the Pope wants to send a pastoral letter to Catholics in China. We hope that the Vatican recognizes freedom of worship and religion in China and the development of the Catholic Church in China». A few days later, the content of the letter became known and left the highest authorities of the Patriotic Association somewhat angry, especially the vice president who at the time, had stated «one day, we may see the Pope in Beijing celebrating a mass for the Chinese community».
In a letter addressed to «the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and the faithful Catholics in the People’s Republic of China», Pope Benedict XVI was adamant: «In each particular Church, in order for it to be a complete Church, the supreme authority of the Church must be present, that is to say, the episcopal College together with its Head, the Roman Pontiff, and never apart from him. The communion of all the particular Churches in the one Catholic Church, and hence the ordered hierarchical communion of all the Bishops, successors of the Apostles, with the Successor of Peter, are a guarantee of the unity of the faith and life of all Catholics. It is therefore indispensable, for the unity of the Church in individual nations, that every Bishop should be in communion with the other Bishops, and that all should be in visible and concrete communion with the Pope».
Despite the fact that the words of Benedict XVI were contrary to the posturing of Beijing, the Vatican showed a great openness to dialogue when it approved the appointment of D. Li Shan, as the archbishop (official) of the diocese of Beijing. L’ Osservatore Romano however lamented the presence of non-recognised bishops at the ordination ceremony in the Holy See: «the participation in the sacramental rite of bishops that are not in communion with the Holy See caused some grief» referred the newspaper.
After a somewhat extended hiatus, 2010 marked a new chapter in the recent history of diplomatic conflicts waged between Beijing and the Holy See.
In an act of disrespect by what was agreed by the Vatican – even though no document had been signed for this purpose – the Patriotic Association preceded with the episcopal ordination of Father Lei Shiyin, who assumed his duties in the Diocese of Leshan, in the Sichuan Province. Benedict XVI felt «deeply saddened», according to a statement issued by the Holy See.
The Commission on International Religious Freedom, based in the United States, ensures that in 2010, around «five hundred Christians were arrested, especially Protestants». Catholics were also in the firing line, with «dozens of clergy members in jail or under house arrest». The Commission estimated that at least «forty bishops» were «jailed or missing».
In late 2011, the Patriotic Association ordained a new bishop, this time in the Diocese of Guangzhou (Canton). In February 2012, the Vatican delivered the cardinal signs to the bishop of Hong Kong, Bishop John Tong, and revealed to journalists shortly thereafter to be worried about the future of bishops, priests and lay people arrested by the authorities, giving as an example the bishops James D. Su Zhimin and Cosma Shi D. Enxiang.
During the first week of March of that year, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, opened the proceedings of the National Assembly; just about everything was debated, however, the topic of religion was not discussed. A month later, in April, the fifth plenary meeting of the Commission for the Catholic Church in China, composed of bishops from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, took place. The final communiqué criticised the detention of bishops in China, deliberating that Beijing had imposed unfair restrictions on the Catholic work of the Churches in the country.
Emphasised during those work sessions, were the difficulties of priests and bishops in fulfilling their pastoral activity due to arrests, persecution and restrictions imposed for their desire to remain faithful to the Pope.
Committee members are aware of the current difficulties; however, they continue to advocate that «evangelization may not be achieved by sacrificing the essential elements and discipline of Catholic faith. Obedience to Christ and the Successor of Peter is the presupposition of true renewal ».
On 24 May, the day dedicated to prayer for the Church in China, Catholics around the world – including Hong Kong and Macau – prayed for the 16 million brothers subject to the rules imposed by the Patriotic Association who live across Border Gate Portas do Cerco (the monument erected by the Portuguese administration in Macau delimiting the border between Macau and China).
The Sanctuary of Fatima in Portugal also observed the date. In Macau there are approximately 30,000 Catholics (6% of total population) while Hong Kong has just over half a million (7.5%).
The files in the Diocese of Guangzhou: an important step
In line with Shanghai and Beijing, Guangzhou (Canton), the capital of Guangdong province, was the background of numerous and important historically important moments of China. Guangzhou is invariably mentioned in the Western schools history books when it comes to the commercial importance it had in countries like England, France, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Japan and the United States.
The best example of the importance of Guangzhou for these countries is the historical Shamian Island, located within the city. Between the late eighteenth century and 1949, Shamian housed consulates, local and international banks, transport companies and import and export companies. For historical reasons, the island would become virtually owned by British and French to the extent that the French community built the Shamian Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1890. Another example of the strong French presence in Guangzhou is the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose architecture is inspired by the Basilica of Saint Clotilde in Paris.
With the implementation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the consequent expulsion of foreigners from the country, the mansions of Shamian were occupied by the population or government entities. The Shamian Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was closed and converted into warehouse. All material goods – including the files of the Catholic Church and all other religions were confiscated.
In November 2010, the Ricci Institute and the University of San Francisco announced the completion of the file scanning of the former Catholic Archdiocese of Canton. Those files have been accessible to researchers since the summer of 2011.
The said Archive gathers approximately 15,000 items (documents, plans, maps, correspondence, deeds, petitions, decrees and artifacts) for the period from 1851 to 1949, that is, since the Treaty of Nanking (1842) until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, which marks the end of Catholic missionary work in the Middle Kingdom.
Given the scarcity of diocesan and parish records from China to researchers and observers, the Archives of the old Catholic Archdiocese of Canton are an important source for the study of History of the Catholic Church in China and the diplomatic and economic relations between the country and the largest powers of Europe, that is to say, between the Far East and the West.
In Macau, the diocese has also been making contacts for the reorganisation of the Diocesan Archive, a task which has the support of the Portuguese Catholic University. It is almost 500 years of history written by the Portuguese in the South China Sea, which coincides with the conversion of many thousands of Chinese to Catholicism and to new religious rites and social customs.
Conclusion: 1 – The limitations imposed on the PRC’s Media today are mainly applied by the governments of the provinces and not by the Central Government. 2 – The lack of religious freedom favours the Patriotic Association, which is responsible for managing the tangible and intangible heritage of the Catholic Church in the country. 3 – The vast majority of the Archives of parishes remain barred to researchers and observers, preventing journalists to pursue their professional activity.
Sources are crucial to quench the thirst for knowledge. Without sources, man is a mere spectator, a regime puppet, eventually moving away from himself, others and God.