The Church in China: A Tight Rope Act | EWTN Norge

The Church in China: A Tight Rope Act | EWTN Norge

The Church in China: A Tight Rope Act

The Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have never had formal diplomatic relations. Under Pope Francis, the two have come closer than ever since the communist revolution of 1949. But it is still a complex relationship. An agreement found in 2018 allows both sides to influence the appointment of Catholic bishops. At the same time, the Vatican urged Chinese Catholics to join the official Church in China.

Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, Bishop of Shanghai, explained, “The Chinese government has implemented a policy of religious freedom and has not sought to change the Catholic faith. It only hopes that Catholic church leaders and educators will stand on the side of the Chinese people, free from foreign control.”

A century ago, the First Council of the Catholic Church in China convened in Shanghai in May and June 1924. This historic event brought together over 100 bishops, vicars general, and religious leaders, including native Chinese participants for the first time, who could shape the future of the Church in China. Led by Archbishop (and future Cardinal) Celso Costantini, the council aimed to begin ecclesial inculturation, emphasizing the indigenization of the Chinese Church and separating missions from colonial influences.

The Professor of the History of China at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Elisa Maria Giunipero noted the significance of the 1924 Council. “In 1924,” she said, “the Church in China was still led by foreign missionaries. The Council of Shanghai, the First Chinese Council, pushed for localization and the creation of a church that was no longer missionary but distinctly Chinese. This meant a church primarily led by Chinese clergy and bishops.”

To commemorate this pivotal event, the Vatican organized a conference. It focused on the council's historical legacy and shed a light on the current tensions the Church in China endures.

Giunipero continued, “The Church has a long history of adapting to the Chinese context, which can be understood in a cultural sense, as well as in an ecclesial and pastoral sense. Today in China, adaptation to the political context is being promoted.”

For the conference, Pope Francis sent a video message:

“Remembering the Council of Shanghai can also suggest today new paths to the entire Church and open paths to be undertaken with boldness to proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel in the present.”

One of the most anticipated appearances at the conference was made by the chairman of the Chinese Bishops’ conference, Bishop Shen Bin. Last year, he was unilaterally appointed as Bishop of Shanghai in April 2023 without a papal mandate, thereby breaking the terms of the contested 2018 Sino-Vatican Accord.

“We should not forget the starting point we have today,” the Bishop reminded. “It was Archbishop Costantini's dedication to rooting the Gospel of Christ in Chinese soil, adapting it to Chinese society and culture, and his efforts in preaching in China that faced much opposition.”

Bishop Shen Bin, chairman of the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference — a government-controlled body not recognized by the Holy See — is the leading prelate of the official Catholic Church in China.

This official Church is distinct from the underground Church, which consists of Catholics resisting government control. China is home to an estimated 10 million Catholics.

Bishop Shen emphasized the importance of “sinicization,” a policy aimed at making Catholicism more Chinese and aligning it with Communist Party ideology.

In China, Catholic priests can only minister in recognized places of worship where minors under 18 are not permitted. Additionally, religious groups are prohibited from conducting any online religious activities without prior approval from the provincial Department of Religious Affairs.

Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also spoke at the conference.

“This obedience to the Pope,” Cardinal Parolin stated, “not only does not harm the love each must have for their country but purifies, renews, and revives it. The Pope wants Chinese Catholics to love their country and be the best among its citizens. The Pope loves all nations as God, whose representative he is, loves China, your noble great nation, and does not place it after any other nation.”

Reflecting on the 100 years that have passed since the Council of Shanghai, we should heed Cardinal Parolin’s words that, serving the pope does not mean you are betraying your country: “Obedience to the Pope enlivens love for country.”

Adapted by Jacob Stein

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