Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Chinese Catholic Church under the Xi Administration: Reading the Future of the Catholic Church’s “Sinicization”
UENO Kagefumi / Civilizational Thinker

March 6, 2018
For the Vatican (hereinafter referred to as Rome), which has been distressed by a decline in its European believers, China with its population of 1.3 billion is highly alluring in terms of the potential it presents for increasing its followership. Rome has thus kept up talks with Beijing with a view to improving relations with China - such as resuming diplomatic relations and smoothing out church-related issues. The “sinicization” of religions per se, propounded by General Secretary Xi Jinping in his work report at the 19th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2017, must have disconcerted Rome. This essay looks at the future of the Chinese Catholic Church under the Xi Administration.

First, a word on the current picture. The Catholic Church in China is supposed to submit to the supervision of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CCPA), an organization tied to the Beijing Government. In reality, however, two distinct types of churches coexist in China: “underground” churches that stay out of the CCPA, evading its control and adhering only to the Papal will, and “official” churches under the CCPA’s control(*1).

The Chinese Authority would prefer to draw the underground churches into its orbit. But their resistance is so strong that Beijing has been abstaining from steamrollering its way through (although sporadic arm-twisting is seen, such as the detainment of clerics and destruction of church buildings). Rome, for its part, would like to support the underground churches, but the “wall” built by Chinese Authority prevents it from doing so. Both Rome and Beijing have had little success in sorting out the conflicting status quo---a peculiar equilibrium wherein two divergent groups of churches exist side by side.

How far does Xi intend to push ahead the sinicization of the Catholic Church? Does he want to completely sever it from Rome, as Henry VIII of Britain did nearly five centuries ago, and transform it into something else entirely (complete sinicization)? So long as “official” churches are concerned, sinicization has already been achieved, inasmuch as they are not under the Papal umbrella; the remaining targets are underground churches. An ordinary view may be that Beijing will resort to strong-arm tactics to cut these churches’ ties with Rome. I am of the view, however, that Xi will refrain from aiming for complete sinicization and let things be as they are, for reasons that I set forth later.

One issue that epitomizes the paradox between official and underground churches is the issue of who has the authority to appoint bishops. As a universal church, the Roman Catholic Church decrees that bishops worldwide are to be exclusively appointed by Pope himself. Beijing, meanwhile, does not recognize the Papal authority on the matter, positioning the appointment of bishops as an internal affair. And so, Rome and Beijing remain at odds over the appointment of bishops; they are currently locked in negotiations in hopes of working out a narrow compromise that is acceptable to both parties.

While that may be the case by official version, the reality looks somewhat different. As of the end of 2017, China had about 100 bishops, out of whom 65 belonged to official churches and 36 to underground churches. But of the 65 CCPA-ordained bishops, 60 were also recognized by Rome. This grayness, whereby 90 percent of “official” bishops are dually approved by Rome and Beijing, may be the key to reading the future of the Chinese Catholic Church.

Looking beneath the surface, here are what we see:

● Most “gray” bishops are first appointed by Beijing and later confirmed by Rome. Beijing condones Rome’s confirmation of bishops whom it has already appointed.
● Many gray bishops value their ties with the Pope, even though being under CCPA supervision.
● The Xi administration has not appointed any bishops whom Rome might find unagreeable.
● A not-insignificant number of believers frequent both official and underground churches.

Thus, more “intermingling” is taking place between the Beijing and Rome sides than one might expect---which the general secretary seem to accept. It may well be that Beijing has a reason to be prepared to care about Rome as long as the basic principle of sinicization is warranted(*2). Although the Xi administration is now tightening its control across the board, including on religious matters (a trend that is certain to go further), with regard to the Catholic Church, it has been surprisingly soft-handed, allowing things to stand in their present “gray” state, and is expected to stay the course. But that is about as far as it can go as it has to meet both the conflicting demands of sinicization and care for Rome. Crucial issues like the status of underground churches may well remain nebulous for the time being (*3).

The very lack of diplomatic ties or a channel of dialogue between China and Rome (the Vatican) is unsound, including the fact that Rome has no means of directly making claim to Beijing. If dialogue with Rome makes Beijing a bit more accommodating about religion (though the chances are slim), that would be a lucky break. As the first step toward normalization, it is to be hoped that a compromise can be reached on the issue of who appoints bishops in China, thereby narrowing a sense of distance between the Two.
(*1) Of the roughly 12 million Catholics in China, it is estimated that 6–8 million belong to “unofficial” churches, compared to 4–6 million, “official” churches.
(*2) Whether to impress on the global community its reconciliation with the Holy See or to get the latter to “sever” diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Beijing needs Rome’s cooperation.
(*3) Continuation of the status quo means that occasional “harassments,” such as clerics being detained and churches being demolished, will continue as well.

UENO Kagefumi is former Ambassador to the Holy See.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

上野 景文 / 文明論考家

2018年 3月 6日













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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Chinese Catholic Church under the Xi Administration: Reading the Future of the Catholic Church’s “Sinicization”