The Past and Future of Catholics in China

Tongxin Lu '11
Tongxin Lu '11
Over the past 60 years, the People’s Republic of China has had a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church. Since the communist state first obliterated almost all religious representation, it has gradually opened up. Funded by a Levitt grant and with the guidance of Professor of History Douglas Ambrose, Tongxin Lu ’11 is evaluating the status and future of the Catholic Church in China.

In 1951, two years after Mao Zedong declared China a communist country, the new Chinese government broke off relations with the envoy of the Catholic Church called the Holy See, making China one of only 16 internationally recognized states without association with the Catholic Church. But as China has become more open in the past 20 years, the two international powerhouses have again resumed discussion.
The Chinese government has agreed to reestablish relations with the Holy See on two conditions: that it will not interfere with religious issues in China, and that it will break relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan). The Holy See has agreed to the second condition, but it is still negotiating exactly what the first condition means.

The central issue in these negotiations is the Chinese government’s sensitivity to any challenges to its centralized power and nationalism. This conflict embodies itself in the debate of who has the power to appoint bishops. While China thinks that it should be able to appoint its own bishops, the Holy See believes that only the Pope has this right. Similarly, the Chinese are wary of their perception of history; for example, the Chinese-Vatican relations came to a sudden halt in 2000 when Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, which the Beijing Foreign Affairs Ministry called "an evident provocation and an attempt to distort the verdict of history on colonialism and imperialism.”

So, despite the fact that negotiations have been taking place since the early 1990s, the relationship between the Holy See and China is far from stable. “The future relations between the two countries depend on whether China grants more religious freedom and interferes less in the hierarchy of the church on mainland China as well as how well the government and the Holy See reconcile historical misunderstandings,” Lu said.

To try to predict the future, Lu is turning to the past. She is reading many of China’s legal documents regarding religion to better understand the status of the Church (and other religious institutions) in the world’s most populous country. She is comparing these documents to the letter Pope Benedict XVI addressed to “the bishops, priests, consecrated persons, and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China” in 2007. She is also reading several books on the issue and even flew to Hong Kong to discuss her research with Dr. Anthony S.K. Lam, the author of multiple books about Christianity in modern China.

“I'm doing this research because of my newfound interest in law and politics in relation to social justice,” Lu said. Although she believes that the neither the Chinese government nor the Holy See will compromise its belief in its own authority, she also thinks that a reconciliation between the two is possible. “Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est claims that ‘a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church,’ and the Chinese government does uphold the separation of church and state. My research will not only help me to understand the Church’s history in China, but also to realize that China’s future diplomatic relations with Holy See is only a step toward religious freedom in China.”

Lu is a graduate of the Wuhan Foreign Languages School in Wuhan, China.
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