“We Are Brothers”

In China today, the lines that separate the government-approved Catholic Patriotic Association from the underground Church are not always clear. And underground Catholics hope and pray that their brothers in the “official” Church will join them, restoring the unity of Chinese Catholicism.

Obeying God Rather Than Men

(Editor's Note: This is the second in a 5-part series of articles that will take you behind the scenes into the lives and struggles of our Chinese brothers and sisters. Please read their letter to you.)

Before 1958, when the Communist government set up the Patriotic Association, all Catholics belonged to the same Church, in communion with the Pope. Even after the new “official” Church was established, most Catholics remained loyal at heart, faithful to the Holy See even if they were ostensibly taking their lead from the Beijing government.

Today the loyal Catholics of the underground Church are quick to express their gratitude toward those members of the Patriotic Association who provide them with support and encouragement, to the priests and bishops of the “official” Church who quietly protect and minister to them, and to all Catholics who join them in prayer for the unity of the Church–which, they insist, must be built upon union with Rome.

At the same time, loyal Catholics refuse to back off their contention that while their underground parishes are illegal under Chinese law, the Catholic Patriotic Association is illegal under the terms of Church law. The appointment of bishops in the “official” Church, the note, is completely at odds with the Code of Canon Law.

Suffering Separately

While the Patriotic Association was set up with the government's approval, its members have not been spared from official abuse. During the early days of the Communist regime all Catholics were subject to brutal persecution. Then, with the creation of the Patriotic Association, some Catholics bought a measure of security by vowing to break off relations with the Vatican and establish an independent national Catholic Church. These “official” Catholics were allowed to practice their faith openly, while the faithful of the underground Church remained the object of official repression.

However, the public stature of the Patriotic Catholic Association made its members particularly vulnerable during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Catholics–even those who belonged to the recognized parishes–were frequently paraded in public, wearing placards that identified them as superstitious fools and enemies of the state. Some were imprisoned; others were forced to renounce their faith entirely. Clerics were instructed to tell their parishioners that the faith was nonsense, and to “confess” that they were the agents of a reactionary, imperialistic power. Some priests were killed, and a few committed suicide because they could not bear the humiliation.

Ironically, the Catholic priests who were already imprisoned, because they refused to forsake their ties with Rome, were spared from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Life in prison was harsh, but it was not chaotic, and they could practice their faith without harassment. Many Catholic prisoners used their time behind bars to cultivate ascetical practices, and drew new strength by the experience. Since the collective farms on which prisoners labored were located principally in remote rural areas, where official oversight was lax, some priests managed to evangelize the people, and administer the sacraments.

The Government Program

Since 1978 the Chinese government has claimed to respect the religious freedom of its people, and many Catholic bishops and priests have been released from jail. Although the underground Church is still troubled by sporadic crackdowns, in which clerics are arrested and parishes closed down, the lines of demarcation between “underground” and “official” parishes have become blurred.

As a matter of policy, the Beijing regime still considers the underground Church a threat, and promotes the Patriotic Association as a legal alternative. Government policies support the growth of an independent Catholic presence, separate from Rome. Beijing has appointed its own bishops for the “official” Church in defiance of Rome. Priests are encouraged to marry, and provided with a living allowance if they serve in recognized parishes.

The most dramatic recent clash between the Catholic Patriotic Association and the underground Church came in October 2000, when Pope John Paul II presided at the beatification of 120 Chinese martyrs. The Beijing government violently denounced both the ceremony and the martyrs, claiming that the missionaries honored by the Holy See had been guilty of “monstrous crimes” as they imposed an alien ideology on the people of China. In apparent retaliation, the government announced the appointment of five new “official” bishops, who were consecrated in defiance of Rome in a highly publicized ceremony on January 6, 2001, in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in Catholic World Report and is adapted with permission.

Here is the previous installment of Pan Zhen's “China: Notes from the Underground” series:

Part 1: China: Notes from the Underground

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