China’s Catholic Moment

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For the most part, Chinese Christianity remains an unstable mixture of Christian and traditional elements. The ambiguity of Christian belief has its counterpart in instability on the ground. There have been reports recently, from provinces such as Hebei, of fights between villages in the name of religion. Neighboring villages who have joined different Christian or Buddhist sects have come to blows. Hebei is China’s heartland; it was the breeding ground for the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising by militant traditionalists who fought Western influences at the turn of the twentieth century. Keenly aware of the violent history of religion in China, Beijing wants to suppress the potential for clashes over religion.

That helps explain Beijing’s special interest in Catholicism as a potential unifying force. On the face of it, the loosely organized and geographically dispersed Protestant churches may seem less of a threat to party rule than does the international organization and unity of the Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church remains of far greater interest to the authorities than the amorphous and sometimes ephemeral denominations that comprise the “house churches.”

That is partly because China’s Catholics have shown no interest in politics, despite decades of repression: During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, for example, Bishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong ordered priests and congregants to keep out of the demonstrations. But the Communist party’s attitude has much to do as well with their worries about the unstable combination of traditional elements among the endlessly diverse Chinese Protestants.

Beijing views the Catholic Church as an unambiguously Western embodiment of Christianity, untainted by syncretic confusion and therefore indispensable to the Westernization of China. The Chinese government wants to deal with a Christian Church that preaches values compatible with modernization, preferably one that has a transparent and coherent organization. Although its public stance is positive toward Christianity in general, in practice the government’s efforts to develop relations with Christians have been concentrated on the Catholic Church. Chinese diplomacy has devoted a disproportionate amount of attention to the revival of relations between Beijing and the Vatican.

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