Underground Church Thrives as Opposition's Battle Begins





[This is an article written by Paul Mooney twelve years ago. He is a freelance journalist in Beijing. He has contributed articles to Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Asian Wall Street Journal.] 

Father Liao Haiqing was saying Mass for about 200 Catholics at 6:30am one day in Fuzhou, Jiangxi province, when 20 police officers and officials of the Religious Affairs Bureau suddenly burst into his house and demanded he leave with them immediately. 

When the worshippers asked them to wait until Mass was over, the public security officers interrupted communion services and began breaking icons and confiscating religious articles. 

Liao was dragged off to jail for the fourth time. 

When the body of Bishop Joseph Fan Xueyan was returned to his family in 1992, there were bruises on his forehead and cheek, and both legs appeared dislocated blow the knee.  

The 85-year-old Fan, the clandestine bishop of the Baoding diocese in Hebei province and one of the most influential underground bishops, had died in police custody just three days earlier, one day before his 10-year prison sentence was to end. 

These are just two examples. The Puebla Institute, a human rights organization based in Washington DC, has reported that more than 70 Catholics are still languishing in Chinese prisons or in “old people’s homes”, a euphemism for administrative detention without any need for charges, trials or appeals. 

Their crime? Refusal to renounce their loyalty to the Vatican and submit their conscience and faith to the communist-controlled Catholic Church of China. 

Considering the constant threat of harassment and arrest, it is a wonder the unofficial church has survived. For the most part, it operates clandestinely, with Catholics in many areas forced to gather secretly to hear Mass. 

Ageing bishops secretly train seminarians in small groups of two or three in their homes. But without up-to-date materials and access to the outside world, many underground priests remain unaware of all the changes in the church and of advances in biblical and theological studies of the past 30 years. 

As a result, the training is patchy and the priests ordained often inferior to those turned out by official seminaries. 

Yet the underground church is thriving. 

“Poverty and persecution seem to bring people closer to God and to the faith,” said Father John McCarthy, a priest in Hong Kong. “There is the phenomenon, proven in places like Yugoslavia, Poland and Mexico, that wherever there is persecution the church survives.” 

The difference between the unofficial and the official church is like night and day. The official church has been growing in recent years under china’s more open policies, and as more and more people – disillusioned with communism—turn to Christianity. New churches are opening all over China and 50,000 baptisms are being recorded each year.  

The Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in southern China last December celebrated the ordination of the Chinese-appointed Bishop Cai Siufeng. Cai, Guangxi’s first bishop in more than 40 years was released from prison in 1980 after having spent more than 20 years in jail. 

After more than 30 years of submitting to government control, the official church is now struggling to wrest its independence from the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), set up by the government in 1957 to oversee its affairs. 

One aspect of this trend is growing ties with the universal Catholic Church. 

Despite rumours that the CPA would be made subordinate to the Chinese bishops’ conference, in most areas control actually rests with whoever has more power – the CPA or the local bishop. 

Jin Luxian, the official bishop of Shanghai and the man credited for some of the recent advances in the church, symbolizes the dilemma of many Catholic priests in the official church. 

“In Rome, they say I am loyal to Beijing; in Beijing, they say I am loyal to Rome,” Jin told Newsweek magazine in 1991. “Maybe it is my fate to be suspected by both sides.” 

The most serious challenge to state control of the official church came in mid-April when more than 40 of the 54 seminarians at the official Sichuan Catholic Theological and Philosophical college baulked after the provincial branches of the CPA and the religious Affairs Bureau replaced the official Bishop Joseph Xu Zhixuan, deputy rector of the seminary, with a non-Catholic government cadre from the bureau. 

Seminarians walked out of the school and returned home, refusing demands by the CPA that they return to their classes until Xu was reinstated. 

After negotiations with the government failed, Xu joined the boycott and returned to his home diocese. The official Bishop John Chen Shizhong of Yibin, the titular rector of the seminary, said some of the bishops on the board of directors preferred to close it down than to let it be run by a government official. 

It is changes like these that are blurring the divisions that have existed between Catholics for close to four decades, winning over many underground followers who once shunned official priests and their church as puppets of the communists. 

Today, many Catholics attend services in both churches, and some official churches have even established ties with underground churches. 

The more tolerant unofficial bishops, aware that government seminaries offer better grounding in theology, send their young seminarians there for training. Some former underground priests have also gone over to the official church, giving outside assent to the party, while internally acknowledging the universal church. 

“Even some of the bishops who have recently been in jail because of their stance on the Vatican have come out and worked through the official church,” said Father Anthony Chang, a Hong Kong Chinese priest who has been working with the church in China since 1979. “They see it is a different situation now.” 

Still, the Vatican faces the formidable task of reconciling a bitterly divided flock. The more radical underground Chinese Catholics, many of whom have suffered bitterly for close to four decades for their refusal to renounce their loyalty to Rome – sometimes at the hands members of the official church – now worry they will be sacrificed for the sake of compromise.  

Rumours last year that the Vatican was preparing to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing prompted a group of three bishops and nine priests to send a letter to the Pope after a secret meeting in northwest China.

The letter, purportedly sent on behalf of the unofficial bishops’ conference, is believed to have been motivated by events in eastern Europe, where underground church leaders were forced to make further sacrifices for the sake of church unity after the fall of communism. 

The underground priests expressed a fear that their interests might be offered up on the altar of compromise. “It is well known that a number of the underground church members do not have full confidence in the Holy See to negotiate on their behalf,” wrote one Catholic scholar analyzing the letter. The underground church, he went on, “doesn’t not want to see decades of painful and often heroic resistance shunted aside and ignored as if it had no value”. 

The letter made it plain that there was little room for compromise, at least among these more outspoken representatives of the underground church. 

The group told the Pope that church and state must be separate, that the CPA and the official bishop’s conference should be disbanded, and that official bishops should acknowledge their errors, make a public profession of repentance, a and join the loyal bishops” conference. Furthermore, they said diocesan boundaries should be redrawn, with loyal bishops occupying the most important sees. 

Some of those who attended this meeting are believed to have since been arrested. 

Many underground priests remain adamantly opposed to the official church. 

“There are certain areas where the priests say the official church is the devil’s church and that the sacraments celebrated there are not valid,” said a Hong Kong Chinese priest who frequently visits China. “They say if you are baptized there you must be baptized again. Many Catholics are stuck in the middle.” 

The 13 points issued by Fan in 1988 forbade Catholics from participating in the Masses and sacraments offered by official priests. 

Some candidates for the priesthood who study in the official seminaries often refuse to be ordained by the official bishop, preferring to seek out an unofficial bishop for ordination and then go to work in an underground parish. 

Catholics in Hong Kong working closely with the church on the mainland have sympathy for those underground Catholics who have suffered for their faith, but they are critical of the lack of tolerance for the official church, an attitude they characterize as unchristian. Many overseas Catholics see their mission as reconciling the two churches. 

It is difficult to see, however, how the church can be united without sacrificing the interests of one side or the other. 

One especially sticky point will be deciding who the real bishops are. 

Underground bishops have frequently ordained their successors before going off to jail, meaning that many areas have three or four bishops, in addition to the officially appointed ones. 

While the ordination of the latter is technically illicit because they were not appointed by the Pope, there official bishops are valid under canon law, as the bishops that ordained them were appointed by the Vatican, meaning that the apostolic line has not been broken. 

China-watchers say that compromise could be worked out by redrawing diocese to make them smaller, providing each of the bishops with his own diocese. 

An Italian Jesuit who has been a China-watcher for several decades said that many of the bishops and priests “are certainly in communion with the universal church and the People in their hearts” and that most would be accepted by the Vatican. 

“The church of China is not a schismatic church,” he said. “When the time comes, it will be united again.” However, it would be naïve to think that the Chinese government would allow the leaders of the underground church to play a dominant role in any unified church, giving the Vatican little room for manoeuvre. 

“The Vatican is in a bind if it recognizes the Jins and lets down the unofficial church,” one European priest who has been active in China said. “But it is also in a bind if it does not.” 

“I think that if Rome did compromise that the hurt would be there and it would be very deep. I think this is Rome’s prime concern.”

© Paul J. Mooney 2013