China's Catholics pray as Communist Party and Holy See lock horns

Beijing Letter: Election of bishops a key to power struggle for China’s Catholics

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, China's oldest Catholic church, has been at the burning heart of struggles between religious conviction and political zealotry during five centuries of upheaval.

Overlooked by a large painting of the Virgin Mary hanging behind the pulpit, the cathedral boasts strong attendances at its Masses, of which there are three on ordinary days and five on Sundays. Several parts of the liturgy are sung, with some short sections in Latin.

The two altar boys serving Mass are elderly men, while the largely female choir sits in the southern part of the cathedral. Electric fans on the columns whirr softly; it’s 33 degrees outside. The confessionals at the back have the 10 commandments written in Chinese.

Established by the Jesuits in 1601 during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), this run-down but elegant house of God has been wrecked by fire and earthquakes and sacked during the Boxer Uprising and the Cultural Revolution.


Tridentine Masses

Popularly known as Nan Tang (South Church), the cathedral has Tridentine Latin Masses, as well as in English and Italian, but most are in Chinese.

Famous churchmen include the leading Jesuit missionaries to China, such as Matteo Ricci in the late 16th century, who expanded what was a chapel into a church. Ricci's 1602 map of the world in Chinese, printed at the request of the Wanli emperor, shared European geographic knowledge with China, including the first reference to America.

Ricci and Francis Xavier are commemorated in bronze statues outside the church.

These days the relationship between the powers that be and the church is more fraught. The challenge is to bring together the unofficial or underground wing, whose first loyalty is to the Vatican, and the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CCPA).

It's difficult to quantify how many Catholics there are in China, largely because the underground church is by its very nature secret. The Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong puts the total number of Catholics in China at 12 million, but other estimates say it could be as high as 30 million.

The soft voices piping through the calm cathedral belie the church’s tumultuous history.

In 1720 and 1730 the cathedral was destroyed by earthquakes, and damaged by a fire in 1775. The church was confiscated by the Qing government in the 19th century and razed during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, along with most of Beijing’s churches. It was rebuilt in 1904.

To access the baroque-style edifice today, you cross the east courtyard then pass through a Chinese traditional moon gate. Entering the cathedral compound you pass a grotto to the Virgin Mary, the characters “wan fu”, or “hail Mary” carved below the statue.

Religions were targeted during the decade known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and the cathedral was redeployed as a toy factory, reopening only in 1979, minus its stained-glass windows. Now it is the main cathedral of the Chinese capital and the seat of the Beijing diocese.

These signs of neglect show how China’s churches have been steeped in an ideological dislike of religion since the fiercely secular Communists came to power in 1949.

Ordination of bishops

The power struggle between the Communist Party and the Catholic Church is focused on the ordination of bishops. Every bishop recognised by Beijing must be a member of the CCPA.

There are seven bishops appointed by the CCPA but not recognised by the Vatican, then 20 bishop candidates who have been appointed by the Holy See, and in come cases already secretly ordained.

Then there are another 40 “underground” bishops whose legitimacy is accepted only by the Vatican and who live in constant danger of arrest. About 60 bishops are recognised by both the Holy See and the CCPA.

The archbishop of Beijing is Joseph Li Shan, who is one of the few Catholic bishops recognised by both the CCPA and the Vatican. There is talk of rapprochement, of the Holy See switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, but it ebbs and flows.

Both the Vatican and the Communist Party are masters at biding their time, at taking the long view. Pope Francis expressed optimism in June but two months later Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, wrote an article in the bimonthly journal Qiushi saying religion in China had to follow the principle of "Sinification" under the guidance of the Communist Party.

“Our country’s religious groups and religious matters do not accept domination by foreign forces,” he wrote.

Back in South Church, when it comes to the sign of peace, there are no handshakes. People put their palms together and bow to their neighbours around the church, and others several pews away – smiling, respectful but cautious.