These articles are intended to present a very particular reality, which plays a determining role in the life of the Catholics in China, either by conscripting them under the banner of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or by casting them back into the catacombs. The article has been published on the website of the Foreign Missions of Paris. This presentation will allow the uninformed reader to understand what are the stakes of the agreement between China and the Vatican, which should be renewed in October.
40 years after the founding of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, it is possible to make a more complete assessment of the events that marked this era and to decipher the design and the objectives that the leaders of the CCP had set themselves and that they intended to achieve through its creation.
From this perspective of more than four decades, the skillfulness of this plan has to be acknowledged. Its was carried out with meticulous patience and constancy, and produced reasonably good fruits from the point of view of the action of the Party who launched this initiative.
“Reasonably good,” because in their early stages, these results are precarious and soulless, resulting from a desire for manipulation and constraint that is not always very well veiled. The “fruits,” of the patriotic structure of the official Church in China, are neither the product of theological thought or the spiritual inspiration of believers.
Every step shows their forced character. These “fruits” are ready to disappear as soon as circumstances allow. It is no coincidence that the calls to “strengthen” the role of the Association, which the leaders never miss an opportunity to address to the most docile part of the Church, have become constant.
The patriotic “structure” of the official Church in China is the element which characterizes it and denotes its intrinsic weakness. It is a structure that the regime imposed and still imposes against the Catholic Church, thus following a constant plan. It is again this structure that makes it a docile instrument in the hands of the regime.
But this structure makes it suspect to many and unacceptable to so many others. It feeds the conflict with the universal Church and with the See of Peter. It is at the origin of the break which has deepened within the Chinese Church and which divides believers between official and unofficial, patriotic and clandestine, docile to the demands of the regime and firmly intransigent on fully Catholic positions.
Surprisingly, this structural element (which the Party has never wanted to discuss, and on which it has never made any concessions or compromises) is an aspect that is largely ignored and totally undervalued. They observe things superficially and everything seems to be quiet. But the “mines” are constantly active, very close to the ecclesial foundations.
The “Official” Structure of the Church in China
Only after four decades is it possible to understand it clearly. The different pieces of the puzzle have slowly fallen into place, building the currently known scenario. The official structure of the Church within the Chinese borders may be summarized as follows.
The “highest authority” resides in the National Conference of Chinese Catholic Representatives, convened every five years. The bishops recognized as such by the regime are part of it, as well as the highest officials at the national level of the Patriotic Association of Catholics (APC) and the representatives elected by the ecclesiastical constituencies among priests, religious, and lay people.
The Ninth Conference was held from December 27 to 29, 2016. The Conference of Representatives has the task of electing all leaders of the Chinese College of Bishops and the Patriotic Association.
The Catholic Church is officially described as being “independent and autonomous” (art. 2 of the statutes of the episcopal college). Officially, no link is provided between the official Church and the universal Church and no role is explicitly recognized for the Successor of Peter.
The appointment of bishops (elected in principle by the various ecclesiastical constituencies) falls within the competence of the Standing Committee of the College of Bishops, which gives the green light to episcopal ordination (instead of the papal bull).
This college must discuss “important issues with the leaders of the APC.” This text does not specify which issues should be considered important.
How did they come to create this structure? What were the important moments and steps taken that led the Church in the People's Republic of China to where it is now?