The Chinese Communist party has proclaimed the independence of the nationalized Catholic church from Rome, insisting that the church adhere to a program of “self-governance.”
In a statement released after this week’s National Congress of Chinese Catholic Representatives in Beijing, participants reasserted the autonomy of the Chinese Catholic Church from Rome.
“Sticking to the principle of independence and self-governance as well as a system of national congresses embodies the self-esteem and confidence of the Catholic Church in China. They are the foundation of the church’s existence,” the statement read.
Under the guise of local church “autonomy,” Beijing has sought greater control over the Catholic Church in China, insisting that bishops be named by the local Chinese Catholic community under the auspices of the Communist party. It has also refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope in ecclesiastical decisions, claiming that as head of a foreign state, the Pope has no right to interfere in local matters.
The Catholic Church in China has been split into underground and open communities since 1958, with the latter going by the title of the Patriotic Catholic Association under immediate control of the Communist party. A Vatican document of 1988 barred Roman Catholics from participating in the sacraments of the Patriotic Church, since the association “had broken all relationships with the pope” and would be “under the direct control of the government.”
The latest power play follows on a progressive assertion of state control over religious bodies under the regime of President Xi Jinping. As Beijing continues to tighten its grip on religious practice, however, more and more Christians are opting out of the official, state-recognized church and heading underground.
Currently, some six million Catholics have refused to join churches recognized by the Communist party and have chosen to worship in illegal “house churches,” where they can remain loyal to the Vatican.
For many Chinese Catholics faithful to Rome, this week’s meeting of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Chinese Bishops Conference resembles a “a staged theatrical representation” more than a true assembly of a community of faith.
In the meeting, senior Communist party leader Yu Zhengsheng told participants that Catholics should “run their church independently and better integrate it into society.”
“The church should adhere to the principles of self-administration, run religious affairs independently and guide believers to adhere to the Sinicization path of the religion,” he said, referring to a Chinese identity free of western influence.
Yu’s words were echoed by Patriotic Bishop Ma Yinglin, who said in his closing speech Thursday that the Chinese Catholic Church will stick to its Sinicization path, adapt to the socialist society and align itself closely with the Communist Party of China with General Secretary Xi Jinping at its core.
Bishop Ma, who was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2006, was re-elected as president of the Bishops Conference of Catholic Church of China.
Earlier this week, Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), said that the Chinese church should “lead Catholic personnel and followers in line with the CPC [Communist Party of China] Central Committee, with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the core.”
Alhough the Chinese Communist party is the largest explicitly atheist organization in the world, with 85 million official members, it is now surpassed by an estimated 100 million Christians in China, which helps explain Beijing’s intense crackdown on Christian groups.
Christianity is growing so fast in China that some predict that it will be the most Christian nation in the world in only another 15 years.
The greatest growth is occurring in unofficial Protestant “house churches” and in the underground Catholic church, outside the official state-sanctioned churches considered subservient to the Communist party.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome