Top Vatican Official Embraces ‘Sinicization’ of Christian Faith in China

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The Vatican’s Foreign Minister said that the two principles of “Sinicization” and “inculturation” are the key to the future of Christianity in China, as the Vatican reportedly draws nearer to a historic agreement with the Chinese government.

“Sinicization,” or assimilation into a Chinese culture and worldview, has been a leitmotiv of the government under Xi Jinping, who has sought progressively greater control over all institutions active on Chinese soil, notably religious institutions.

President Xi has made it clear that all religions active in China must be “Sinicized,” or rendered compatible with the beliefs and programs of Communist China and purged of western influence and control.

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, embraced the concept in his opening address at an international conference on Christianity in China, held at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome last week.

it seems clear that the mission of the Church in China today is one of being “fully Catholic and genuinely Chinese,” making the Gospel of Jesus available to all and placing it at the service of the common good, Gallagher said.

As the fruit of the seed of the Gospel, the Catholic community in China is developing in a manner corresponding to its “genetic identity,” the archbishop said, assuming “characteristics proper to the local culture in which it was sown.”

When considering mission and theological reflection, he said, “two expressions or, more precisely, two principles stand out, which should interact with each other, namely ‘Sinicization’ and ‘inculturation.’ I am convinced that an important intellectual and pastoral challenge arises in an almost natural way from the bringing together of these two terms, which indicate two real visions of the world.”

“From these two visions, it should be possible to work out the coordinates of an authentic Christian presence in China, which could present the special nature and the newness of the Gospel in a context deeply rooted in the specific identity of the age-old Chinese culture,” he said.

The ruling Communist party and President Xi Jinping have made their understanding of Sinicization abundantly clear.

In late 2016, the Chinese Communist party reaffirmed the absolute independence of the nationalized Catholic church from Rome, insisting that the church in China adhere to a program of “self-governance.”

In an official statement released after the 2016 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.

As Beijing has tightened its grip on religious practice, more and more Christians have opted out of the official, state-recognized church and headed underground.

Approximately six million Catholics have refused to join churches recognized by the Communist party and have chosen instead to worship in illegal “house churches,” where they can remain loyal to the Vatican.

In the 2016 meeting of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Chinese Bishops Conference, described as a “staged theatrical representation” rather than a true assembly of a community of faith, 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 that the Chinese Catholic Church will stick to its Sinicization path, conform to socialist society and align itself closely with the Communist Party of China with General Secretary Xi Jinping at its head.

Bishop Ma, who was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2006, was re-elected as president of the Bishops Conference of Catholic Church of China.

At the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Congress last October, the head of the umbrella agency that oversees religion insisted that “socialist core values” must be at the heart of any religious faith active in China.

The Catholic Church, on the contrary, has rejected socialism in all its forms as incompatible with the Christian faith. “Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism,” wrote Pope Pius XI, “cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.”

Zhang Yijiong, the head of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), said that the Communist Party had a long way to go to “sinicize” religion—make it more Chinese. This required, Zhang argued, harsh measures to prevent anyone from “taking advantage of religion to harm national security” and “endangering national unity.”

On February 1, 2018, a series of strict regulations overhauling religious practice in the officially communist country went into effect, the product of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).

The new norms were described in one report as consciously intended to “annihilate underground communities” and “suffocate official communities.” Penalties for nonconformance include the imposition of massive fines for persons associated with underground religious communities not authorized by the state, which have no legal standing in the country.

The regulations also mandate that no one under 18 years of age is allowed to enter a church building, as part of an effort to separate youth from Christian education and practice.

Earlier this month, a Chinese bishop of the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association declared that loyal citizenship must take priority over Christian faith.

Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan said that Catholics should give their allegiance to President Xi Jinping “because we, as citizens of the country, should first be a citizen and then have religion and beliefs,” according to a recent report.

Fang, who was ordained a bishop in China without Vatican approval in 2000 and later legitimized by the Holy See, is a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the Chinese parliament that on March 11 voted to eliminate presidential term limits.

The Chinese government has branded all religion a national security threat, while singling out Christianity as a paramount concern. Christianity has seen such a dramatic surge in popularity that Christians reportedly outnumber Communist Party members in the country.

Despite China’s claims of “religious freedom,” the U.S. State Department as well as numerous watchdog groups consider China to be guilty of systemic religious oppression.

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