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Tuesday, March 2, 1999

Faith isn't enough for China's Catholics

CHINA'S CATHOLICS: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society, by Richard Madsen. Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1998, 191 pp., $27.50 (cloth).

The Catholic Church has had a long and powerful influence on China. Missionaries first traveled to the Middle Kingdom in the seventh century and Catholic communities have existed in the country ever since.

It has been an uneasy relationship. Both the Catholic Church and the Chinese leadership -- whether it was an imperial family, the Nationalists or the Communists -- have claimed the complete allegiance of the Chinese people. Since 1949, in particular, there has been no room for competing claims on the hearts and souls of the Chinese millions.

There were 3 million Catholics in China when the Communists seized power. The government suppressed the church, forcing many adherents to renounce their faith or driving them underground. In recent years, that campaign has largely halted. Yet incredibly, as Richard Madsen notes in "China's Catholics," the Catholic population in the country today is estimated to be about 10 million; in other words, despite the repression, its growth has kept pace with that of the country as a whole.

This sliver of a book, like that sliver of the Chinese masses, has a significance beyond its proportions. Madsen, a professor of sociology of the University of California, San Diego, is a sensitive and thoughtful writer who understands both contemporary China and the lives of its Catholic population. He is alert to the demands posed by the two faiths and the tensions between them. Even though Madsen is a Catholic himself, he never allows faith to cloud his research or his conclusions. He sympathizes with China's Catholics and the pain they have endured, but he never allows that sympathy to override his carefully balanced assessment of the relationship between the church and the state -- or its implications.

Catholicism has been successful in China because it touches a basic part of the Chinese psychology: It responds to the deeply felt call for hierarchy and historical continuity. Traditional Chinese religions embrace ancestor worship to give an individual a direct link to the past; the Catholic Church's unchanging rites and its single line of authority (through the papacy) do the same.

The clash between the demands of the state and those of faith is not uniquely Chinese. All communist governments made efforts to stamp out old religions, which were viewed as remnants of a feudal order. But in few other societies have the stakes been as high, given China's long tradition of centralized authority. Madsen notes that "the Catholic idea that the individual gains meaning through participation in a centralized hierarchical order resonates with a Confucian tradition that still exerts a strong if subtle influence on Chinese life." It is precisely because the church draws on that historical vein that it is even more threatening to the state.

Madsen highlights two other important tensions that define the lives of China's Catholics. The first is the split between the "official" and the "underground" Church. When the Chinese Communist Party first declared war on the Catholics, many adherents were driven underground, practicing their faith in private or together secretly.

Since the repression has ended, many Catholics now attend state-authorized churches. Many believers, however, continue to attend the underground churches (which might meet in the same building as the official church, at a different time). The official church's accommodation of the state -- which is encouraged by Rome, it should be noted -- creates a tension with the underground organizations.

Madsen attributes the split to several causes. One is the Catholic demand for hierarchy. Throughout Catholic history, two churches have never existed comfortably side by side. But Madsen also notes the "defiant spirit of the underground Church, which blends European Christian asceticism with Maoist revolutionary asceticism." The dynamic is compounded by the fact that at least 80 percent of Chinese Catholics live in rural communities, which tend to be more insular and less educated.

Although tension between the two churches is not general or inevitable, when it does erupt it leads to "bitter, tragic factionalism."

The reason for this is perhaps the most troubling dimension of Madsen's study. For China's Catholics, loyalty is the chief virtue. Unfortunately, this leads, in Madsen's telling phrase, to an "uncivil Catholic Church."

As he explains, "solidarity at the village level often takes the form of a narrowly focused belligerence that makes them hostile to outsiders. . . . They are more concerned about their personal salvation than alive to the interest of non-Catholics. They aspire to live in self-contained communities, a 'world of god.' "

This limit to the Catholics' vision means, first, that the schism within the faith is likely to continue. The division between members of the official and underground churches is almost as profound as that between believers and nonbelievers. "The differences between priests trained in seminaries and those trained underground could exacerbate differences between an urban, forward-looking Church and a rural, antimodern one."

But the problem transcends the church itself. "The faith professed by the most devout rural Catholics encourages dependence, sanctifies poverty and enjoins moral simplicity in a complex world. It is almost as out of sync with the new world of entrepreneurial China as with Maoist China."

Of course, these traits are not uniquely Catholic. Many traditional religions -- and not merely those in China -- tend to be inward-looking, self-absorbed and intolerant of outsiders. But even Madsen sees cause for concern in China. "The rural Catholic Church may have become so tightly integrated into the social world of premodern China that it will not have much that is positive to contribute to market-driven economic and political reforms."

His conclusion? "Because, in the current Chinese context, the Catholic Church frequently lacks the moral qualities of civility, the government has some realistic basis to fear that such an independent religious organization may lead to a breakdown of law and order."

That is a troubling thesis for those who seek greater liberties and the expansion of civil society in China. It is even more disturbing insofar as it underscores the failure of the Catholic Church to live up to its most basic tenets -- charity, tolerance and engagement within society as a whole. Had almost anyone else written this book, it would be dismissed out of hand. But Richard Madsen's intelligence, keen analysis and sympathy for the people he has studied mean that "China's Catholics" will be the starting point for a critical debate on China's future and the role the church will play in it.

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