Last year, it came to be announced that Pope Francis had begun talking with the communist Chinese government over the negotiation of the Church’s presence in the country. A bit of background: Catholics in China have a tendency to disappear, but sometimes they’re merely imprisoned for life on any number of possible charges. Religion is not a thing generally looked upon favorably in the PRC, though Xi Jingping’s government does play its understandable favorites; Buddhism and Taoism enjoy a relatively low level of antagonism from the authorities, while just about everyone else could be under threat of spending their lives behind bars if they aren’t completely cooperative with their secular masters.
Catholicism in China, however, has managed to sustain—if only barely—a solid presence underground. In a measure true to the history of Catholicism for most of its existence, the degree to which it has been persecuted by secular authorities reflects its entrenchment. Direct attack has weakened its numbers, but it hasn’t been and likely won’t be the vehicle for its ultimate destruction in the country, should that occur. A more insidious method will be needed.
Turns out, that method already exists. In 1957, Catholicism in China came under the secular control of a body called the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The authorities rightfully saw the organized proliferation of the Catholic practice as a threat to their regime’s earthly presence. Following the standard model of secular totalitarianism, papists were viewed to have split transnational loyalties to Rome. The ultranationalist communism in China has no room for such matters, confused enough has they are. In any case, government-run churches present troubling implications for the faithful, discovering quickly enough that the Patriotic Association had appointed its own bishops in spite of their complete indifference and disinterest to the Vatican. An underground alternative presented itself—one in which bishops were actually recognized by the Vatican, even—but attending illegal services present their own set of problems to the faithful. This article in America Magazine speaks at length about this issue.
This is how communism works; it infiltrates what it cannot simply demolish in order to rot it out from the inside. It finds a way inside and begins carving out the substance so that only a harmless and pleasing veneer is left, and then it lets it fall into the bonfire all by itself. A cleverly-named organization put together by the misappropriation of titles like, say, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, fits the bill. Actually, we can see it happening here, too.
The Chinese are no strangers to this sort of insidious cultural warfare. In the sixties and seventies, during and after the Cultural Revolution, the famed martial arts of China suffered a widespread crackdown by the secular authorities. Temples were trashed, masters were killed or exiled, and schools were burned to the ground. The few styles that weren’t stamped out or driven overseas were eventually undermined when communist party officials began implanting their own appointed teachers at the more popular schools in the country. They would pay students with interests in the martial arts to go learn everything they could from various masters, but when it came time to open their own schools, they were handed a curriculum that came straight from Beijing. Efforts to develop a more coherent national identity for the various forms of Chinese martial arts had already been well underway since the nineteenth century; it was only under the communist regime, however, that the embrace of athleticism and the abolition of martial arts as a way of life became the aspired goals. As is typical with a secular mindset, it tried to destroy the substance in order to make the veneer as pleasing as possible.
There is a distinct difference between this example of the plight of the Catholics, however. During the crackdown and eventual replacement of martial arts in China, the martial artists did not have a globe-spanning organization that safeguarded their principles and looked out for them. There was no Vatican to appeal to, no one Church that was entrusted with the eventual evangelization of Man. The Catholics have that, but instead of doing its best to support the authenticity of the underground movement toward God, the Vatican has instead made its dealings with the devil. All this will succeed in doing is alienating most of the Catholics underground and driving them into the open arms of the various Protestant sects that can operate with a little more impunity—as it stands, they’ve already managed to find a greater foothold over the past several decades for a variety of reasons.
Worse still, the Vatican’s open flirtation with the communist regime has put the entire Catholic underground in the crosshairs. In an effort to unify the government-sanctioned Catholic brand with the underground movement, the Vatican has decided to acquiesce to the regime’s demands. A man who was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2011 has been maneuvered to become a bishop; he was appointed, naturally, by the Patriotic Association and, it seems, the Vatican has no problems with the appointment—even though he was excommunicated for that very reason seven years ago. The Vatican itself has requested that the man whose seat he will fill, Bishop Peter Zhuang, retire or otherwise accept demotion in order to expedite things. And that isn’t the only position that’s undergoing replacement.
Xi Jinping calls this “Sinicizing” religion—a word that might imply that Catholicism must be changed in order to better suit the Chinese soul. His words equate the Chinese soul’s search for redemption with the Chinese body’s need for order; the Chinese head must be bowed in obedience to the government, after all. But all souls are searching for redemption, and as both the long tradition of philosophy and the revealed words of scripture indicate, there is no fundamental difference in the soul between one of a Chinese man and one of any other man. His physical character and the imprint his culture leaves upon it may shape the pathway he must tread to find salvation, but his soul, made in the image of God, lies beyond what any government can reach. The secular demands that religion bend to its will betrays the evil at the core of secularism’s own unstated theology: nullify the soul wherever possible, marginalize it, reduce it to the smallest pocket of the human psyche and then, as the broken man thirsts for power over his various masters, enslave the body.