Catholic Church in China

A Catholic church in Jingzhou

Catholic Church in China (called Tiānzhǔ Jiào, 天主教, literally, "Religion of the Lord of Heaven", after the term for God traditionally used in Chinese by Catholics) has a long and complicated history. Christianity has existed in China in various forms since at least the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century AD. Following the 1949 takeover by the Communist Party of China, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were expelled from the country, and the religion was vilified as a manifestation of western imperialism. In 1957, the Chinese government established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association,[1] which rejects the authority of the Holy See and appoints its own bishops.

Yuan (1271–1368) Dynasty

The Nestorian Christian Rabban Bar Sauma travelled from China to Europe to meet Pope Nicholas IV.

Missionary priests of the Latin Church of the Catholic Church in Europe are first recorded to have entered China in the 13th century. The Italian Franciscan priest John of Montecorvino arrived in Beijing (Khanbalik) in 1294. In 1299 he built a church and in 1305 a second opposite the imperial palace. Having made a study of the local language, he began to translate the New Testament and the Psalms. Estimates of converts range from 6,000 to 30,000 by the year 1300. In 1307 Pope Clement V sent seven Franciscan bishops to consecrate John of Montecorvino as Archbishop of Peking. The three who survived the journey did so in 1308 and succeeded each other as bishops of Zaiton which John had established. In 1312 three more Franciscan bishops arrived from Rome to aid John until his death in 1328.

The mission had some success during the rule of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, but various factors led to an ultimate shrinking of the mission.[2] However, six centuries later, John of Montecorvino's attempt at the translation of the Bible became the inspiration for another Franciscan, the Blessed Gabriele Allegra to go to China and complete the first translation of the Catholic Bible into the Chinese language in 1968 after a 40-year personal effort. He converted Armenians in China and Alans in Beijing to Catholicism. Armenians in Quanzhou were also Franciscan Catholics. The Franciscan Odoric of Pordenone visited China during this era. Katarina Vilioni's Catholic tombstone was found in Yangzhou.[3]

Hayton of Corycus wrote about China.

It was also reported that competition with the Roman Catholic Church and Islam were also factors in causing Nestorian Christianity to disappear in China - see Nestorianism in China - with "controversies with the emissaries of.... Rome, and the "progress of Mohammedanism, sapped the foundations of their ancient churches."[4] The Roman Catholics also considered the Nestorians as heretical.[5]

Armenian King Hethum I, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William Rubruck visited Mongolia.[6]

Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties

Main article: Jesuit China missions

During the Catholic Reformation's explosion of missionary efforts around the world, particularly in Asia, Jesuit and other Roman Catholic missionaries attempted to enter China. They had mixed success at first, but eventually came to have a strong impact, particularly in inter-cultural scientific and artistic exchanges among the upper classes of China and the imperial court.

The permanent mission was established in 1601 by the efforts of Matteo Ricci. His whole approach was quite subtle, interesting the Emperor and the Chinese authorities in aspects of western technology and learning as a point of opening. He also made attempts to reconcile Christianity with the Classic Confucian texts, though he was hostile, along with the other members of his order, to Taoism and Buddhism.

Ricci died in 1610 but the Jesuit mission went on to become an important part of the Imperial civil service, right into the 18th century. In 1644 a German Jesuit, Adam Schall von Bell, was appointed Director of the Board of Astronomy by the new Qing dynasty. Jesuits were also given posts as mechanics, musicians, painters, instrument makers, and in other areas which required a degree of technical expertise.

The Jesuits' pragmatic accommodation with Confucianism was later to lead to conflict with the Dominican friars, who came to Beijing from the Philippines in the middle of the century. Dominican leader Domingo Fernández Navarrete in responding to the question, 'Was Confucious saved?' said that since Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca and others were all damned "how much the more Confucius, who was not worthy to kiss their feet"? In responding, António de Gouveia, a Portuguese Jesuit, said that Confucius was certainly saved, "which is more than can be said for King Philip IV of Spain."[7]

Due to the Chinese rites controversy, the Kangxi Emperor banned Christianity in China, saying " Westerners are trivial; how could they understand Chinese great philosophy? in addition, no Westerners know Chinese classic. Their discussions (to Chinese philosophy) are ridiculous. In my perspective, the missionary's talk is same as those heretic Buddha monks, Taoists, and other superstitions. The (knowledge of) Westerns are no more than this (the missionary's talk). We could simply forbid them from spreading their religion in China, for the sake of avoiding troubles" (“只說得西洋人等小人,如何言得中國人之大理?況西洋人等,無一人通漢書者,說言議論,令人可笑者多。今見來臣告示,竟與和尚道士異端小教相同。彼此亂言者,莫過如此。以後不必西洋人在中國行教,禁止可也,免得多事。”)

Under the "fundamental laws" of China, one section is titled "Wizards, Witches, and all Superstitions, prohibited." The Jiaqing Emperor in 1814 A.D. added a sixth clause in this section with reference to Christianity. It was modified in 1821 and printed in 1826 by the Daoguang Emperor. It sentenced Europeans to death for spreading Roman Catholic Christianity among Han Chinese and Manchus (Manchurian people originally from North China). Christians who would not repent their conversion were sent to Muslim cities in Xinjiang, to be given as slaves to Muslim leaders and begs.[8] Manchu Christians would also be removed from their Banner registers after being given as slaves to the begs.[9][10][11]

The clause stated: "People of the Western Ocean, [Europeans or Portuguese,] should they propagate in the country the religion of heaven's Lord, [name given to Christianity by the Romanists,] or clandestinely print books, or collect congregations to be preached to, and thereby deceive many people, or should any Tartars or Chinese, in their turn, propagate the doctrines and clandestinely give names, (as in baptism,) inflaming and misleading many, if proved by authentic testimony, the head or leader shall be sentenced to immediate death by strangulations : he who propagates the religion, inflaming and deceiving the people, if the number be not large, and no names be given, shall be sentenced to strangulation after a period of imprisonment. Those who are merely hearers or followers of the doctrine, if they will not repent and recant, shall be transported to the Mohammedan cities (in Turkistan) and given to be slaves to the beys and other powerful Mohammedans who are able to coerce them. . . . All civil and military officers who may fail to detect Europeans clandestinely residing in the country within their jurisdiction, and propagating their religion, thereby deceiving the multitude, shall be delivered over to the Supreme Board and be subjected to a court of inquiry."

People of the western ocean (Seyang jin, in Peking understood of Europeans, in Canton of Portuguese) should they propagate in the country, the religion of heaven's Lord (Teen Choo keaou, as the Romanists have designated Christianity), or clandestinely print books, or collect congregations to be preached to (keang hwuy, 'talking assemblies'), and thereby deceive many people; or should any Tartars or Chinese, in their turn, propagate the doctrines, and clandestinely give names [as in baptism], inflaming and misleading many—if proved, by authentic testimony, the head or leader shall be sentenced to immediate death by strangulation ; he who propagates the religion, inflaming and deceiving the people, if the number be not large, and no names be given, shall be sentenced to strangulation after a period of imprisonment.* Those who are merely hearers and followers of the religion, if they will not repent and recant, shall be transported to the Mohammedan cities (in Turkestan) and given to be slaves of the begs, and other powerful Mohammedans, who are able to coerce them. Moreover, Tartars shall have their names erased from the register.

Some hoped that the Chinese government would discriminate between Protestantism and Catholicism, since the law was directed at Catholicism, but after Protestant missionaries in 1835-6 gave Christian books to Chinese, the Daoguang Emperor demanded to know who were the "traitorous natives in "Canton who had supplied them with books." The foreign missionaries were strangled or expelled by the Chinese.[12]

Chinese seminarists in a Jesuit mission in 1900.

During the Boxer Rebellion, Catholic missionaries and their families were murdered by Boxer rebels.[13]

The Qing dynasty Imperial government permitted French Catholic Christian missionaries to enter and proselytize in Tibetan lands, which weakened the control of the Tibetan Buddhist Lamas, who refused to give allegiance to the Chinese. The Tibetan Lamas were alarmed and jealous of Catholic missionaries converting natives to Roman Catholicism. During the 1905 Tibetan Rebellion the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug Yellow Hat sect led a Tibetan revolt, with Tibetan tribesmen being led by Lamas to kill and attack Chinese officials, western Christian missionaries and native Christian converts, the revolt was aimed at expelling Christians and overthrowing Chinese rule. The Lamas responded to the Christian missionaries by massacring the missionaries and native converts to Christianity. The Lamas besieged Bat'ang, burning down the mission chapel, and killing two foreign missionaries, Père Mussot and Père Soulié. The Chinese Amban's Yamen was surrounded, the Chinese General, Wu Yi-chung, was shot dead in the Yamen by the Lama's forces. The Chinese Amban Feng and Commandant in Chief Li Chia-jui managed to escape by scattered Rupees (money) behind them, which the Tibetans proceeded to try to pick up. The Ambans reached Commandant Lo's place, but the 100 Tibetan troops serving under the Amban, armed with modern weaponry, mutinied when news of the revolt reached them. The Tibetan Lamas and their Tibetan followers besieged the Chinese Commandant Lo's palace along with local Christian converts. In the palace, they killed all Christian converts, both Chinese and Tibetan.[14]

Republic of China

After the Rites controversy of the late 17th century and early 18th century ended in the expulsion of missionaries from most of China, access to the people of China was difficult for the Catholic Church. The controversy revolved around the reluctance of the Church to recognize local Confucian customs of honouring deceased family members. To the Chinese, this was an ancient ritual, to the Vatican, it was a religious exercise, which conflicted with Catholic dogma.

In the 19th century, the French government had taken control of Catholics in China and the Catholic Church, almost exclusively appointing French citizens as priests. The French also effectively blocked efforts of Pope Leo XII to establish direct relations with the government. After the Revolution of 1911, which led to the founding of the Republic of China, reform minded priests such as Vincent Lebbe and prominent Catholic laymen such as Ma Xiangbo and Ying Lianzhi protested to Pope Benedict XV that the French who made up 70% of clergy and controlled the Chinese Church were chauvinist and disdainful of China. Chinese priests were discriminated against and many left the clergy, as Ma Xiangbo himself had done. Benedict directed the establishment of Catholic University of Peking, which opened in 1925. [15]

Within months of his election, Pope Pius XII issued a further change in policies. On December 8, 1939, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith issued — at the request of Pope Pius — a new instruction, by which Chinese customs were no longer considered superstitious, but instead an honourable way of esteeming one's relatives and therefore permitted by the Catholic Church.[16] The government of the Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1943, within a short interval. The Papal decree changed the ecclesiastical situation in China in an almost revolutionary way.[17] As the Church began to flourish, Pope Pius established a local ecclesiastical hierarchy and elevated the Archbishop of Peking, Thomas Tien Ken-sin, SVD, to the Sacred College of Cardinals.[18] After WWII, about four million Chinese were members of the Roman Catholic Church. This was less than one percent of the population but numbers increased dramatically. In 1949, there existed:

Catholic scholar John Witek, SJ appraises the situation of Western missionization in the development of Catholicism in China and its impact on Chinese Christians in later eras:

"Today there are villages in China that are very Christian. How and why is it that these people have rooted themselves despite the Cultural Revolution?" says Witek. Such endurance is evidence that Chinese Christians identified strongly with the teachings of Jesuit and other missionaries, and as such were not just passive subjects of Westernization.[20]

People's Republic of China

Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 by the Communist Party of China, Catholicism, like all religions, has been permitted to operate only under the supervision of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. All worship must legally be conducted through state-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which does not accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. In addition to overseeing the practice of the Catholic faith, the CPA espouses politically oriented objectives as well. Liu Bainian, chairman of the CPA and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, stated in a 2011 interview that the church needed individuals who "love the country and love religion: politically, they should respect the Constitution, respect the law, and fervently love the socialist motherland.’’[21]

Clergy who resisted this development were subject to oppression, including long imprisonments as in the case of Cardinal Kung, and torture and martyrdom as in the case of Fr. Beda Chang, S.J. Catholic clergy experienced increased supervision. Bishops and priests were forced to engage in degrading menial jobs to earn their living. Foreign missionaries were accused of being foreign agents, ready to turn the country over to imperialist forces.[22] The Holy See reacted with several encyclicals and apostolic letters, including Cupimus Imprimis, Ad Apostolorum principis, and Ad Sinarum gentem.

Some Catholics who recognize the authority of the Holy See choose to worship clandestinely due to the risk of harassment from authorities. Several underground Catholic bishops have been reported disappeared or imprisoned, and harassment of unregistered bishops and priests is common.[23] There are reports of Catholic bishops and priests being forced by authorities to attend the ordination ceremonies for bishops who had not gained Vatican approval.[21] Chinese authorities also have reportedly pressured Catholics to break communion with the Vatican by requiring them to renounce an essential belief in Roman Catholicism, the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. In other instances, however, authorities have permitted Vatican-loyal churches to carry out operations.[23]

A major impediment to the re-establishment of relations between the Vatican and Beijing has been the issue of who appoints the bishops. As a matter of maintaining autonomy and rejecting foreign intervention, the official church has no official contact with the Vatican, and does not recognize its authority. However, in recent years the CPA has allowed for unofficial Vatican approval of ordinations. Although the CPA continues to carry out some ordinations opposed by the Holy See, the majority of CPA bishops are now recognized by both authorities.[24]

In a further sign of rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing, Pope Benedict XVI invited four Chinese bishops, including two government recognized bishops, one underground bishop, and one underground bishop recently emerged into the registered church, to the October 2005 Synod on the Eucharist.[25] However, Beijing ultimately denied the four bishops the right to attend the meeting.

On May 27, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Chinese Catholics "to offer some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China."[26] In this letter (section 9), Pope Benedict acknowledges tensions:

As all of you know, one of the most delicate problems in relations between the Holy See and the authorities of your country is the question of episcopal appointments. On the one hand, it is understandable that governmental authorities are attentive to the choice of those who will carry out the important role of leading and shepherding the local Catholic communities, given the social implications which – in China as in the rest of the world – this function has in the civil sphere as well as the spiritual. On the other hand, the Holy See follows the appointment of Bishops with special care since this touches the very heart of the life of the Church, inasmuch as the appointment of Bishops by the Pope is the guarantee of the unity of the Church and of hierarchical communion.

Underground bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar (northeastern China) released a two-page pastoral letter in July 2007, asking his congregation to study and act on the letter of Pope Benedict XVI and naming the letter a "new milestone in the development of the Chinese Church.[27] In September 2007, a coadjutor bishop for the Guiyang Diocese was jointly appointed by the Vatican and the Chinese official Catholic church.[28]


A Catholic church on South China Sea coast (Cangnan County, Zhejiang)

The number of Catholics is hard to estimate because of the large number of Christians who do not affiliate with either of the two state-approved denominations.[29]

The 2010 Blue Book of Religions, produced by the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research institution directly under the State Council, estimates Catholics in China to number about 5.7 million.[30] This Chinese government estimate only includes members of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). It does not include un-baptized persons attending Christian groups, non-adult children of Christian believers or other persons under age 18 and unregistered Christian groups.[29]

According to the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, which monitors the number of Chinese Catholic members, estimated in 2012 that there were 12 millions Catholics in both branches of the Catholic Church.[31]

The Pew Center estimates in 2011 there are nine million Catholics on the mainland, 5.7 million of whom are affiliated with the CPA.[29]

Hebei Province has the largest Catholic Christian population in China, with 1 million Church members according to the local government.[32] Generally, Catholic institutions are dominant in North and Central regions of China.[29]

Hong Kong and Macau

The Roman Catholic Church is allowed to operate freely in Macau and Hong Kong. In fact, Donald Tsang, the former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, is a Roman Catholic. However, Pope John Paul II was denied a visit (deemed "inappropriate") to Hong Kong in 1999, by then Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa, who was in office from 1997–2005, a decision many believe was made under pressure from the central PRC government. The two territories are organized into the Diocese of Hong Kong and the Diocese of Macau.

Diplomatic relations with the Vatican

The issue of Sino-Vatican relations has been a highly contentious one and often difficult for both sides (see below). The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) is a division of China's Religious Affairs Bureau, and has oversight over China's Catholics. According to at least one source, however, China's Catholics, including its clergy and religious sisters, are no longer required to be members of the CCPA.[33]

By 2007, the Vatican had indicated on multiple occasions that it desires to establish full diplomatic relations with China, and would be willing to move its embassy from Taiwan to mainland China if necessary.[34] However, a major obstacle between the two sides has been the Roman Catholic discipline that only the pope can appoint bishops of the Church. Currently, bishops in the CCPA are government-appointed. In recent years, this issue has proved a frequent aggravating factor in Sino-Vatican relations.

Some, including Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, see the progress between Vietnam and Vatican officials towards re-establishing full diplomacy as a model for Sino-Vatican normalization of relations.[34] By late 2004, prior to the death of Pope John Paul II, Vatican and Chinese government representatives were in contact with the apparent goal of moving closer to the normalization of relations.[35] In late 2004, John Paul II received a "quasi-official" Chinese delegation in the Vatican. These overtures continued after the installation of Benedict XVI as Pope.

Chinese terms for God and Christianity

Terms used to refer to God in Chinese differ even among Christians.

Arriving in China during the Tang dynasty, the earliest Christian missionaries from the Church of the East referred to their religion as Jǐng jiào (景教, literally, "bright teaching"). Originally, some Catholic missionaries and scholars advanced the use of Shàngdì (上帝, literally, "The Emperor from Above"), as being more native to the Chinese language, but ultimately the Catholic hierarchy decided that the more Confucian term, Tiānzhǔ (天主, literally, "Lord of Heaven"), was to be used, at least in official worship and texts. Within the Catholic Church, the term 'gōng jiào (公教, literally "universal teaching") is not uncommon, this being also the original meaning of the word "catholic".

When Protestants finally arrived in China in the 19th century, they favored Shangdi over Tianzhu. Many Protestants also use Yēhéhuá (耶和华, a transliteration of Jehovah)or Shēn (神), which generically means "god" or "spirit", although Catholic priests are called shénfù (神父, literally "spiritual father"). Meanwhile, the Mandarin Chinese transliteration of "Christ," used by all Christians, is Jīdū (基督).

Catholics and Protestants

The modern Chinese language generally divides Christians into two groups: adherents of Catholicism, Tiānzhǔ jiào (天主教), and adherents of Jīdū jiào (基督教)—literally, "Christianity"— or Jīdū Xīnjiào (基督新教), "New Religion"- Protestantism. Chinese speakers see Catholicism and Protestantism as distinct religions, even though the degree of distinction is not made in the Western world. Thus, in Western languages, the term "Christianity" can subsume both Protestants and Catholics (i.e. Christians as opposed to, for example, Hindus or Jews). Yet in Chinese, there is not a commonly used term that can subsume the two (today, in Chinese Catholic literature, the term "jīdū zōngjiào" (基督宗教) is used to signify all Christian sects, as the term in Chinese means "religion of Christ"). Eastern Orthodoxy is called Dōngzhèng jiào (東正教), which is simply a literal translation of "Eastern Orthodox Religion" into Chinese.

See also



  1. Edmond Tang; Jean-Paul Weist (17 May 2013). The Catholic Church in Modern China: Perspectives. Wipf and Stock Publishers. pp. 13–. ISBN 978-1-62564-086-4.
  2. Fredrik Fällman (2008). Salvation and Modernity: Intellectuals and Faith in Contemporary China. University Press of America. pp. 2–. ISBN 978-0-7618-4090-9.
  3. Rouleau, Francis A.. 1954. “The Yangchow Latin Tombstone as a Landmark of Medieval Christianity in China”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 17 (3/4). Harvard-Yenching Institute: 346–65. doi:10.2307/2718316.
  4. The Chinese repository, Volume 13. Printed for the proprietors. 1844. p. 474. Retrieved 2011-05-08.
  5. The Chinese repository, Volume 13. Printed for the proprietors. 1844. p. 475. Retrieved 2011-05-08.
  6. Morris Rossabi (28 November 2014). From Yuan to Modern China and Mongolia: The Writings of Morris Rossabi. BRILL. pp. 670–. ISBN 978-90-04-28529-3.
  7. Charles Ralph Boxer. Fidalgos in the Far East 1550–1770. Oxford University Press, 1968. Page 164.
  8. Robert Samuel Maclay (1861). Life among the Chinese: with characteristic sketches and incidents of missionary operations and prospects in China. Carlton & Porter. p. 336. Retrieved 2011-07-06.
  9. Bridgman, Elijah Coleman; Williams, Samuel Wells (1838). The Chinese Repository, Volume 6. Maruzen Kabushiki Kaisha. p. 54. Retrieved 2011-07-06.
  10. The Chinese Repository, Volume 6. proprietors. 1838. p. 54. Retrieved 2011-07-06.
  11. The Chinese Repository, Volume 6. Kraus Reprint. 1838. p. 54. Retrieved 2011-07-06.
  12. Robert Samuel Maclay (1861). Life among the Chinese: with characteristic sketches and incidents of missionary operations and prospects in China. NEW YORK 200 MULBERRY-STREET: Carlton & Porter. p. 337. Retrieved 2011-07-06.(Original from the New York Public Library)
  13. Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987), pp. 190–191; Paul Cohen, History in Three Keys (1997), p. 51.
  14. Great Britain. Foreign Office, India. Foreign and Political Dept, India. Governor-General (1904). East India (Tibet): Papers relating to Tibet [and Further papers ...], Issues 2-4. Printed for H. M. Stationery Off., by Darling. p. 17. Retrieved 2011-06-28.
  15. Young (2013), p. 175-177.
  16. Jan Olav Smit, Pope Pius XII, London, 1951, 186–187.
  17. Smit 188
  18. Smit 188.
  19. Alberto Giovanetti, Pio XII parla alla Chiesa del Silenzio, Milano, 1959, 230
  20. "On Their Own Terms: Father John Witek, S.J. Studies Jesuit Initiatives in China." Georgetown University: Georgetown College Research News. October 27, 2008. Kara Burritt.
  21. 1 2 Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Annual Report 2011 Archived February 13, 2013, at the Wayback Machine., 10 October 2011.
  22. Giovanetti, 232
  23. 1 2 U.S Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2010: China, 17 Nov 2010.
  24. Tim Gardam, Christians in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis? BBC, 11 Sept 2011.
  25. Pope Invites Chinese Bishops to Synod on the Eucharist (Catholic World News, September 8, 2005).
  26. Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics, May 27, 2007
  27. "Underground" bishop urges faithful to implement Pope's letter, Catholic News Agency, July 2007
  28. "Vatican approval for Guiyang Episcopal ordination made public". Asia News. 9 October 2007. Retrieved 8 July 2009.
  29. 1 2 3 4 The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: "Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population - Appendix C: Methodology for China" December 19, 2011
  30. U.S Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2013: China
  31. Estimated Statistics for Chinese Catholic 2012, Holy Spirit Study Centre
  32. 天主教 河北省民族宗教事务厅
  33. The Sisters of Shanghai – Congregation of Nuns Flourishes in China (Commonweal August 12, 2005).
  34. 1 2 Blueprint for Vatican-China talks (BBC March 6, 2007).
  35. China and the Vatican Hint At Renewing Formal Ties (NYT May 22, 2005).


Please see individual articles for specific works.

Catholic missions and local Christianity before 1950
Post 1949
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