Letters from China: Roman Catholics and the State

Essays

This is the first of what may become a series of reports from China, where I am visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad at Fudan University. My initial topic concerns Roman Catholic responses to the Chinese government, which is a communist one.

This is the first of what may become a series of reports from China, where I am visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad at Fudan University. My initial topic concerns Roman Catholic responses to the Chinese government, which is a communist one. These reflections arise from a conference called “Political Theology: Between East and West”, where we experienced the rich overlays of perspectives from twelve different countries, including Asia, Australia, North America, Western Europe and a significant representation from Eastern Europe (a toast to the Eastern Bloc was indeed given, with vodka of course). One of the two keynotes was given by Tran van Doan – Vietnamese in origin, professor at the National Taiwan University, and a very intelligent anti-communist.

Tran argued that Thomist principles still influence the responses of the Roman Catholic Churches to the Chinese government. I write ‘churches’ deliberately, for there is both an official church, recognised by the state with its bishops sanctioned by that state, and an ‘underground’ church, recognised by the pope. The presence of two Roman Catholic Churches in China has, of course, a long and complex history, which one may trace back in a very winding fashion to Matteo Ricci in the 16th century and controversy of the “sinification” of the Roman Catholic presence in China.

However, what interests me here is Tran’s argument concerning the officially recognised Roman Catholic Church in China. Since this rather large church (it has approximately 70 bishops) is not recognised by Rome, its leaders emphasise that the church has no need of a human mediator to whom one should give obedience. The only one to whom obedience should be given is God. The problem, argued Tran, is that the dominant form of theological thought in the official Roman Catholic Church of China is Neo-Thomism. Two crucial features of that tradition determine the nature of their strand of political theology. First, there is no clear demarcation of the temporal and spiritual spheres (thus, the pope has power in both spheres). Second, that thought has an inherently hierarchical structure, moving all the way from the lowest form of existence in the analogia entis through to God. Both factors mean that the Roman Catholic Church in China cannot actually do without an earthly head. If so, then who replaces the pope as God’s representative in earth? None other than Mao, suggested Tran.

Only in this way can we understand why bishops in the church support the communist party and why the archbishop of Beijing has been the leader of the national assembly. One cannot dismiss these acts as examples of political opportunism, buttering up the powers that be for one’s own benefit. Instead, these acts of close involvement are deeply consistent with the type of theology inherited by the church.

Let us grant Tran’s argument for a moment, for it leads to a particular form of political theology in China, a country where Christianity has been present in various forms since the 7th century with the Nestorians (Jingjiao). One may read this situation in either negative or positive senses. Negatively, it means that the church implicitly sees as its head a leader who is not worthy of such a position (Tran’s perspective), but there is also a positive dimension, for it means that the church is much closer to the strain of Christian communism that simply refuses to disappears, constantly re-emerging in ever new forms.

But this argument also raises questions regarding other possible forms of political theology in China. What would be the shape of such a theology if it comes from a tradition that emphasises the strong separation between temporal and spiritual spheres (as in Orthodoxy or Lutheranism)? Or what of the Reformed tradition, which is caught between a conservative position of supporting rulers, since they have been placed in there by God, and a radical position, in which the only rulers to which one should owe allegiance are those that follow – implicitly or explicitly – divine laws?

 

Roland Boer is at the moment visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad, at Fudan University, Shanghai. His usual occupion is as research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia – that is, when he is not voyaging by container ship or on long-haul bicycle tours. Among numerous publications, the most recent is Criticism of Theology: On Marxism and Theology III (2011).

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