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Roman Catholicism in China (called Tianzhu jiao, 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 eighth century A.D.
Roman Catholic missionary priests from 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. However, six centuries later, John of Montecorvino's attempt at the translation of the Bible became the inspiration for another Franciscan, the Venerable 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.
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 eighteenth 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 Dominigo Fernandez 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."
For centuries, access to the people of China was difficult for the Catholic Church, because as a Church, it did not 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. As a result, the Church made little progress in China. Within months of his election, Pope Pius XII issued a dramatic 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. 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. 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. 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.
The establishment of Mao Zedong's communist regime in 1949 put these early advances on hold and led to the persecution of thousands of clergy and faithful in China. Clergy 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. A Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was formed. The losses in the following years to the Roman Catholic Church were considerable. For example, in 1948, the Catholic Church operated some 254 orphanages and 196 hospitals with 81628 beds. 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. The Holy See reacted with several encyclicals and apostolic letters, Cupimus Imprimis, Ad Apostolorum Principis, and Ad Sinarum Gentem.
Since 1949, following the establishment of the People's Republic of China by the Communist Party of China, the status of Roman Catholicism as an institution in Chinese society has been highly ambiguous. While the Roman Catholic Church is officially banned in the country, the Chinese government demands that all Chinese "Catholics" must be loyal to the State, and that worship must legally be conducted through State-approved churches (belonging to the "Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association"); this way, Catholics are pressured to break communion with the Holy See by requiring them to renounce an essential belief in Catholicism, the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. Catholics loyal to the Pope currently worship clandestinely, out of fear of imprisonment.
Though the Communist Party is a secular organisation it also reserves the right to appoint priests. They maintain that Chinese citizens' activities must not face interference or influence by external powers. The government does not differentiate between temporal and spiritual loyalty. Thus, it does not presently recognize that a Catholic can be loyal to his/her own government, while still listening to the pope in matters of faith and morals.
According to a survey of Chinese Catholicism in the American Catholic publication, Commonweal, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is an organization with oversight over the Chinese Catholic Church. In the meantime, two-thirds of China's registered Church bishops are now recognized by the Vatican. More significant, during the Summer of 2005, the Vatican and Beijing agreed upon the appointment of an Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai. In the past, a major impediment to the re-establishment of relations between the Vatican and Beijing has been the issue of who appoints the bishops.
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. Beijing ultimately denied the four bishops the right to attend the meeting.
It is estimated that there are 8 million Catholics following the underground church still loyal to Rome and 5 million people following the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The Chinese government, however ambiguously it may behave in its relationship with the Holy See, still persecutes and imprisons underground Catholics, especially priests. The Roman Catholic Church in China is still considered illegal. Roman Catholics themselves are forbidden to become citizens or even visit as tourists.
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." 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.
An "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. In September 2007, a coadjutor bishop for the Guiyang Diocese was jointly appointed by the Vatican and the Chinese official Catholic church.
The Roman Catholic Church is allowed to operate freely in Macau and Hong Kong. In fact, Donald Tsang, the 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 (then Chief Executive,Tung Chee Hwa, in office 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.
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 CPCA.
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. 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 "outspoken" 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. 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. 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.
Terms used to refer to God in Chinese are different 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 Shangdi (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, Tianzhu (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 c., they favored Shangdi over Tianzhu. Many Protestants also use Yehehua (耶和华, Jehova）or Shen (神), which generically means "god" or "spirit", although Catholic priests are called shen fu (神父, literally "spiritual father"). Meanwhile, the Mandarin Chinese transliteration of "Christ," used by all Christians, is Jidu (基督).
The modern Chinese language generally divides Christians into two groups: adherents of Catholicism, Tianzhu jiao (天主教), and adherents of Jidu jiao (基督教)—literally, "Christianity"— or Jidu Xinjiao (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 "jidu zongjiao" （基督宗教) is used to signify all Christian sects, as the term in Chinese means "religion of Christ"). Eastern Orthodoxy is called Dongzheng jiao (東正教), which is simply a literal translation of "Eastern Orthodox Religion" into Chinese