China insists on an independent Church

October 25, 2010


Pilgrims pray at the Marian shrine in Shanghai, China, in 2008. Both the patriotic church and the Roman church promoted Marian pilgrimages at the time, showing how they are capable of collaberation.


Catholicism failed to take root in China due chiefly to the Catholic Church's failure to adapt to Chinese culture and policies, says an Edmonton author.

Dr. Louis K. Ho, a researcher on the Church in China and a theology professor at St. Stephen's College at the University of Alberta, hints that unless the Vatican shows flexibility in China, the majority of Chinese people will continue to live their lives without knowing Jesus.

According to Chinese policy, religions in China must be self-sustained, self-administered and self-propagating, without outside influence or domination.

In accord with this policy, Catholic bishops are elected in each diocese and then officially appointed by Beijing.

The Vatican insists that the right to appoint bishops is the pope's alone and has appointed several bishops who failed to pass Beijing's scrutiny.

The Catholic Church maintains that the successor of Peter, the pope, is the foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the entire Church. The Second Vatican Council maintained that, as a matter of doctrine, the pope "has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered."

The Chinese government's appointment of bishops goes directly against that teaching.

As a result of this conflict, the Catholic Church in China has divided into two sectors: those who follow the Vatican and worship underground and those who belong to the open Catholic Church recognized by Beijing.

In his book The Dragon and the Cross: Why European Christianity Failed to take Root in China, Ho notes that the current Chinese leadership has applied to religion the same social control it applies to society and says that unless the Church plays the game, it won't successfully plant Christianity in China.

"It appears that the future of both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in China must follow this official direction if they are to grow and to meet the underlying objective of bringing the Christian message closer to the masses," he writes in his 260-page book.

"When people say the (Chinese) government is persecuting the Church, you have to have a little reservation," he said in an interview. "It's only when you infringe on their policy; as long as you don't step on their toes, they support the Church because they want the Church to help transform the modern society of China."

Dr. Louis K. Ho

Ho's book aims to provide a context for why the Catholic Church, and to some degree Christianity, have failed to take root.

To answer this question, he first takes readers on a journey back in time to pinpoint the cultural and political developments over the centuries that have steered China to where it is now. From this historical perspective the reader begins to see that many factors have blocked and splintered the development of the Catholic Church in China.

With the historical foundations firmly laid, The Dragon and the Cross takes a closer look at the efforts of the 16th century Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci to introduce Christianity to China.


Ricci's policy of theological accommodation and his efforts to build harmony between Christianity and Confucianism, China's most prominent religion, won him the respect of the Chinese.

Despite the apparent failure of these early attempts, Ho brings relevance to Ricci's legacy and its ties to the current state of Christianity in China.

Ho, a member of St. Angela Merici Parish, said his research for the book involved several trips to China and interviews with people.

"The problem now between the Vatican and China is unity in conformity and not unity in diversity," he explained. "They (the Vatican) want everything in China the same as the outside Church. But China would not allow that. China is different altogether from the West in terms of politics and society. You have to have unity in diversity to accommodate local situations."

Protestant churches, which do not have centralized authority, can develop in any direction without restraint and they have. So far there are three Protestants in China for every Catholic.

Protestants have their own National Patriotic Christian Church. They have control of their Church; their control is more on theology than administration, Ho said.

"But the (Catholic) Church is controlled (by Rome) both in theology and administration."

In order to penetrate China, the Church has to show some flexibility, he said.

So far, the Chinese government has never attempted to change Church doctrines, Ho said. "They don't touch any doctrines of the Catholic Church. They simply want local administration."

In the interview Ho predicted the underground and the open Catholic churches would eventually merge. "In maybe another 10 years they will merge up," he said. "Otherwise they (the underground church) will become peripheral, as a cult or a museum piece."

Copies of the Dragon and the Cross are available from Universal Church Supplies or at Chapters in Edmonton.