In Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai, historian Paul Mariani documents the roots of a now-decades-long fissure among Shanghai Catholics. The split stems from the Shanghai Catholic community’s refusal to renounce the pope and the Vatican in the face of pressure from the Chinese Communist Party, leading to dueling factions of the resistant and the compliant. As Mariani details below, the recent death of each group’s leader highlights the endurance of the dispute even as it presents a potential moment for reconciliation.
When I was finishing up the epilogue for Church Militant in the summer of 2011, there were two main bishops of Shanghai. One was the public face of the “patriotic” church, and the other was the hidden face of the “underground” church. Both bishops have now passed away. More on them in a moment.
Church Militant recounts how the Catholic Church in China became divided into these “patriotic” and “underground” factions. The split’s origins lie in the 1950s, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) asserted its authority over all independent organizations such as labor unions, democratic parties, and religious groups. In this process, the CCP wanted the Catholic Church to cut its ties with the Vatican and to submit to the Patriotic Association that answered to the party alone.
With the encouragement of Pope Pius XII, and under the leadership of Bishop (later Cardinal) Ignatius Kung Pinmei, Shanghai Catholics mounted a highly organized resistance movement against the CCP’s intrusive religious policies. Many other religious bodies simply caved in to the relentless pressure, but for six long years the Shanghai Catholic community was able to survive. The situation was amicable enough during the first year and a half after the 1949 Communist victory, but when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, those in the party who called for more aggressive action against religion—after all, it was the “opiate of the people”—won the policy debate. The CCP then mounted three major campaigns against the church, each one designed to ultimately subdue Catholic resistance.
First, in October 1950 the party attacked the Legion of Mary, a Catholic devotional group dedicated to charitable work. It was labeled counterrevolutionary and all Legionaries were told to register with the government. In the same month the Vatican “ambassador” was expelled. Then in 1953 the majority of foreign missionaries were either expelled or imprisoned, as were the most recalcitrant of the local Shanghai clergy. Finally, in September 1955, Bishop Kung and 1,200 leading Catholics were arrested and sent to prisons and labor camps. Shanghai’s “church militant” was now decisively dismantled. But it would take another five years for the CCP to set up its own “puppet” church complete with its own “patriotic” bishop.
During the 1950s and early 1960s the CCP’s goal had been to subjugate the church. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) its goal was to destroy the church as well as all religion in China. In Mao’s dystopian vision, China’s religious and cultural legacy was to be wiped clean. Yet religion ultimately proved to be more resilient than Mao. In the end, he could not eradicate religion, but he did succeed in dividing the Shanghai Catholic community. It would now live on in “underground” and “patriotic” factions.
The two priests who lived through these traumatic events and would later come to lead these divided communities for much of the past thirty years are now gone.
Aloysius Jin Luxian, SJ died on April 27, 2013. Two days later a funeral mass was held for him at the cathedral with 1,000 faithful and eighty priests present. A civil ceremony was also held for him in a large funeral hall.
Joseph Fan Zhongliang, SJ died this past March 16. Had the government had its way, he would have died in relative obscurity, much as he had lived for many of the past years, under virtual house arrest, in an undistinguished apartment on the outskirts of the city. The government did not permit his funeral to be held in the cathedral. Even so, over 5,000 people attended his funeral along with many priests from both the “underground” and state-sanctioned churches. To the end, the government did not recognize him as the official bishop of the Shanghai Catholic community, but as an ordinary priest.
That two (competing) bishops could coexist for decades despite church law clearly holding that there is to be one principal bishop is testament to the endurance of both the CCP’s pressures and Catholic Shanghai’s resistance. In China’s post 1978 reform-era, Deng Xiaoping wanted to overturn parts of Mao’s legacy. Religious leaders were rehabilitated and there was greater religious freedom. But there were limits as well, as the party still wanted to control the church through the Patriotic Association. Some Catholics refused to attend these “patriotic” churches and worshiped in their own homes and apartments. Thus, a newly invigorated “underground” church was also emerging.
By early 1985 two priests now decisively presented themselves and were made bishops of their respective communities, one in a public manner, and the other clandestinely. Their leadership was solidified a few years later with the death of the previous “patriotic” bishop, and the departure for overseas medical treatment by the legendary Bishop Kung, who had spent thirty years in prison.
As the “patriotic” bishop of Shanghai, and with state support, Jin did all he could to rebuild the Shanghai Catholic community, re-opening and even constructing far more Catholic churches than most other dioceses in China, including Beijing. He also attracted seminarians from throughout China in order to ultimately staff these churches. Shanghai Catholicism was being revived.
Yet Jin would never be accepted by some Catholics because of his cozy relations with the government. Further, for twenty long years, he never had Rome’s approval for his consecration as bishop. He was thus illegitimate in the eyes of the church. (This was finally rectified in 2005 when the Vatican recognized him as auxiliary bishop to Bishop Fan.) Yet, during many of these years, Jin comported himself very much as the de facto bishop of Shanghai.
For his part, Fan had the higher moral ground. He had always obeyed the Vatican’s directives and he would not, in his twilight years, turn his back on Rome. Because of this, his circle of influence was circumscribed. The international press could hardly visit him, he had no institutions under his control, and his movements were always monitored. But he could provide moral leadership and serve as a symbol of fidelity. For many this was enough of a witness.
Both Fan and Jin had, in very different ways, tried to provide leadership to Shanghai’s Catholics during turbulent times. But as the men aged, the question of succession arose. This was all the more so as both men reached their mid and even late nineties, well past the normal retirement age for Catholic bishops.
Already in 2005 a priest in his forties was consecrated as auxiliary bishop for Shanghai. After careful and quiet diplomacy, he was able to secure approval from both the government and the Vatican. Yet he was later sidelined by the government.
Then in July 2012 another priest, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, was ordained under much the same conditions. It represented another breakthrough as it showed that both the Chinese government and the Vatican were engaged in quiet diplomacy.
But at the end of his consecration as bishop, in the presence of Jin, Ma shocked the congregation by saying he would resign from his leadership role in the Patriotic Association. He wanted to devote his energies full-time to the people of Shanghai. Many in the congregation applauded. Within a few hours, Bishop Ma was whisked away and put under house arrest at the Shanghai seminary in the suburbs of the city. He remains there to this day, and he was not permitted to attend the funerals of either Jin or Fan.
Ironically enough, Ma’s actions have driven “patriotic” and “underground” Catholics in Shanghai closer together. Even so, the succession crisis has not been averted. Some remain hopeful that the Vatican and the Chinese government can come to an agreement. Indeed, Pope Francis is reported to have written China’s president Xi Jinping and received a response. Perhaps the Pope will send further diplomatic signals to China during his upcoming summer trip to Korea. Perhaps a sequel to Church Militant is in order.