These articles are intended to present a very particular reality, which plays a determining role in the life of the Catholics in China, either by conscripting them under the banner of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or by casting them back into the catacombs. The article has been published on the website of the Foreign Missions of Paris. This presentation will allow the uninformed reader to understand what are the stakes of the agreement between China and the Vatican, which should be renewed in October.
40 years after the founding of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, it is possible to make a more complete assessment of the events that marked this era and to decipher the design and the objectives that the leaders of the CCP had set themselves and that they intended to achieve through its creation.
Sources of Information
The first decade of experience with communism revealed the premises and causes of events to come. The documentation is impressive, but it is neither precise nor seriously documented. News was often inferred or assumed, with the flow of news placed under the firm control of the government.
Letters and printed material experienced great circulation difficulties. Inside the country, it was an operation that had to be discouraged at all costs; outside, little filtered through. For almost 30 years, the Chinese diaspora has been the most constant source of information.
Inside the People's Republic of China, official sources are abundant and “reliable.” China New Agency dispatches have almost always been factual. The “pulse” of the situation has been provided by the articles that appeared in the People's Daily and other regime publications and by an abundant production of pamphlets that preferentially attacked the pope.
Outside, despite the difficulties of the first years of the revolution, the information, its classification and reading were also important and constituted an imposing mass.
In 1948, the monthly China Missionary Bulletin (CMB), published in Shanghai, provided information on various dioceses. Published in Hong Kong beginning in June 1949, it became the Missions Bulletin in 1954. In 1961 the title changed to Asia, but at the end of that year it ceased publication. The Mission Chronicle section had become useless: they could no longer talk about specific missions on the Chinese mainland.
Another source of very valuable, constant and accurate information on what was happening to Catholics in Mao Zedong's empire was the Bulletin de la Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (BMEP) [Bulletin of the Society of Foreign Mission of Paris]. From January 1953, a French missionary expelled from Chengdu (Sichuan), a few months earlier, wrote in this magazine.
The signature of Fr. Léon Trivière would become the guarantee of precise documentation, in particular beginning in July 1957, with the series entitled “The Catholic Church in Mainland China.” When he concluded this series in February 1961, Fr. Trivière had written more than 500 very dense pages of unique information, and many articles that appeared elsewhere.
At the end of August 1953, the publication of China News Analysis began in Hong Kong. In his weekly and then fortnightly appointments, Fr. Lazlo Ladany, S.J., brought information on the Chinese reality. Especially devoting himself to the observation of socio-political transformations in the People's Republic, Fr. Ladany did not neglect to inform readers about the religious field.
In Saigon, South Vietnam, in the 1960s, an exceptional witness wrote regular articles on the Church in China in the 1950s, collected in a volume published in October 1966 under the title Zhongguo Dalu Tianzhujiao Zhenxiang. It was Tomaso Zhang, brother of Msgr. Vito Zhang, Bishop of Xinyang (Henan). This book disappeared almost immediately from bookstores, bought by those who did not want “the dirty laundry of the Church of China” to be washed in public.
Tomaso had taken part, in Peking, in 1957, in the interminable meeting from which the Patriotic Association had emerged. Thus he was able to reveal some, at times, disconcerting details. Tomaso Zhang was the only witness to these events that went outside the borders of the People's Republic of China.
Among the later and valuable publications for the information provided, mention should be made of Louis Wei Tsingsing's controversial work, The Holy See and China, published in Paris in 1968 (Editions A. Allois).
In the 1980s, as China became accessible again, many unknown details appeared, recounted by the participants in this assembly, who were prominent figures of the Church at the time. Some ended up in prison or in labor camps for decades and others were pushed forward by these events. They had much to say.
The rest of the article intends to briefly retrace the events of those first years of coexistence between the new regime and the Catholic Church of the time, letting “speak” those who experienced them on the front line and whose testimony was confirmed by the events that followed.
The Religious Conception of the Revolutionaries
The religious policy undertaken by the Communist Party was not born around a table. Its leaders, although disenchanted with religion in general and rites and celebrations in particular, had nevertheless grown up in an environment which had made them familiar with the specific ways in which Buddhism and Taoism played their part.
The revolutionary leaders had grown up in a society where religious sense had a recognized place. But because they themselves had been, in a way, products of this socio-religious milieu, they knew very well its flaws and its inability to lead the country beyond the crisis and the collapse of institutions towards modernity.
In the fervor of those years, characterized by anxiety and the search for methods to transform China, religion (whatever it was) was considered to be responsible for the country's problems, precisely because it had always been part of the system and because it was one of the main factors leading to the breakdown of civil institutions.
However, the revolutionary leaders, despite their fundamentally hostile attitude towards religion, retained of it and its relationship with political power the traditional image provided by Buddhism and Taoism in the Chinese context. Their successive interventions would bear the imprint of the only environment familiar to them and which they knew well.