A University of Alabama professor who recently studied in China for several months reports that Catholics in the country are enjoying freedoms but are anxious about government monitoring and “terrified” their liberties may be swiftly taken away.
Dr. Anthony E. Clark, assistant professor of history at The University of Alabama, returned to the United States in December 2008 after studying the history of Christianity in China. He particularly focused on the stories of Catholic martyrs and the destruction of Christian churches during the Boxer Rebellion, which lasted from 1898 to 1900.
Though the nation’s Christians are engaged in “enormous restoration work” and enjoy “enormous freedom,” Prof. Clark said, “at the same time, you’ll see an arrest of an underground bishop, or a couple gets a warning from the party police about a visit they had with a foreigner.”
“So the old powers are still there, and you don’t know when they will re-emerge. Chinese Christians are enjoying a freedom that causes an equal amount of anxiety. They’re terrified. They live in terror for the freedom that they have.”
Prof. Clark recounted how a couple who helped him and his wife during their travels was visited by the party police. Police reportedly approached the couple’s church and told them “they knew everything that they did with the two foreigners” and that they were being watched.
“They were terrified. So the claws are still out,” he said.
While books about the history of Christianity in China and Catholic materials are available in churches and bookstores, internet access to information on Pope Benedict XVI is often cut off and photos of him are rare.
“Before the communist revolution, Christianity was a tiny little minority, and it’s still a minority, but it’s the fastest growing religion in China today,” Prof. Clark said.
“Catholics were three-fourths of Chinese Christians, and Protestants one-fourth before the revolution; today it’s the opposite. Protestants are three-fourths of the Christians in China and Catholics are one-fourth. The Protestant house churches are exploding. There are so many. It’s the fastest-growing religion in China.”
Prof. Clark, who is Catholic, met with priests, nuns and laity in several provinces.
Almost all Christian churches in China were wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. A new openness emerged in the early 1980s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.
During the years of suppression from the 1950s to the early 1980s, some priests served as dairy farmers or held regular jobs and carried out their priestly duties at night, Prof. Clark explained.
“They kept in closed communities. One bishop said to me, in the 1960s and ’70s you didn’t even know who a Catholic was. They led private lives. You couldn’t see one from the next. Then when the churches reopened in the ’80s, suddenly you knew, wow, my neighbor is a Catholic.”
Attempting to cut Catholics off from the rest of the Catholic Church, the Chinese government formed the Patriotic Catholic Association, whose bishops were appointed by the Communist Party.
Underground bishops in communion with the Pope ministered clandestinely.
However, the two groups have begun to merge as more Patriotic Catholic Association bishops pledge communion with Rome.
“It used to be all patriotic bishops were disconnected with the Vatican,” Clark said. “At this moment, about 98 to 99 percent are what we’d call openly in communion with Rome, which means that there are probably only two or three bishops left in China who are not in open communion with the Vatican. The new complicated situation is that the so-called underground bishops literally live with or share the same building with the so-called patriotic bishops.”
Prof. Clark has blogged about his experiences at the Ignatius Insight web site and is currently finishing a book about Catholic martyrs in China.