Fr. Benoit Vermander, a Jesuit priest in China, attempted to outline a path for "Sinicization" of religion in the March 3 issue of the Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica, whose publication is overseen by the Vatican's Secretariat of State.
While there are "evident dangers" in following a top-down policy that can bring "a substantial loss of identity," he argued, Catholics should not avoid "Sinicization" simply because it is government backed. Rather, despite the problems created by the policy, dialogue between Catholics and the Communist government is needed.
Vermander argues that Christian churches should listen to the government's appeal for Sinicization and "examine which kind of changes it could lead them to imagine and undertake," while "being aware of the danger."
Professor Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told UCA News that Sinicization is unavoidable for all religions in China following President Xi Jinping's proposal of the program in 2015.
The Chinese government has proposed Sinicization in three areas: political identity, social identity and cultural identity. The Catholic five-year plan accomodates all three of these aspects.
Interpreting progress from the basis of Catholic theology and doctrine will be the main focus, Ying said, "because the central government's main concern for the Sinicization of religion is not cultural, but political and social."
According to Ying, Sinicization is the Communist Party's effort to strengthen control over religions by ideological means. Religion must conform to the Communist Party's core socialist values and must align with Chinese society while being compatible with traditional Chinese culture.
Ying said the Sinicization plan would be incorporated into the localization of the universal Church within the context of the Second Vatican Council.
The plan says the history of the Chinese Catholic Church can learn lessons from Catholicism's actions under the Ming and Qing imperial dynasties, when the faith was sometimes banned and the faithful persecuted.
"If you have a bad relationship with an imperial power and tradition, you will have the consequences of prohibition," said Ying. He contended that Matteo Ricci should be the basis for this religious Sinicization in the 21st century because of the Jesuit missionary's efforts to adapt Christianity to Chinese culture.
Fr. Vermander said that Catholic and Protestant evangelization in 19th century "often lacked cultural sensitivity" and combined the Gospel with elements foreign to it, meaning Western civilization exported not only its faith, but its conflicts.
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However, he said, "inculturation is the result of a process of popular appropriation that no one can really govern." He pointed to Chinese Catholics who have adopted the rosary and litanies to saints into their family life.
He proposed Christian engagement in "creative inculturation." Spiritual theology can draw on Confucian and Taoist resources to consider how God makes people experience his presence. In culture and art, Christians can try to speak to a wider audience in a way "of great benefit for Chinese Christianity and for the society in general." They can also respond to current situations with "awareness and social action," such as in addressing the inequalities and social imbalances President Xi Jinping has lamented.
"Christianity," Fr. Vermander concluded, "can certainly become more Chinese; at the same time, it can help China to become more open and harmonious."