By Andrea Gagliarducci
At the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress in October 2017, the country’s president, Xi Jinping, promised to “sinicize religions” in the country.
The promise came at the same time as the introduction of new, more restrictive rules on religious practice.
The new regulations on religious activities in China came into effect Feb. 1. Worship can be practiced only in designated churches, and according to a schedule approved by government administrators, while every other place, including private houses, is designated “illegal for worship.”
Group prayer is forbidden in private houses: if one if caught while doing that, he can be arrested. The regulations also require that every church must display at its entrance a notice that the building is “prohibited to minors under age 18,” and that children and teenagers are not allowed to take part in religious rites.
In light of these regulations, the idea of sinicizing religion has met considerable resistance.
The idea of sinicization is to imbue “religious theories with Chinese character,” as president Xi Jinping stressed at October’s party congress.
“Sinicization” has been a core topic for the Chinese leadership in the last three years.
In February, Daniel Mark, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote in First Things that sinicization of religion is “a process of manipulating and subduing faith so as to render it compatible with the state’s totalitarian aims.”
In the midst of this resistance, a Jesuit priest in China, Fr. Benoit Vermander, has penned a proposal, a pathway, 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.
Vermander argued that Catholics of China ought not neglect the push for the “sinicization” of Catholicism merely because it comes from the government.
Vermander noted that zhongguohua, the Chinese word for sinicization is hard to translate, and that it has been rendered to reflect the idea of “having a Chinese orientation. He generally stressed that, despite the problems provided by the doctrine of sinicization, especially since it is accompanied by new regulations on religious activities, dialogue between Catholics and the Communist government is needed.
“Making religions more Chinese,” Vermander argued, does not mean developing local rites and doctrine, but instead adhering “to the definition of Chinese culture” as president Xi Jinping put it during the 19th Congress of the Communist party.”
Many critics have argued that Xi Jinping’s vision of Chinese culture is synonymous with the aims of the country’s communist regime.
In October, Xi Jinping said that the Chinese must “tap into the great Chinese traditional culture, keeping alive and developing its vision, notions, values and moral norms,” and doing that “in a way that fit to our times.”
Vermander conceded that there are “evident dangers” in “following a policy imposed from above, that can bring to a substantial loss of identity.”
“No religion,” he added “can become a mere tool of the political apparatus, as noble as the apparatus’ goals might be.”
He wrote that “Christian churches have often walked into this trap and had the experience of its deception, no matter which political system required the subordination of religions.”
However, Fr. Vermander underscored that “Christian churches should not neglect the appeal for sinicization because it comes from government,” but they should rather “listen to that appeal and examine which kind of changes it could lead them to imagine and undertake,” albeit “being aware of the danger.”
The Jesuit argued that “evangelization conducted by Protestant and Catholic missionaries since 1842 often lacked of cultural sensitivity,” as it combined “the message of the Gospel with cultural items stranger to the Gospel,” showing that Western civilization exported “their conflicts together with the faith they wanted to spread.”
He further said that “inculturation is the result of a process of popular appropriation that no one can really govern,” and made the example of the rosary and litanies, that cannot be labeled as “western” by Chinese Catholics who have learned them in their family. He also mentioned the Chinese devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, an outcome of the story of Zheng Fentao, a Catholic women executed in prison for “counterrevolution” in 1970.
“Can the devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows be considered essentially western? Was not it fully inculturated through the experience and the collective memory of this Chinese village?”
Fr. Vermander said that “for the Church in China, inculturation is synonymous with kenosis and humiliation.” Kenosis is a Greek word that in theology refers to the self-emptying of Jesus, and is used in general terms to describe a process of emptying out of the one’s identity.
Fr. Vermander proposed three areas Christians in China can develop in order to practice a “creative inculturation.”
First, he said, is spiritual theology, “as there is still so much to do to express, through the resources of confucian and taoist traditions, the ways God makes people experience His presence in their interiority.”
Secondly, culture and art, because “getting into the current cultural trends, and trying to develop cultural ways to speak to a wider audience, would be of great benefit for Chinese Christianity and for the society in general.”
And finally, Christians “can better emphasize the Chinese current situation through awareness and social action.”
He noted that, in his speech to the Communist Party conference, Xi Jinping emphasized inequalities and social imbalances of China.
Xi Jinping said that he is aware that religious groups are concerned about the Chinese attempt to support a sort of new “civil religion,” promoting a set of symbols and story “to be respected and preserved.”
On the other hand, he said “if the state open a space of dialogue on some issues, in particular on ways and means through which religions can better contribute to the cultural and social development of the country, this will favour the future stability of China and will confirm the ever more important position of this country in the world.”
“Christianity,” Fr. Vermander argued, “can certainly become more Chinese; at the same time, it can help China to become more open and harmonious.”
Is Vermander right? Is there a path for the Church in China to become less “western,” at the encouragement of Beijing, without becoming controlled by the Chinese government, or compromising Catholic identity? Is Beijing a trustworthy partner for “dialogue?” Those facing persecution would likely express more reservation. La Civiltà Cattolica, reflecting the apparent disposition of the Vatican, seems optimistic.
Time will tell.