“May the birth of the Savior strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the Church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience,” Pope Benedict said at the end of his traditional Urbi et Orbi—to the city and to the world—message on Christmas.
After years of accommodation, Beijing in recent months decided to attack the Roman Catholic Church, and the pontiff, who had the world stage to himself on Saturday, used the opportunity to strike back.
Beijing forced a confrontation with Benedict last month by first ordaining a bishop in the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association without the Pope’s approval.
Then, this month Chinese authorities, without sanction from the Holy See, both engineered the election of an illegally ordained bishop to head the bishops’ conference and selected a bishop recognized by the Vatican to lead the patriotic association.
Rome was livid, maintaining that these actions had “unilaterally damaged the dialogue and the climate of trust.”
It praised those faithful who refused to participate in the “illicit ceremonies,” as the Catholic News Agency termed them, and asked China’s Catholics to support those who had to take part against their will.
The Vatican condemned the forced participation as a “grave violation of their human rights, particularly their freedom of religion and of conscience.”
There is, as a practical matter, no freedom of religion or conscience in China.
There is, however, an officially recognized Catholic patriotic association, which does not recognize the authority of the Pope, but most Chinese Catholics choose to pray in illegal “house churches.”
That’s also true for Protestants, who largely shun the Communist Party’s organization for them.
Beijing claims that 23 million Chinese worship in the official Christian organizations, but they are vastly outnumbered by as many as 107 million house-church participants.
However many Christians there may be, the atheistic Party is playing a losing hand.
Unsanctioned, illegal churches have spread across the Chinese heartland, some of which even operate openly under the eyes of nervous officials.
The world’s largest security services, surprisingly, seem unable to deal with this affront to authority.
“It’s no problem if the government doesn’t like Christians or house churches,” said Zhang Fei to London’s Telegraph. “God is in charge of us, not the government.”
Miss Zhang’s government, however, thinks that is precisely the problem.
And indeed she and the 1,000 other members of her congregation in Beijing pose a challenge to Chinese officials.
The fact that the 25-year-old manager can continue to pray in the center of Communist power—instead of toiling away in some labor camp in a remote province—highlights the inability of officialdom to deal with religion.
The Beijing Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau can close down the Association on Music in Korean Dialect and the Beijing Association on Roast Duck Technology, but it is having trouble coercing Miss Zhang and her co-religionists.
That inability would seem anomalous for what has been called the world’s most successful authoritarian regime.
But the reason is simple: by now, religion has spread far too widely across China.
These days, it is no longer confined to poor backwaters; it has taken hold in the country’s great cities.
Beijing simply cannot incarcerate 100 million fervent Christians—as well as untold numbers of devout Buddhists, Muslims, Daoists, and others. China’s people do not believe in communism any more, and in its place they are taking up religion.
I know that as a fact.
Two years ago my neighbor went to China, but not exactly for a sightseeing vacation.
He and a dozen members of his northern New Jersey congregation went to an inland Chinese province—so that they could smuggle in Bibles and pray with house-church Protestants in five-hour Sunday services.
One of my mother-in-law’s students, who became a priest in Hong Kong, devoted his life to going to neighboring Guangdong Province to surreptitiously tend to the Catholic faithful there.
China’s Christians, whether they go to official services or the unsanctioned ones, do not see themselves as enemies of the state.
Yet deeply insecure Chinese officials view them as such.
The cadres, therefore, are creating enemies for the Communist Party, just as they did with, among others, Falun Gong practitioners, Buddhist Tibetans, and Muslim Uighurs.
And that gets us back to the Pope.
China’s Communists devoted years of effort to understanding why the Soviet party failed.
Among other reasons, they focused on the role of the charismatic Pope John II.
Now, Beijing’s rulers think they can antagonize his steely successor with impunity.
Historical trends, many believe, point to the Chinese owning this century.
I think that’s a gross misreading of events, but, in any case, Beijing rulers will certainly fail if, while enjoying their moment of hubris, they create more adversaries than they can deal with.