China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Nov

To join the Party or join the Church?

The 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) ended on 21 October 21 2007. The Constitution of the CPC is not a state secret. It was uploaded on the Internet at the end of October for the whole world to read. The 2007 text is slightly amended from the 2002 version. The Catholic Church published the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983 and translated it into many languages, unlike the Latin Code of 1917.

National and international organisations

The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish. But when they were called Christians for the first time in Antioch (Acts 11:26), Gentiles were already becoming highly visible. After the Council of Jerusalem (50 AD), the new faith spread to different ethnic groups across the Roman Empire and beyond. During the Second century, people began describing the Church as catholic, from the Greek adjective for “universal,” open to members from every land and social class. Churches in different lands prayed in different languages and had their own traditions. Some Churches organised themselves within linguistic and political borders, such as in Armenia, Ethiopia and in the national Orthodox Churches.

Others are in union with the Bishop of Rome. Our Church today is composed of the large western or Latin Church, plus 21 eastern Churches. These autonomous, particular Churches have their own liturgical rites and regulations. They are somewhat similar to autonomous regions, prefectures and counties in China. The Code begins: “The canons of this Code regard only the Latin Church” (c.1). Someone called the Catholic Church “the world’s first multinational corporation.” Lines on a map should not be barriers to peace and communion.

Communism began in the 19th century as an international movement. After the 1917 revolution in Russia, the Communist International coordinated the activities of parties around the world. But in 1943, Moscow abolished the Comintern, and Mao Zedong commented that the global situation was in flux and so flexibility was needed at the national level. China’s sensitivity to interference in its internal affairs goes back a long way.

An international faith and a national government can easily collide. Readers are familiar with the phrase “God and country,” but in China the slogan is “Love country, love religion” (爱国爱教), and the priority is obvious. One’s faith does not have to be a religious faith. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the British philosopher and atheist, believed in human solidarity and pacifism.

He opposed Britain’s involvement in World War I. So he was fined, dismissed from teaching at Cambridge University and finally sentenced to six months in prison for speaking against the war. In some other countries he would have been shot for treason. Many people in China have read at least one of Russell’s books, Why I Am Not a Christian. But how many of them know that he placed international solidarity above love of his native country?

Requirements for membership

Some people proudly say, “I was born Catholic,” but they are incorrect. Nobody was ever born Catholic, although many were baptised as infants. In China, no one boasts of being born communist, since “born red” (出生红) is a term of envy towards those whose parents climbed high in the Party and so gave their children an advantage in life.

Nationality depends on country and baptism is initiation into the Church. So is joining the Party like choosing religious life as a deacon, priest, brother or sister? There are some similarities. Just as seminaries and convents used to recruit teenagers, the Communist Youth League organises “advanced young people” (Art. 49) and “Party committees at all levels must … pay attention to selecting and training League Cadres” (Art. 50). After turning 18, people can apply for membership (Art. 1), but they need two sponsors inside the Party (Art. 5). Candidates take an oath to the Party (Art. 6). They have to work and study in order to pass a probationary year, or two years at most (Art. 7). Membership implies a lifelong commitment. Party members “must serve the people wholeheartedly, dedicate their whole lives to the realisation of communism and be ready to make any personal sacrifices” (必須全心全意為人民服務,不惜犧牲個人的一切,為實現共產主義奮鬥終身) (Art. 2).

Leaving the Party sounds easier than getting dispensed from religious oath or vows. The local branch can handle the matter, without having to appeal all the way to the top. Simply neglecting meetings, work or dues for six months is enough to trigger dismissal (Art. 9). Party discipline and inspection committees are discussed at length (Art. 37-45), with due process for warning, serious warning, removal from position, probation and finally expulsion for members who will not rectify their mistakes (Art. 39). The person under investigation has the right to speak in self-defence and to appeal a verdict. “Those who cling to erroneous views and unjustifiable demands shall be educated by criticism” (Art. 41).

The Code of Canon Law likewise has much to say, both for clerics and for religious, about admission, formation, rights and obligations, dismissal (cc. 232-292, 573-746), as well as sanctions and penalties (cc.1311-1399), and due process (cc.1400-1752) for all members of the Church. One big difference is that the “chapter of faults,” in which a member of a religious community would be accused in front of the whole community, no longer exists. But we hear that a Party “struggle session” can still be a long, emotional battering into submission.

Strength in numbers?

A big difference is that the CPC is huge, with more than 70 million members, or 5.5 per cent of China’s total population. It is the largest organisation in the world. In comparison, 5,000 bishops, 405,000 priests, 35,000 permanent deacons, 55,000 brothers, and 750,000 sisters total only 1.25 million religious personnel, a mere 0.11 per cent of the world’s Catholics. The “professional to lay” ratio is 50 times higher than in the Church. So the Party has enough people to supervise and direct every place, school, office and factory. At best, the policies of the centre are quickly implemented in every village, with honest feedback on their effectiveness reaching those in authority. At worst, bureaucracy smothers everything.

There was a time when religious vocations were more abundant in the Church. But even at the end of the Middle Ages, they did not constitute five per cent of the Catholic total. The Church was also plagued with careerism and corruption in those days.

The Party constitution does not mention celibacy. In the 1960s and 70s, the new nation of Tanzania was promoting Ujamaa, African Socialism, to develop an extremely poor country. One government official saw the dedication and hard work of celibate Church professionals and said, “I wish people would be celibate for the sake of Ujamaa.” But he did not personally volunteer to set a good example.

In China, during World War II and the subsequent civil war, millions could not marry. Compared to the risk of dying on the battlefield, that was a lesser sacrifice.

China is becoming increasingly prosperous now. More and more people can finally enjoy the good life, as advertised on television. So they have a hard time appreciating celibacy, or even fidelity in marriage. Within an earthly, materialistic framework, it is hard to promote any form of sacrifice and dedication to a high ideal. Slogans are no substitute for prayer and fasting.

Believers need not apply

A first and even a second reading of the constitution fails to find the direct statement “Members must be atheists.” However, they are “vanguard fighters of the Chinese working class imbued with communist consciousness” (Art. 2), who must “conscientiously study Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought …the Party’s line, principles, policies and resolutions.” (Art. 3) After conscientiously studying all that and accepting it as the true, scientific world view, how can anyone in good conscience still be a religious believer? There has been talk from time to time about admitting believers into the Party, but it was not a topic at last month’s congress.

Those “who have seriously violated civil law shall be expelled from the Party” (Art. 38). So to join an “evil cult” is to ask for serious trouble. Citizens are free to join one of the major religions, but not Party members. This prohibition seems to come from an interpretation of the constitution, or maybe an article in an earlier constitution which still exerts a strong influence.

The 1917 Code had an explicit condemnation of Masons (c. 2335). There had been a history of bad blood between the Church and the Masons, so a Catholic who joined was automatically excommunicated. The 1983 Code is softer and vaguer; “A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty” (c. 1374). But other, less authoritative, Church statements have warned Catholics who join such secret societies to stay away from holy communion.

Masons and Catholics share some beliefs, such as the creator or architect of the universe, but they differ on numerous other points. Why would anyone want to be both a Catholic and a Mason? For that matter, why would a Catholic want to join the Communist Party?

What is the supreme law?

Finally, no communist document anywhere in the world ends the way the Code ends: “…the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes” (c. 1752). The salvation of souls should not be confused with the security, power or prestige of any Church, party or nation.