China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2019/Sep

Basic questions: Church and civil government in China

On the occasion of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, it seems appropriate to take into consideration the issue of the relationship between religion and state, or Church and government in China. 

First of all, it must be underlined that it is a complex and variable issue, due to the interaction of the two institutions on common concerns. Human history presents different models of relationships, based mainly upon the vision both sides have of the society or state, the understanding of rule of law and of religious freedom.

Let us just consider these three basic issues dealing with the present relationship between the Chinese government and the Catholic Church.

1. The vision of the state

The position of the Chinese government was clearly expressed in Document No. 19 (1982): “Every patriotic organisation, including the religious institutions, must accept the leadership of the Communist Party and the government.” 

It is the traditional way, “Government leads, religion follows.” The government guides and controls all aspects of life in society. In principle, it would not allow any social group or religious body to be independent from government control.

Such a vision and position have been reiterated many times, and the policy has been carried out in a very strong way since the president, Xi Jinping, took power in 2013. At the start of the Party’s 19th national congress in October 2018, he borrowed a line from Mao Zedong: “Government, military, society, education, north, south, east, west—the Party leads everything.” 

It is the principle of the present official campaign. 

Such a position shows the unilateral or monopolar vision of the Chinese authorities regarding the state: there is only one supreme authority, like one sun in the sky, as Mao Zedong stated. It is the vision of the absolute or authoritarian system, traditional in China since the beginning of the Chinese Empire.

The position of the Catholic Church has been explained several times and recently clarified by the Second Vatican Council, the Universal Catechism of the Church, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the encyclical letters of recent popes.

The Second Vatican Council solemnly reaffirmed that, “in their proper spheres, the political community and the Church are mutually independent and self-governing” because of the different aims they pursue. 

According to the Church, state or government is concerned with measures and institutions which are at the service of the secular common good of the nation, while religion and the Church aims at meeting the spiritual needs of people. The responsibility of the state leaders is to safeguard and promote the common good of people, to whom they are accountable. 

The mutual autonomy of the state and of the Church does not entail a separation but includes cooperation, especially on issues of common concern.

The Church has the right to the legal recognition of her proper identity and autonomy. Therefore, the political authorities should guarantee the Church the space needed to carry out her mission by respecting people’s right of freedom of religion, both personal and communitarian. For her part, the Church has no particular area of competence concerning the structures of the political community.

The vision of the relations between states and religious institutions by the Catholic Church corresponds to the requirements of a state under the rule of law and by the norms of international laws.

Pope Francis emphasises in Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) that the Church wants to work with and serve people, the people as a whole and their culture, and not a single class, minority, group or elite. We do not need plans drawn up by a few for the few, or an enlightened or outspoken minority which claims to speak for everyone. It is about agreeing to live together, a social and cultural pact (no. 239).

Consequently, the vision of the state and society of the Catholic Church is multipolar, since it acknowledges that within a society and among the population there are several public and private, political and civil, secular and religious institutions, with which she wants to cooperate to build a better place for all to live in. 

This is the vision and the mission not only of the Universal Catholic Church, but it should also be the mission of each particular or local Church, that is, each diocese, led by a bishop. 

Unfortunately in China, because of the monopolar vision of society by Chinese authorities, Local Churches do not or cannot implement this mission: they accept willingly or not the guidance and control of the government.

2. The understanding of law

In the unilateral or monopolar vision of society, the political leaders consider themselves as having the supreme authority and consequently the duty to care for all dimensions of the life of the citizens, including the spiritual and the religious ones. Supreme authority conveys also the feeling of having a high degree of wisdom, which makes the leaders judge and decide what is best for the people. 

So they draft and issue laws and regulations. They want to make use of these laws to rule people and society, according to the laws they, as supreme authorities, have decided. These laws are what the jurists call positivistic laws, which bring about the positivistic conception of human rights. 

Human beings have only the rights that laws, decided by the human legislators, give them. Since these laws are man-made, they can be interpreted and modified by the legislators, who are above the law. Therefore, they cannot give absolute guarantees. This way is called “rule by law.”

There is another understanding of laws and human rights, what the jurists call the naturalistic conception. It is based upon the conviction that there are universal laws or values, and human rights are given by human nature itself.  All human leaders must decide human laws in line with these universal laws and human rights. Before these laws, everyone, including the human legislators, are equal, and have the duty to observe them. This is what is called the “rule of law.” 

It seems clear that the Chinese authorities follow the “rule by law” and not the “rule of law” since they deny the existence of universal laws and natural rights, while the Catholic Church advocates the “rule of law.” 

3. The explanation of religious freedom 

Article 36 of the national Constitution states: 

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organisation or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities…

The limitation of freedom only of religious belief and only to citizens who enjoy it is a clear indicator of the positivistic conception of human rights, which include religious freedom, adopted by the Chinese authorities. 

Consequently, the precariousness of human rights and of religious freedom is clearly manifested in such an ordinance. The reason is that what is guaranteed is only those issues the positivistic legislator, in a given historical period and in reference to a given socio-political reality, has considered worthy to assure special protection, and not what should be naturally recognised and guaranteed to every human being always and in every place.  

Since “normal religious activities” are protected, the Chinese Constitution admits not only “freedom of religious belief,” that is of personal religious convictions, but also “freedom of profession of faith,” that is of manifesting it in given activities. 

However, since the subject is not clearly specified, it seems that when dealing with citizens, they are the subjects of the religious activities and not the religious body or religious community or institution to which they belong. 

Anyway, any public expression of the religious belief is “protected.” In other words, it is to be allowed and controlled by the civil authorities. “Freedom of religious association” does not seem to be legally taken into consideration by the Constitution.

More problematic is the “freedom of propagation of faith”, since the Constitution forbids “compelling citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion.”

Apparently, it seems that religion and atheism are placed on the same level. However, they are not. Due to the monopolar vision of the state with the political supremacy upon all other social sectors, including even the juridical field, religious freedom, as are all the other human rights, enjoy space of recognition and protection only as much as they turn functional to the political objective of the authorities or, at least, do not oppose it.  

On the political level in China, the supreme authority is the Chinese Communist Party, whose official ideology is Marxism. Since it includes atheism, atheism becomes the orthodox ideology (Robert N. Bellah, 1927-2013, called it “civil religion” or “state religion”).

This fact legitimises the public authorities and the public institutions to make use of the educational structures (schools and universities) as well as the mass media to propagate atheistic education and practice, and to forbid religious education to children under 18 years of age. 

Moreover, since Marxism aims at the elimination of religion, the same fact legitimises the public authorities to acknowledge and allow for the time being the existence of some religions and of some religious activities and to proscribe others. 

This allows us to draw two conclusions: first, before the Chinese Party or state, religious belief and atheism are not on an equal basis; second, the official religious policy does not seem to mean “freedom of religious belief,” but just “tolerance of religion.”