Writer traces history of Catholic finances in China

Professor’s book covers period of change between 1582 and communist takeover in 1949 reporter, Hong Kong 
July 8, 2019

Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in China in 1582 to launch a new era for the Catholic Church. (Photo supplied)

A Chinese scholar has published the first book on the finances of the Catholic Church in China prior to 1949, which includes covering tensions between a sacred religion and a secular economy.

Professor Kang Zhijie, a scholar of Chinese Christian studies, published Financial and Economic Studies of Chinese Catholicism (1582-1949).

“There were very few studies in the past. Even if there was related research, it was limited to a specific missionary congregation or a certain historical period,” Kang, a professor in the school of history and culture at Hubei University, told

She explained that previously materials on this subject were “scattered and hard to see” and even if the references were found, the multiple languages made studies “difficult to carry forward.”

Kang said the Church had not wanted to disclose too much information about the financial activities of missionaries because it could show the Church in a bad light. “The Church has been reticent about its economic activities and even blocked some information, such as investment in real estate and stocks,” she said.

Amid complicated references, Kang suggests that the economic ethics of Christianity are “to make money as much as possible, to save as much as possible, to donate as much as possible.”

“To make money is reflected in investment and wealth management; to save is shown in the saving of every copper coin for putting more capital into missionary works; to donate means in major disaster relief activities, when the weak need help, they should donate their all to create a harmonious and stable society. Such an economic cycle shows appropriately the concept and operation of the finance and economics of Catholicism,” she explained.

The scope of study of this academic work begins in 1582 and continues until 1949, the year that the Chinese Communist Party took control of China. It is divided into four major themes: history, income and expenditure, church property and management.

For a more in-depth analysis and discussion, its content involves varied aspects including the features of Chinese Catholicism in different historical stages from the Ming and Qing dynasties to the Republic of China, the funding sources and spending items, the categories of church properties, and the strict financial management system.

Kang noted that 1582 was the beginning of a new journey in Chinese Catholic history marked by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci setting foot in China, while its end in 1949 was because the foundation of the People’s Republic of China meant that the Catholic Church’s situation of accepting “external help” had gradually ceased, and the operation of its finance and economics emerged in another pattern.

Regarding the historical study of Chinese Catholicism, Kang said that in the past it focused on the history of saints or cultural exchanges but rarely studied the finance and economics of Catholicism, which became an academic blind spot.

“In fact, the finance and economics of Chinese Catholicism are very rich in content, involving not only its income and expenditure but also the relationship between Catholicism and the state,” she said.

“For this reason, the secular role of Catholicism as an economic entity in the country and society is analyzed through the management of religious church property by the Chinese government in different periods. Through the relationship of religion and politics implicit in the history of economic life, the possibility and feasibility of the harmonious coexistence of foreign religions and Chinese society are learned and understood.” 

Kang believes that study of the economics of Chinese Catholicism is of special significance, which helps to objectively and rationally understand and interpret the history of China and Catholicism since the late Ming Dynasty, to look at the interaction between the Catholic Church and Chinese society, and to decrypt the waxing and waning secular and religious power.

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