The challenges endured by Catholics in China are complex, said Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung of Hong Kong, but there are reasons to be hopeful about the future of the Church in China.

In an interview with CNA, Yeung explained the state of religious freedom and Church-state relations in China, outlined major challenges, and stressed the importance of the Church’s work amidst the Chinese people, especially the elderly, sick, and poor.

Appointed August 1 as Bishop of Hong Kong after serving briefly as coadjutor, Yeung succeeded Cardinal John Tong Hon at the helm of an influential Chinese diocese, where the Holy See has based its mission to study the situation of Catholics in mainland China.

Yeung stressed that despite political challenges, the Church in China continues to “discover the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor. There is no motivation other than serving Christ by serving the least of His brethren without excluding others from His love and embrace.  This is true of the Church in China as it is anywhere else.”

The Holy See and China have no diplomatic relations, and the Chinese government has tried to control the Catholic Church in China ever since 1949, when the Chinese Communist party took control of the state. This has resulted in a progressively difficult and complex relationship over the last 70 years.

Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association

In 1957, the Chinese government established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), and required all bishops to join it. The Chinese Catholic Church split, with many bishops and priests going underground.

With time, the Holy See and the Chinese government have developed realpolitik solutions to the appointment of bishops, which the Chinese government claims the right to control. However, the Chinese government has still appointed bishops within the CCPA which are not recognized by the Holy See, and the Pope has appointed bishops which the CCPA has refused to recognize.

Talks for a possible agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese government regarding the appointment of bishops have been underway in recent years. The CCPA celebrated its 60th anniversary with no fanfare, thus raising hopes that an agreement would be finalized. In fact, though, things are at the moment stuck.

Yeung explained that “the Chinese authorities define the CCPA’s role as acting as a bridge between the Church and its own internal governance offices,” but that “it is how that role is played out in practice that can make an enormous difference.”

The bishop said that “not too much can be read” into the “lack of fanfare of the CCPA’s 60th anniversary celebration” because “the CCPA does not appear to me to be poised to write itself off.”

He explained that CCPA was created by the National Congress of Chinese Catholic Representatives (NCCCR), an organization founded to supplant the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC), which was established by the Holy See.

“The very existence of these three entities, their composition and their relationships among themselves and with the Church are presumably all part of the challenges to be met in negotiations between the Holy See and Chinese administration.”

However, Yeung stressed that these are not “new challenges,” as “Pope Benedict XVI has himself identified and recognized these and various other issues in his 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics which cannot be washed away if there is going to be any sustainable ‘healing of relationships’.”

Yeung’s predecessors held strong views about the possible agreement among Chinese Church leaders: His predecessor Cardinal John Tong Hon has supported it, while the previous influential Cardinal Joseph Zen has been highly critical of the possible agreement.

Yeung recalled what the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in a July 27 interview granted to the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. Parolin said that “dialogue in itself is already a positive fact,” and that the Holy See was facing it “in a spirit of healthy realism.”

“A healthy realism,” Yeung commented, “is indeed required to guard against false hopes and unrealistic expectations on the one hand and premature closing of doors to further dialogue on the other.”

The Level of Reality

He stressed that “things aren’t always what they seem to be,” and that “what is happening at the practical level of reality is often more significant than what has or has not been achieved at the formal level.”

Talking about the situation of religious freedom in mainland China, he said that “signals are often mixed and the situation varies from religion to religion, from locality to locality and from time to time.”

Yeung said that “the Chinese Constitution speaks of ‘freedom of religious belief’ and protection of  ‘normal religious activities,’ but what truly matters is how governmental control is exercised…in practice.”

He noted that control is particularly important during this “sensitive time in the run-up to the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party scheduled for November.”

“I’m not too surprised that Yu Zhengsheng, one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), is reported to have, in July this year, stressed that Beijing intends to keep ‘a tight rein’ to ensure that the Chinese Catholic Church is held firmly in the hands of those who ‘love the nation and the religion’,” namely Chinese communists.

Yeung explained that part of the strategy of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) “was to reinforce its regulation of religious affairs and control over religions, minorities and any potential source of social disruption.”

Increased regulatory restrictions require registration of all religious workers – including Catholic priests, both official and unofficial, through the CCPA – and certification of all religious sites.

Yeung recalled that “President Xi Jinping himself insisted in April last year, when addressing a National Conference on Religious Work, that religious groups must adhere to the leadership of the Party (with him as its helm), support the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics, retain the principle of ‘religious independence’ and ‘self-administration’ and that there must be ‘Chinazation of Religion’.”

The Chinese government, Yeung said, “has since at least last year increasingly pushed for what it calls the ‘five transformations,’ namely localizing religion, standardizing management, indigenizing theology (by contextualizing doctrine), showing financial transparency and adapting Christian teachings so as to mold them into institutions that reflect the objectives of the Communist Party.”

One of the official reasons why the Chinese government set up the CCPA was because they required all priests to be “patriotic” and to be connected to the Chinese administration.

Yeung reflected on the Chinese government’s seeming reluctance to accept that Catholic bishops are not inherently unpatriotic, and that the faithful can be good Catholics as well as good citizens and patriots.

“Chinese authorities appear to have different definitions of ‘patriotism’ for different purposes at different times,” he said. “The Chinese communist party seeks to bar party members from becoming Christians but it is perfectly content to appoint the Honorable Carrie Lam, a Catholic, who is not a member of the party, as Chief Executive of the Hong Kong governmental administration. No one suggests that she cannot love the country and love Hong Kong because of her religion.”

“Indeed,” Yeung explained, “our religion teaches us, among other things, to love God and neighbor, to have civic responsibility, to respect authority (at the same time insisting that authority is a form of service to be responsibly exercised), to be compassionate, to serve the poor and the sick and all those in need – and to love the country, people and planet. Indeed, you can’t be a good Catholic without truly striving to be a good person and a good citizen. That holds true for bishops as it is for any ordinary lay person.”

Serving the Poor

From the very first homily after his installation, Yeung talked about serving the poor, the sick and the needy, because, in his words, “the well-being of society requires the fostering of genuine ecology and unceasing efforts to bring about integral human development.”

Speaking about the challenges the Church faces in its ministry as “Church of the poor and for the poor,” Yeung said that “the Chinese government has generally encouraged the religious sector to participate more in social and charitable services.”

Yeung explained that in 2012, several government bureaus issued a policy document called Opinions Concerning the Encouragement and Regulation of Social Services Conducted by the Religious Sector to create a legal framework for such services, and that “by that time, thanks to Deng’s Open Door Policy, the Church had already established several hundred medical clinics and hospitals located mostly in provincial cities, village towns and urban centers.”

“Unfortunately, the Church, with few exceptions could only provide private medical services because the reforms of the medical insurance system generally did not cover Catholic medical institutions,” although he explained that in recent years, this has begun to change.

Catholic hospitals attract many clients, because of “the quality of patient care they offer.”

“Many religious personnel as well as dedicated lay people are frontline workers,” he said. “You find them also serving as caregivers in homes for the elderly, the handicapped, abandoned babies and orphans, not only in urban but also remote rural areas.”

Challenges that these personnel face include “difficulties in obtaining formal registration” and, more seriously, “sustainability of such services, particularly when there has been an overall fall in vocations to the religious life.”

Hope for the Future

Chinese Catholics hope for more equitable treatment in the years to come, Yeung said. He recalled the words of Parolin: “The Catholic Church asks that people are guaranteed the right to freely profess their faith for the benefit of everyone and for harmony in society.  Catholics wish to live their faith serenely in their respective countries as good citizens, working toward the positive development of the national community.”

“I think,” Yeung reflected, “these are points worth underlining, and (they) resonate with civic responsibility, social harmony and developmental goals in the Chinese mainland context.”