06/21/2016, 15.11
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Inculturating theology, key to religious freedom in China

The Chinese Catholic Church has suffered decades of enforced immobility under Communist rule. As it started up again in the 1980s, the paucity of pastors and administrators became apparent. Now scholars and theologians are needed to inculturate the faith to local conditions and engage Chinese society in dialogue despite some fears vis-à-vis the spread of Christianity. Here is an article by Tripod, a publication of the Diocese of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Having a well-developed system of local theology is the sign of a mature local Church. On the one hand, local theology is the result of the inculturation of the Christian faith, that is to say, to spread the everlasting Christian faith through the adoption of the thought and language of local people. On the other hand, local theology is a sign of the independent thinking ability of a particular Church. In this sense, although the Church in China is not yet mature, it has the courage to be on the way to maturity.

The political, religious and cultural background of the development of Chinese Theology

According to data released by official and private institutions in the past decade, the stirring up of interest in religion, which started in the 1980’s, has not obviously languished. Catholicism and Protestantism continue to develop rapidly in China. Moreover, academic circles are still very interested in Christianity. However, the flourishing of Christianity in China has caused anxiety and worry to some people and among some entities. Such anxiety and worry can be seen in civil society and in the government.

Regarding the civil aspect, some colleges or students hyped the subject of “anti-Christmas celebrations”. For example, on 18 December 2006, ten PhD students jointly published a petition on the Internet, titled “Out of Our Cultural Collective Unconscious, Strengthen Chinese Cultural Subjectivity.” Opposing Christmas celebrations, they used negative words to describe the development of Christianity in China. They described the spread of Christianity in China as "overwhelming.” “It was not only a problem of culture or religion, but also an immersion and expansion of the ‘soft power’ of western countries in China.”

Recently, on the night of 24 December 2014, the Modern College of Northwest University forced the students to watch propaganda films on Chinese culture. The Faculty members even stood at the doors to make sure no one tried to sneak off to partake in illicit Christmas cheer. They also threatened to punish the students who celebrated Christmas. At the same time, in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, some high school students protested against Christmas, holding banners saying “boycott Christmas, Chinese people do not celebrate Western festivals” etc.

Moreover, on 22 December, 2010, some leading scholars, like Guo Qiyong, Zhang Xiangnong, and Jiang Qing, jointly published an open letter, entitled “Respect the holy place of Chinese culture, stop building a Christian Church in Qu Fu.” They opposed the building of a Christian Church within a 25km radius of the Confucius Temple, the Mencius Temple and the Zhougong Temple. If churches were built outside the area, they should not be taller than the Ta Cheng Palace of the Confucius Temple and Mencius Temple.” Otherwise, it would be “an insult to the Chinese culture.”

The rapid development of Christianity in China has worried the Chinese leadership. The worry was shown in official speeches and actions against Chinese Christianity. For instance, on 5 June 2014, the Centre for International Strategy and Security Studies at the University of International Relations published a “Research Report on the National Security of China (2014),” stating that western countries used religious infiltration as a means to threaten faith in Chinese socialism. The above-mentioned “religion” referred to Christianity.

During an interview around Christmas time in 2014, Wang Zuo’an, Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, said that the government had to strengthen control over Christianity, so as to prevent the foreign infiltration of Christianity into China. In the meantime, in the political area, the authorities had to lead Christianity to “hold high the banner of patriotism, adhere to the principle of independence and self-governance, and be in compliance with socialism.” Under the dogmatic aspect, the Church had to “explore the doctrines that are closely linked with the core values of socialism.”

At the National United Front Work Meeting (18-20 May 2015), President Xi Jinping urged “religious affairs to be in line with the law, adhering to the principle of independence and self-governance, and active efforts should be made to incorporate religions into socialist society.” He added that “religions in China must be Chinese, and their social functions must be looked at dialectically. The nation must value the influence of persons in the religious sphere and guide them to better serve the nation's development, harmony and unification.”

In view of the political, religious and cultural background of the Church in China in the past decade, hope and difficulties coexisted. In the context of social attitudes toward Catholicism, the Chinese have a favorable impression of Christianity because many Chinese accept and believe in Christ every year. However, the opposition towards building a Christian church in Qu Fu, as well as the opposition to the celebration of Christmas, both show that some civil forces do not understand Christianity, and are even hostile to it. This is the challenge that Christianity has to face in Chinese civil society.

Viewed from the macro aspect of religious policy, the government wants Christianity to be localized and to be in compliance with the situation of China, so as to become an important part of Chinese society and culture. That works in favor of the development of Christianity in China. To a certain extent, the emphasis on the three-self principle for Christianity in China shows that the leadership lacks confidence in Christianity. This is the challenge which Christianity has to face, and overcome, in China.

Today, in the Chinese Catholic community, four registered Catholic institutes of academic studies exist. These are the Faith Institute for Cultural Studies (established in Shijiazhuang in 2001), the Beijing Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture (established in 2002), Yuan Dao Study Society (established in Hong Kong in 2008), and the Li Madou Study Centre (established in 2010). As this essay reviews Chinese Catholic academic development in the last ten years (2005 to 2015), the author will mainly concentrate on the last two institutes.

Yuan Dao Study Society

Yuan Dao, an institution for academic research approved by the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, is located at Kam Shan, Taipo, N.T. It was founded by Fr. Peter Choy and registered in Hong Kong. The committee is made up of clergy and laity. The word “Yuan Dao”, is taken from the chapter Yuandao, which is found in the Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. The name implies the aims of the Study Centre. These include communication between domestic and overseas academics, the promotion of Catholic studies and the exchange of knowledge and ideas in relation to these studies through meetings and seminars, and translation, editorial and publishing work.

From the very beginning, Yuan Dao has brought its own advantages into full play, cooperating with academic institutes in China to promote local theology through the organization or joint organization of seminars. Yuan Dao has already reached an agreement with the Institute of Christian Culture Studies of People's University and the Faith Institute for Cultural Studies, taking turns to organize symposia on“the Function and Influence of Christianity in Contemporary Chinese Society” in Hong Kong and China.

From 2010 to 2014, four symposia with the same topic were held in Beijing, Macau, Hong Kong and Shijiazhuang respectively. The 2015 symposium was held in Hong Kong in November 2015. Moreover, from 6 to 8 November 2013, the International Symposium of “Catholicism and China: Dialogue, Inculturation and Responsibility” was jointly organized by Yuan Dao, Li Madou Study Centre, Monumenta Serica Institute and China-Zentrum (China Centre) in Germany.

Li Madou Study Centre

Li Madou Study Centre, a non-profit organization, was registered in Macerata (the birthplace of Matteo Ricci) in 2010. Its objective is to provide a platform to unite Chinese domestic and overseas theologians to promote a local Chinese theology. Today, Yuan Dao and Li Madou Centre co-publish three series of books, namely, “The Catholic Thought Study Series”, “The Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture” and “Translations of Famous Writings on Philosophy and Theology”.

Situated in the heart of the Universal Catholic Church, Li Madou Centre, within its financial capacity, organizes international academic conferences. Gathering together both Chinese and foreign scholars, these conferences help Catholic studies in China to be in line with international norms. It also brings them into contact with frontline academic subjects and academic achievements. Besides the above mentioned 2013 symposium (jointly organized with Yuan Dao), the Centre also organized symposia on the“The Significance of Thomistic and Medieval Theological-philosophical Thought to Chinese Society”in Macerata, Italy, in October 2010, and in Wuhan on November 14-16, 2014 (jointly organized with Wuhan University and Fujen University) respectively.

Faith Institute for Cultural Studies

Since its establishment in 2001, the Faith Institute for Cultural Studies has organized a number of academic conferences on different topics with the participation of representatives from the religious sector, academic circles and non-government organizations. These conferences included the Conference on “Religion and Ethics”(25-27 February 2005), the Conference on “The Christian Faith and Modern Media” (14-15 October 2006), the Forum on “Religion and Public Welfare”(27-29 June 2007), the Forum on “Vocation: Formation and Education” (13-14 December 2010), the “Vatican II Documents Seminar” (29 May – 1 June 2012), the Seminar on “Religion and Public Welfare” (31 May 2012), the International Conference on “Urbanization, Migration and Pastoral Care” (9-12 September 2013), the Conference on “Child Rearing in China’s Civil Society” (26-27 October 2013), the International Conference on “The Massacre at the Zhengding Church and Religions' Humanitarian Rescue Efforts During the 2nd World War” (28-29 October 2014), and the Conference on “The Development of the Contemporary Catholic Church in China” (27-28 May 2015).

The Beijing Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture

The Institute has organized “The Forum on Catholic Studies for Young Chinese Scholars” annually since 2008, inviting dozens of domestic and foreign young talented scholars to gather in Beijing to share about their academic achievements. The latest conference, the seventh since 2008, was held during 6-8 December 2014. The presentations were mainly concerned with social problems in contemporary Chinese society.

The Participation of Other Church Organizations

During the period from 2005 to 2015, apart from the above four major institutions, other non-academic institutions in the Chinese Church sometimes organized academic conferences on different topics. For example, the Diocese of Xianxian organized a conference on “Catholics and the Construction of Harmonious Society” on October12-13, 2006; the Diocese of Ningxia organized two conferences on “Theological Thought and Social Harmony” in Yinchuan City on 6 November 2012 and 5 January 2015 respectively. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference (“one association and one conference”) jointly organized a conference on “Inculturation of the Catholic Church and Theology, and Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Opening of the Second Vatican Council” on 27-28 June 2012.

The Characteristics of the Academic Conferences

The academic conferences organized by the institutes of theological studies of the Catholic Church in China had the following features:

* Jointly organized by the Church and national Universities
Almost all the academic conferences organized by the Catholic Church in China during the years 2005-2015 had this feature. In the last century, the Catholic Church in China was forced to come to a standstill in all aspects. Its activities were curtailed for decades. As the Church reopened in the 1980s, the recovery started from scratch. There was no time for academic pursuits. Actually, the work of Catholic academic studies began in this century, but there was a serious shortage of resources. There were no qualified personnel, no libraries, no attention and support from Church officials, and no suitable academic environment. At this moment, the emergence of “cultural Christians” in the academic sector covered the shortage of personnel to a certain extent. Thus joint symposia with national universities achieved the goal of learning from the “cultural Christians.” Besides, Catholic scholars in China wanted to support the vocation of the “cultural Christians,” so that they could introduce Christianity into the Chinese academic sector. In this way, it was hoped that Christianity could become an important part of the new culture, which was just then undergoing a transformation. For their part, the “cultural Christians” also hoped that their academic success could get “recognition,” “support” and even “market.” Therefore, cooperation between the Church in China and the “cultural Christians” was definitely logical.

* The themes of the conferences are always contemporary and practical

Religious belief is a part of the cultural system, and it has its own cultural function. In view of the problems and needs of contemporary Chinese society, Christianity tries to offer its help. Proposing the policy of inculturation, the Church shows its concern for Chinese society and the Chinese people. The Chinese people, including the leadership, explicitly welcome the contribution and help of Christianity. This can be seen in the above statement of Wang Zuo’an at Christmas 2014 – “to explore the doctrines that are closely linked with the core values of socialism.” The above mentioned instruction of President Xi Jinping in 2015 also reflects this expectation. The foremost objective of the four major institutes of the Church in China is to develop local theology. The conferences they run also show that the Church is concerned about the problems of contemporary Chinese society.

The Rise of Research Scholars Inside and Outside of the Church

All the academic institutions of the Catholic Church in China were destroyed in the last century. Many of the scholars cultivated in these institutions went into exile, and only a few remained in China. Even after the Catholic Church in China reopened in the 1980s, it was still subject to many restrictions in every aspect. It was not until 1999 that the first member of clergy received a doctorate degree. Moreover, the first priests, who obtained doctoral degrees, did not engage in theological studies. Rather they took up administrative posts in their dioceses. In the early days of the Faith Institute for Cultural Studies and the Beijing Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture, there were not enough researchers to undertake academic studies. In the past decade, as the demand for pastoral and management personnel was gradually met, some members of the clergy with doctoral degrees finally became engaged in theological studies. Li Madou Study Centre is a sign of this new phenomenon.

Under the political and educational policies of China, clergymen were not qualified for the teaching positions in universities. Therefore, even though enthusiasm for Christianity studies and the emergence of “cultural Christians” existed in national universities, no trace of a Christian scholar was to be found. However, in the recent decade, as more Catholic laity took up teaching jobs in universities and were engaged in Christianity studies, they formed a force that could not be overlooked. Among these scholars were born Catholics, as well as those who sought out the Catholic faith and were baptized. Today, many lay Catholics take up teaching jobs, or are engaged in Christianity studies in well-known universities, such as Beijing University, Zhejiang University, and Zhongshan University.

In the November 14, 2014 edition of the Global Times, Zhu Weiqun, Director of Ethnic and Religious Committee of the CPPCC, called for a debate with Christian scholars. This shows that the number of Christians taking up teaching jobs in universities has become an effective force in Christianity studies, and they are capable of debating with non-Christian scholars.

Theological Education to Be Integrated into the Chinese and International Educational Systems

Under the existing educational policy, the theological formation offered in Catholic seminaries in China cannot be incorporated in the national educational system. Therefore, the academic qualifications of seminary graduates are not recognized by social institutions. Such a discriminatory policy causes much inconvenience to the Catholic seminaries of China. As Catholic theological education was isolated, this almost deprived the Catholic clergy of further study in universities in China or in other countries. However, in the recent decade, evidence has arisen that such a situation was changing.

In 2009, the National Catholic Seminary in Beijing co-organized a master’s degree course with the Verbiest Institute of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. This was an encouraging sign of progress that the Chinese Catholic seminaries could be integrated with the educational systems of the outside world.

In 2012, the Bureau of Religious Affairs published “Measures for Accreditation of Academic Staff and Evaluations for Academic Appointments at Religious Institutions (for Trial Implementation)” and “Measures for the Conferment of Degrees by Religious Institutions (for Trial Implementation).” The above measures allowed certain religious institutions to award the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees (recognized by the Bureau of Religious Affairs) to those who had met the academic standards. Although these degrees are not recognized by the Ministry of Education according to the regulation of the “Measures for the Conferment of Degrees by Religious Institutions (for Trial Implementation)” (Article 1: the principle of separation of religion and education), this is a positive change anyway.

On 17 July 2014, the Commission for Vocations and the Working Group for the Approval of Teaching Personnel of the Patriotic Association and the official Bishops’ Conference together with the leaders of the Catholic theological seminaries met in Jilin. The participants in the meeting adopted the “Measures for Applying for the Qualification to Award Academic Degrees at Catholic Philosophical and Theological Seminaries (For Trial Implementation)”, and approved the qualifications of the teachers at all the seminaries in the nation. On 29 June 2015, the National Seminary in Beijing awarded “bachelor degrees” to the graduates for the first time. It is believed that these “Measures” will be implemented nationwide soon. As the academic standards of Catholic theological education are raised, it is hoped that the seminaries can award masters and doctoral degrees in the future.

Before Vatican II, only clergy and the candidates for priesthood had the right to receive theological education in the Church in China. However, as the Chinese Church has received the spirit of Vatican II, it started to extend this right to the laity. The Church in China established the first Education and Training Centre for Women Religious in Shaanxi Seminary in 1997. Later, other dioceses offered theological education to women religious one after another. In 2010 Hebei Seminary officially set up a Department of Theological Formation for Women Religious. Sichuan Seminary launched a course in theology for young male Catholics in 2014.


If 2005 marks the beginning of Catholic studies in Mainland China, then the period of 2005-2015 can be said to be an era of development. The development of Catholic academic institutes and the increase in the number of lay scholars show that a fairly large group of Catholic scholars now exist in Mainland China. The nature of the Church requires the inculturation of the Church in China. Because there is still an aversion to Christianity in the civil and political spheres, Chinese society also demands the localization of the Church. The Catholic scholars in Mainland China are also aware of this problem. In the last decade they are just facing this demand.

However, in the areas of both content and quality, there is considerable room for improvement in the Chinese Catholic studies. Original writings, especially the writings on dogma, are conspicuously lacking. This shows that there is not only a shortage of scholars, but also a lack of well-developed theological thought. Inculturation hinges on the content of the doctrine. Authentic inculturation depends upon the localization of doctrine. Moreover, the writings on doctrine lack new and impressive ideas. Nevertheless, as more and more people receive higher education in Catholic theology, Chinese academia will certainly promote the study of Christianity. Consequently, the dialogue between Christianity and other religions, as well as the dialogue between Christian intellectuals and non-Christian intellectuals will be built up, and there will be more chances to develop a corps of theologians in Mainland China. The dialogue between Christianity and Chinese intellectuals, which Matteo Ricci started many years ago, will appear again in greater scope in the future.

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