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Catholicism and Imperialism in China and the Struggle for Indigenization

August 14, 2013

Authored by: Ernest P. Young, Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan (History Department), author of Ecclesiastical Colony:  China’s Catholic Church and the French Religious Protectorate, available via Oxford Scholarship Online.

Ecclesiastical Colony:  China’s Catholic Church and the French Religious Protectorate

The book is about the very contentious history, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, of the official French claim to protect Catholics in a nominally sovereign China.  The protection was offered to Catholics of all nationalities, including Chinese.  This extravagant claim and the complicity of the European missionary prelates there in its execution produced many troubles:  with the Chinese government, with ordinary Chinese, with other Western countries, and with the Vatican (whose ties with its Chinese church were compromised by official French interposition).  The story includes numerous episodes of violence, often stemming from anger at missionary intrusion in local social circumstances and sometimes even arising from antagonism between Chinese Protestants and Catholics.  In recompense, through the agency of French officials who exacted indemnities from Chinese authorities, the Catholic missionary organizations had by the early twentieth century accumulated considerable wealth.

Opposition to these arrangements grew in the early twentieth century within the Chinese Catholic church.  During the 1910s dissident voices in the mission field grew loud enough to attract the Vatican’s attention.  The most conspicuous spokespersons among the dissidents were a Belgian and an Egyptian missionary and two prominent Chinese Catholic intellectuals.  A heroic struggle ensued, in which efforts to sinify the leadership of the church and to set aside the French Religious Protectorate were met by a strenuous campaign by the French government and the European Catholic bishops in China to keep the status quo and marginalize the dissidents.  The personal intervention of two popes and the dispatch to China of a papal representative redressed the imbalance of forces for a while.  The attention of the Vatican was not sustained, however.  Despite a second burst of reform on the eve of the success of the Communist revolution, the sinification of the church was still only very partial in 1949. 

This history is significant background to the current anomalous condition of the Catholic church in China.  In effect two rivalrous churches have persisted to the present day – one cherishing links to the pope and the other accepting the government’s insistence on some sort of separation, most particularly in the appointment of bishops.  In the days of its Protectorate, the French government had also seen fit to intervene occasionally in the matter of appointing bishops and to repress the dissidents. 

Ecclesiastical Colony:  China’s Catholic Church and the French Religious Protectorate is available in print and through Oxford Scholarship Online.

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