Preface to The Short-lived Catholic Central Bureau by Prof. Chen Fang-chung

Restructuring the Face of the Catholic Central Bureau

Preface to The Short-lived Catholic Central Bureau: National Catalyst for Cultural Apostolate in China (1947-1951)

Chen Fang-chung

Professor of History, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Fu Jen Catholic University


A chronological glance at the history of Catholicism in China reveals a great paucity of research on the period closest to our present day, post-1949, mostly because of barriers that made religious issues, including their history, a taboo topic under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Access to internal Party historical material remains a restraint on researchers in constructing an accurate narrative. It is also difficult to publish articles under both official censorship and the self-censorship of Chinese journals. This situation has worsened in recent years, because the Beijing government has tightened its grip on Christianity.

In addition, the history of Chinese Catholicism is a difficult subject of study. Although there were not many Catholic converts, amounting to only around four million up to 1949, a large number of missionary congregations set foot in China. These religious orders or missionary societies came from European countries and northern America, and their archival documents are in their own languages and stored in their own archives. Their languages include English, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Latin, the lingua franca of the Catholic Church. It was often the language of choice for documents and correspondence. Therefore, researchers must master at least one second language to effectively research even one small area or short period. Moreover, the archives of these religious orders and congregations or ecclesiastical communities are not always accessible. The gradual weakening and decline of the modern church, its past connection with imperialist colonial activities, or the missionary congregations’ own reluctance to expose historical facts that could bring themselves into disrepute entice the gatekeepers of these archives towards caution in allowing access to treasure-hunting researchers.

Under such difficult circumstances, Miss Bibiana Wong came to Taiwan from Hong Kong to study in the doctoral programme of Religious Studies at Fu Jen Catholic University. With great diligence and conscientiousness, she spent six years completing this work, The Short-lived Catholic Central Bureau: National Catalyst for Cultural Apostolate in China (1947-1951). The establishment of the CCB in post-war China was quite an innovative initiative with two specific points worthy of note. Firstly, it was a national body directed by the Apostolic Internuncio with significance to the on-going effort of the Holy See to transform the self-centeredness of European and American missions into something more consistent with the values of the universal church. Secondly, it brought together elite personnel from various religious congregations and missionary societies, as well as native diocesan clergy, becoming a center of cooperation between Chinese and foreign priests. This signified a complete reversal of the trend among the clergy separating Chinese and foreign members in the process of indigenizing the Catholic Church in China, as after all, it is ideal that the clergy should not be divided by nationality.

Dr. Wong’s position on the Catholic Central Bureau is clear: it is a cultural organization of the church. Why was there a need for such an institution in the Chinese Catholic Church? It was related to the nature of the church in China, which, since the fall of the Qing Dynasty, had put the bulk of its energy and resources into expansionist missionary activity to the neglect of apostolates concerning local culture. The church had little positive interaction with mainstream society and mostly found its abode on its fringes. New converts were mostly found among the socially disadvantaged. Society had little knowledge about the church, to the extent that it arrived at extremely awkward misunderstandings. Theories of anarchism and communism seeping into Chinese society in the early Republican years represented yet another dynamic militating against Christianity, as the Catholic Church had difficulty separating itself from imperialism and some Catholics even held feelings of complacency over their elevated status. If these abnormal and irrational trends continued, any attempt on behalf of the church to make itself acceptable to a pluralistic society would have become an unattainable illusion. To reverse this undesirable state, the church needed an educated laity with a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between religion and culture in order for Catholicism to make any cultural impact of significance on local society. This in turn demanded a radically revised approach to its evangelization methods. The laity would need to be organized in a systematic outreach towards their own small social circles and be courageous in their encounter with mainstream society. However, the chosen method was the Legion of Mary, which differed subtly from the more traditional Catholic Action, an association with a strong lay leadership structure that had existed since the early twentieth century. Its primacy was replaced after the war by the Legion of Mary, which while lay by its nature, is very much a priest-led association.

The CCB attempted to reform the church in its own way, and involve itself in a dialogue with mainstream society. It did not dabble in politics and was purely an ecclesiastical organization. Nevertheless, it was strongly suppressed by the Chinese Communist authorities, mainly because of misunderstandings and the long-standing confrontation between the two entities. The Communist Party considered Catholicism to be a European and American imperialist movement involved in aggression against the Chinese state. While such a perception was not entirely accurate, it was not unreasonable either. However, the perception that the Legion of Mary was a kind of quasi-militarized organization seeking to confront the Chinese Communist Party was over exaggeration. As mentioned above, the CCB was not a political organization. The Catholic Church’s basic opposition to the Communist Party sprang from its atheistic position and the consistent persecution of local Catholic missions it had conducted across China since 1945, when it began to clamp a firm control on the country. Therefore, from a party point of view, a centralized body aimed at uniting the splintered mission effort and representing the universal church in China had to be crushed as a matter of necessity. Consequently, as the party was preparing to take control of the Chinese Catholic Church, it cooked up charges against it. These intentional or unintentional accusations against the CCB, which have been repeatedly fabricated by the Communist propaganda apparatus, have now become a historical source for researchers and form the basis for Chinese and foreign researchers’ own accounts. Dr. Wong’s book is a valuable contribution to dispelling these myths and avoiding an accumulation of falsehood.

Between 2016 and 2019, Dr. Wong has collected data from various archives around the world, sometimes by taking the opportunity of attending conferences, sometimes by applying for grants from research institutes, and sometimes even by spending her own hard-earned savings. Most of these archives opened their doors to her because she is a baptized Catholic and because of her sensitivity and responsiveness accumulated through her journalistic background. When she traveled to the United States to search for information, she visited the Maryknoll Mission Archives, as well as the archdiocesan archives of New York and of Cincinnati. On two occasions she visited the archives of missionary societies in Leuven and Brussels to read material and take photographs after she presented a paper at a conference in Leuven, Belgium, and while a visiting researcher at the Monumenta Serica of the Society of the Divine Word in Sankt Augustin, Germany. To find out about the Society of St. Columban’s involvement in the CCB, she went to its Central Archive in Ireland and was told by the archivist that no one had ever opened the dossiers she was looking at. Of course, she would not have overlooked the Jesuit archives in Taipei or the diocesan archives in Hong Kong. In 2019, she went to Shanghai, China, to collect data from the Shanghai Municipal Archives, where a limited amount of material concerning the Catholic Church after 1949 had been opened to researchers. Her doctoral dissertation was written with the backing of these sources and will definitely catch the eye of experts and general readers alike. In my opinion, it is the first masterpiece among any recent research on the history of Chinese Catholicism.

The book is highly readable. Through Dr. Wong’s lively descriptions, readers can comprehend the efforts of the Chinese Catholic Church at that time, and the remarkable deeds of some clergymen. On the other hand, we can see the limits of the church and its participants, as well as its structural inadequacies. Perhaps readers will share my own regret: the Chinese Communist Party has misunderstood Catholicism, and has indeed overestimated the gambit within which the Catholic Central Bureau operated.


The Short-lived Catholic Central Bureau:

National Catalyst for Cultural Apostolate in China (1947-1951)


作者:Bibiana Yee-ying WONG 黃懿縈

Hardcover: 335 pages   Language: English   ISBN: 978-957-29848-7-1



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