The front page of today's Washington Post is full of sequestration news and Oscar gossip, but below the fold was this fascinating article about the Catholic Church in China. Religious persecution in China isn't anything new, but the way this article characterized the power struggle between the Vatican and the Communist Party caught my attention:
Even those most optimistic, however, acknowledge that any rapprochement would take much time and require a breakthrough on the conflict at the heart of the rift: which side has final say over who gets ordained in China.
The Vatican maintains that the pope has sole authority in appointing bishops. China’s atheistic Communist Party — long distrustful of what it considers foreign religions — insists that only China should select its church leaders.
The fight between two of the world’s most hierarchical and authority-driven powers has become so fraught that Chinese authorities have in some cases resorted to kidnapping bishops approved by Rome, according to the Vatican, and pressured them into laying their hands upon government-chosen bishops at their ordinations — a move meant to lend such ceremonies legitimacy despite Vatican opposition.
To regular parishioners and priests caught in the middle, the choice comes down to obeying their earthly rulers or their spiritual ones.
Why does the athiest Communist Party seriously struggle with their right to ordain bishops? What is it about the Church that's threatening to them? That even the strictly hierarchical, dogged and scandalized Catholic Church could pose a significant threat to a totalitarian government is, in some sense, heartening.
Also, while I commend the attempt at biblical allusion in mainstream journalism, this is NOT a choice between obeying earthly rulers or spiritual ones. Bishops are just as earthly as dictators. The pope's recent admissions of fallibility would seem to underscore that. There may very well be a cosmic choice at work in the lives of Chinese Catholics, but it is not whether they choose to abide by the directives of a bishop or those of a government official.
Still, there's a distinct difference in the religious experience of the state-sanctioned churches and that of the underground ones:
“I go to the official churches to feel that link between God and me when standing in the cathedrals,” said a 23-year-old parishioner in Beijing, describing the tall Gothic architecture and votive candles that are missing from the underground churches. “But I never take communion at the official churches.”
What a statement: a 23 year old who refuses to be tainted by what she considers an impure ritual. Communion holds power. Where one participates makes a difference. Who serves makes a difference. But place holds power, too. Architecture and worship elements can affect us in deep and meaningful ways.
This is also nothing new - ritual and place shape and form us into the kinds of people we become. That's been a part of our human religious experience since time immemorial. But to encounter that reality in the midst of this article on the struggle between "two of the world's most hierarchical and authority driven powers"somehow puts it in new perspective.
Marx said that the powerful are the ones who control the means of production. But maybe those who find themselves in places of power are actually the ones who wield influence over these simple, elemental things - ritual and place. Who says how we do this? Who determines where it's done? The priests, that's who. And if Jamie Smith is right, and there are cultural liturgies being enacted all around us - not just in churches and sanctuaries, but spread and borne all over the place - then it's these guys, the pastors, the bishops, the totalitarian governments AND the democratic ones, who are shaping us into the beings we are to become.
People like a good revolution now and then - think Occupy in the US and Chen Guangcheng in China in recent months. But maybe the real revolution is in quiet, simple, profound attempts at reclaiming ritual and place from the powers that be.
What does that look like? I think it might look like repurposing guns into toilet bowl scrubbers, planting urban gardens in abandoned inner-city lots, anointing volunteers, lighting candles for refugees, welcoming the powerless, proclaiming Jesus as Lord, refusing to hang an American flag in the church sanctuary, handing over ownership of our sacred sites and national treasures to the people and not the crown.