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  • China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Richard Madsen . China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1998. xiii, 183 pp. Hardcover $27.50, ISBN 0-520-21326-2.

Two books published in the early 1990s, one by Beatrice Leung and the other edited by Edmond Tang and Jean-Paul Wiest, together give a rather comprehensive picture of the Roman Catholic Church in contemporary China.1 In the short interval since these publications, what more can be said? Richard Madsen brings to this slim new volume of only 148 pages of text all his skills as a social critic of both China and the United States, honed after a quarter of a century as a scholar engaged in moral inquiry.2 His perceptive analysis as a social scientist, church person, and theologian makes this a most unusual and helpful book. Though the situations of the Catholic and Protestant churches are not exactly the same, much of Madsen's keen observation and incisive analysis of the Catholic Church can serve as a useful mirror and provide new angles of vision into the other major branch of Christianity in China as well.

Madsen raises a central question that is currently of much interest in the scholarly community, especially among sinologists, namely whether or not China today has what it takes to create a "civil society." For Madsen, a civil society is "composed of relatively autonomous communities that could mitigate the harshness of an unregulated market economy, protect citizens from the oppression of a tyrannical regime, and facilitate the establishment of responsible self-governance" (p. 10). With this big picture as his focus, the author zooms in on the many facets of the Catholic Church in China that he knows so well.

In his fieldwork in China, as a participant observer, and in interviews with leaders and people of the Church, Madsen looked for attitudes of openness to diversity and the ability to relate to the larger society. Even within the religious setting he maintains disinterestedness by attempting to "[bracket] out inspirational piety and to use only those parts that accorded with the blurred mix of idealism and ordinary human failings" (p. 19). His question to Chinese society at large is applied with equal rigor to the Catholic Church in China.

After decades of self-denial, in which they postponed creature comforts in their pursuit of a vision of a better tomorrow, the people of the People's Republic are now caught up in fulfilling their own needs and rising expectations in the midst of a rampant, if not rapacious, materialism. Can the churches of China, asks the author, help to "mitigate the harshness of an unregulated market economy," not to mention the eroding of both traditional and revolutionary values, and the ecological disasters brought on by rapid modernization and unbridled economic growth. [End Page 487]

Unlike run-of-the-mill human-rights advocates (some of whom, the author suggests [p. 163 n. 4], are even harmful to the Church in China), Madsen is not obsessed with the problem of government control. For him, a "civilian" church (one that is free of government control or ecclesiastical officialdom) can be just as introverted, with its members living in their own Constantinian enclaves in a church-controlled "world of God" (p. 62), protected and isolated from the outside, where the struggle for a greater "civility" by and for all is being hammered out. In many of the rural Catholic churches Madsen finds the general mindset of the people to be that of "a kind of ethnicity"—in other words "less a chosen faith than an ascribed status" (p. 53) that is more representative of a collective egoism than a public spirit that seeks the greater common good for all in Chinese society. In general he finds a factionalism existing between essentially two groups of Catholics—one with uncompromising loyalty to the Pope and the other insisting on a Chinese selfhood for Catholics in China, free from the hegemony of Rome. For Madsen this schism is a considerable barrier to effective Christian witness and...


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