chapter  8
15 Pages

Civil society and the role of the Catholic Church in contemporary China


Introduction The emergence and development of civil society in mainland China has been an important topic for social researchers over the past 20 years. The questions researchers have raised can be summarized as follows: what is civil society (Kean 1988)? Was there a civil society in Chinese history?2 Which model provides a better explanation for the organizational form of Chinese society, the model of state corporatism or that of civil society (White et al. 1996; Unger 2008)? How should researchers conduct empirical study on Chinese society using the civil society model (Brook and Frolick 1997; Ho 1997; Weller 2005; Deng 2008)? If non-governmental organizations play a key role in building civil society, then what role is played by religious organizations (Ma 2006; Lu 2009; Madsen 2008)? In sociological literature, researchers consider Catholicism to be instrumental in constructing civil society, which in turn contributes to democratization. For example, José Casanova holds that the Catholic church plays a prominent role in three aspects of civil society formation. First, the church serves as an autonomous public space and as a countervailing force to state power. Second, the church becomes an institution of civil society when it gives up its monopolistic claims and recognizes religious freedom and freedom of conscience as universal and inviolable human rights. Third, the church enters the public sphere of civil society to raise normative issues, participating in ongoing processes of normative contestation (Casanova 2001b). Casanova’s illuminating observation is useful in enabling researchers to understand how the Catholic church may have contributed to the construction of a civil society as it stands in China today. The research question examined by this chapter is as follows: what role has the Catholic church played in constructing civil society in contemporary China? I use the working definition of civil society suggested by the Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics as the theoretical framework of this chapter. I then provide in-depth analyses of a variety of practices among Catholic priests facing government control and examine the implications of their resistance for the building of civil society. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Catholic church’s contribution in advancing religious freedom in the context of social restructuring in contemporary China.