Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong elaborated Friday on his call for Chinese Catholics “to love our country and our Church at the same time” — a call the bishop also gave during a recent and historic trip to Beijing.
In a column for the diocese’s Sunday Examiner newspaper, published Friday, the bishop sought to thread a needle, explaining the Christian duty to be good citizens while acknowledging tensions between the Church and the government, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
While reminding local Catholics of their duty to be good citizens, as taught by the Church, Bishop Chow also frankly acknowledged tensions and problems with state authorities and said that dialogue “is not about kowtowing.”
Chow recently completed a five-day visit to Beijing, where he was hosted by Bishop Joseph Li Shan, head of the Beijing archdiocese and the leader of the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
That visit, which was given considerable coverage by mainland Chinese media, was billed as historic — the first official visit by a Hong Kong bishop for more than 30 years.
In his April 28 column, Chow explained that his call for Catholics to “love our country” had been made in a specific context.
“On the final day of my Beijing trip,” Chow said, “I led a prayer at the end of the prayers of the faithful while presiding over the morning Mass. It was something like this, ‘we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us so that we can learn how to love our country and our Church at the same time.’”
“Loving one’s country and Church was picked up by a reporter,” the bishop said, and prompted questions about Chinese Catholic patriotism.
“It is true that ‘loving our country’ is a core value espoused by the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government,” Chow said, while acknowledging that his stance was “received with mixed emotions, which includes sadness, disappointment, or even anger.”
But, the bishop said, others have come forward to offer their support for his prayer, and he felt the need to offer more context on the subject.
Chow’s trip followed months of publicly deteriorating relations between the Chinese government and the Holy See, with the Communist Party moving unilaterally to install several bishops to lead mainland dioceses outside of the norms of the Vatican-China deal on episcopal appointments.
While the visit received universally positive coverage in state-approved media outlets, Catholics both on the mainland and in Hong Kong voiced opposition to Chow’s trip, and his call for patriotic “love” for the country by Chinese Catholics, given the government’s persecution of Catholic clergy who refuse to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party over Church teaching and authority, and the ongoing genocide against the Uighur people in Xinjiang Province.
“Like many of us in Hong Kong,” Chow said Friday, “I grew up in colonial Hong Kong, where national sentiment and identity were hardly part of our awareness. Hence, expressing our love for our country was not steeped in our blood, so to speak. It should take quite some intentional efforts to make such a shift in our mindset.”
“What many of us have experienced on the socio-political front in the past decade has further made the shift more difficult,” Chow conceded, in an apparent reference to recent efforts by local authorities to curtain freedoms of speech and assembly, following widespread anti-government protests in 2019.
But, he said, “I believe our Chinese and Hong Kong governments must be well aware of this. We really need the Holy Spirit to teach us to love our country and our Church at the same time.”
Because of its history as a former British colony and current status as a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong is subject to different laws than the mainland and its diocese falls outside of the terms of the Vatican-China deal.
Local government officials, led by the Catholic chief administrator of Hong Kong, John Lee, have instigated a sweeping crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong in recent years, including the prosecution and conviction of the emeritus bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, a strident critic of the Chinese government.
Despite the tensions created by Chinese government policies in Hong Kong and on the mainland, Chow reminded Catholics in his column that “Love for our country is part of the Catholic Church’s teachings. Starting with the famous saying of Jesus, ‘Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’”
“The implication is that both domains are necessary and not mutually exclusive for us citizens and Christians,” Chow said, going on to cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches the “the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom.”
But Chow was clear to distance the notion of “love of one’s country” from unconditional support of the state or political authority.
“What is the greatest asset of a country?” he asked. “Without a doubt, it is its people. Hence, loving one’s country means loving those living in the country, especially its citizens and residents.”
“Therefore, loving our country means the dignity of its people should come first,” Chow said. “I believe any responsible government must have the same mission in mind, though the approaches prescribed may vary due to different external factors.”
Chow went on to note that “people can enjoy a ‘good’ life when their government adheres to its mission,” but said that “the contrary is also true.” “It is, therefore, desirable to have an opening for dialogue between the government and the Church. For the sake of the country, we should help the government to become better.”
Chow was installed as the new Bishop of Hong Kong in December, 2021, after a long process to appoint a successor to the most recent bishop, Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, who died unexpectedly in 2019.
Yeung’s predecessor, Cardinal John Tong Hon, had to resume temporary governance of the diocese as the Vatican looked to identify a candidate who could navigate Hong Kong’s deteriorating political situation, since the imposition of the National Security Law in 2020.
Pro-democracy politicians and journalists, including several prominent Catholics, have been jailed for various “crimes” related to free speech, and the diocese has come under pressure to ensure that Catholic priests and teachers in Catholic schools stay out of politics and promote “national values.”
At the time of his installation, Chow said that he had previously attended banned public gatherings in Hong Kong, including a prayer vigil to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which he has called a formative event in his life.
Since taking over the diocese, Chow has often sought to balance the conflicting political currents within the local Catholic community, and tensions with the government. In an interview last year, Chow noted that “culture can be subversive,” and he touted the importance of the Church’s education mission and work in schools.
Writing in the local Catholic newspaper last week, the bishop said that “a system or an ideology might be very problematic. Yet, humanity has its positive, brighter and loving side that can compensate for or even improve the system.”
“My Beijing trip taught me to appreciate ecclesiastical and government personnel in the light of a common humanity desiring for ends that encourage further understanding and collaboration,” Chow said, while at the same time frankly acknowledging that “we cannot be naïve about debilitating bureaucracy and political interests being some major obstacles to a fruitful dialogue.”
Authentic and fruitful dialogue, the bishops said “is not about kowtowing but a sharpening of core values in the search for a common approach.” “We can be hopeful the Holy Spirit can make and has made wonderful interventions through our humanity beyond imagination.”