Law at the End of the Day: Keren Wang on “Religion in China: Historical and Legal Context” and Chinese-Vatican Relations

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The study of the relationship between the state and religion—especially organized and institutional religion originating in the West and Middle East–is grounded in an important and often overlooked premise. That premise is based on a very specific view of religion and a very historically contextualized understanding of the relationship between the state and religious institutions. Both are grounded in the primacy of the model of religious organization and of state-religion relations developed in the Middle East and Europe (and later spread elsewhere in the globe) centering around Judaism, Jewish state organization and its important evolution under Christianity and Islam, the religions that emerged from it. Much of the national and international discussion of the last several centuries has effectively centered on the way in each of these variants of so-called “Abrahamic” religions (and thier contests for domination within social, cultural and economic space) be manifested, and their relations with states legitimated. Other religious traditions are then folded into the master narrative of law-religion discourse, or treated as exceptions or variations within it.

That has been the basis on which the grounding premise fo Abrahamic religions have been universalized and then offered to the international community as the sole basis on which to understand, manage and “protect” the interests of these legal and theological systems, each with substantial designs on the control of the social, political and economic orders of its adherents. It is into that construct that non-Western or Abrahamic traditions–state and religious–are now required to mold themselves. That molding, of course, can sometimes highlight the differences between the founding premises of non-Abrahamic political orders, and the difficulties of transposing the universalizing project of Abrahamic state-religious organization outside of its context.The essay that follows, Keren Wang, Religion in China: Historical and Legal Context, Coalition for Peace & Ethics Working Paper 9/1 (Sept. 2014), provides an introduction to those issues. The abstract follows. The essay may be access HERE.  On the Coalition for Peace & Ethics, see HERE.

 There follows an excerpt from a Vatican sponsored conference on the life of the Catholic Church in China, Holy See, Comunicato: Riunione Plenaria Della Commissione Per La Chiesa Cattolica In Cina (Press Release: Plenary Meeting of the Commission of Catholic Church inChina), Holy See Bulletin April 26, 2012.

Coalition for Peace and Ethics Working Paper No. 9/1
(September 2014)Religion in China-Historical and Legal Context
Keren Wang


The complex and quite rich discourse centered on the three “Abrahamic” religions does not suggest the only way in which one can approach the issue of religious “liberty” or understand the relation among religion and the state. China offers an important and distinctive path that is in its own way more difficult to square with the Western focused discourse that has now become a global standard. Thus is it necessary, before exploring the technical legal details about the interaction of religion and the state in China. It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that “religion” signifies the character of the entire Western Civilization– from the Council of Nicaea to the Crusades, and unto the 17th century Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism, Judeo-Christian religions have always played dominant role in the evolution (and devolution) of what is known as the “West”. China provides a substantially different “story” and that difference is foundational to China’s approach to the legitimacy of the boundaries for religious regulation. This essay offers a brief glimpse at a complex problem, and suggests the basis for the quite substantial difficulties of communicating between systems.


The relations between China and the Catholic Church have been strained since the execution and imprisonment of several of its priests in the early 1950s. Current tensions revolve around the power of the Chinese authority to appoint and control the Catholic Church hierarchy in China. Consider in that respect the following News Release issued on the meeting of a Vatican sponsored conference on the life of the Catholic Church in China, Holy See, Comunicato: Riunione Plenaria Della Commissione Per La Chiesa Cattolica In Cina (Press Release: Plenary Meeting of the Commission of Catholic Church inChina), Holy See Bulletin April 26, 2012, an excerpt form which follows:

The Commission which Pope Benedict XVI established in 2007 to study questions of major importance regarding the life of the Catholic Church in China met in the Vatican for the fifth time from 23 to 25 April.

* * * * * *

In the course of the Meeting, attention then focussed on the Pastors, in particular on Bishops and priests who are detained or who are suffering unjust limitations on the performance of their mission. Admiration was expressed for the strength of their faith and for their union with the Holy Father. They need the Church’s prayer in a special way so as to face their difficulties with serenity and in fidelity to Christ.

The Church needs good Bishops. They are a gift of God to his people, for the benefit of whom they exercise the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing. They are also called to provide reasons for life and hope to all whom they meet. They receive from Christ, through the Church, their task and authority, which they exercise in union with the Roman Pontiff and with all the Bishops throughout the world.

Concerning the particular situation of the Church in China, it was noted that the claim of the entities, called “One Association and One Conference”, to place themselves above the Bishops and to guide the life of the ecclesial community, persists. In this regard, the instructions given in the Letter of Pope Benedict XVI (cf. Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China, 7), remain current and provide direction. It is important to observe them so that the face of the Church may shine forth with clarity in the midst of the noble Chinese people.

This clarity has been obfuscated by those clerics who have illegitimately received episcopal ordination and by those illegitimate Bishops who have carried out acts of jurisdiction or who have administered the Sacraments. In so doing, they usurp a power which the Church has not conferred upon them. In recent days, some of them have participated in episcopal ordinations which were authorized by the Church. The behaviour of these Bishops, in addition to aggravating their canonical status, has disturbed the faithful and often has violated the consciences of the priests and lay faithful who were involved.

Furthermore, this clarity has been obfuscated by legitimate Bishops who have participated in illegitimate episcopal ordinations. Many of these Bishops have since clarified their position and have requested pardon; the Holy Father has benevolently forgiven them. Others, however, who also took part in these illegitimate ordinations, have not yet made this clarification, and thus are encouraged to do so as soon as possible.

The participants in the Plenary Meeting follow these painful events with attention and in a spirit of charity. Though they are aware of the particular difficulties of the present situation, they recall that evangelization cannot be achieved by sacrificing essential elements of the Catholic faith and discipline. Obedience to Christ and to the Successor of Peter is the presupposition of every true renewal and this applies to every category within the People of God. Lay people themselves are sensitive to the clear ecclesial fidelity of their own Pastors.

Can the premise embraced by China of the separation of religious theology and practice, one the one hand, and religious hierarchy and institutions, on the other, be defended? Are religious institutions inherently political? Those are some of the questions that might be answered in this century.

Continue Reading: Law at the End of the Day: Keren Wang on “Religion in China: Historical and Legal Context” and Chinese-Vatican Relations

‘Reading’ the Historical New York Cityscape, part 2: fire, ice, and tensions on the streets

The historic Laki (Lakagígar) eruption that took place in Iceland from June 1783 to February 1784 was so powerful, that the entire European continent plus many parts of North America were blanked with a great “haze” of volcanic gases and particles. The eight-month-long continuous release of toxic gas from Laki not only wiped out roughly one-quarter of Iceland’s population [1], the resulting volcanic haze also led to an exceptionally cool summer followed by a brutal, frigid winter in Europe and North America.  The Laki eruption added another layer of frost on top of the frigid climate pattern of  thus in turn led to acute food shortages in those regions. Present analysis estimated that the Laki eruption directly caused more than twenty-thousand human mortality in England alone during the “volcanic winter” from August 1783 to February 1784. [2]

Benjamin Franklin recorded his observations of the unusual weather pattern in his 1784 report titled “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures”:

During several of the summer months of the year 1783, when the effect of the sun’s rays to heat the earth in these northern regions should have been greater, there existed a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America. This fog was of a permanent nature; it was dry, and the rays of the sun seemed to have little effect towards dissipating it, as they easily do a moist fog, arising from water. They were indeed rendered so faint in passing through it, that when collected in the focus of a burning glass they would scarce kindle brown paper. Of course, their summer effect in heating the Earth was exceedingly diminished. Hence the surface was early frozen. Hence the first snows remained on it melted, and received continual additions. Hence the air was more chilled, and the winds more severely cold. Hence perhaps the winter of 1783–84 was more severe than any that had happened for many years.
The cause of this universal fog is not yet ascertained … or whether it was the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing, to issue during the summer from Hekla in Iceland, and that other volcano which arose out of the sea near that island, which smoke might be spread by various winds, over the northern part of the world, is yet uncertain. [3]

It is important to note that while the “volcanic winter” of 1783-84 was idiosyncratically brutal, the overall climate in Europe and North America between 17th century to early 19th century has been considerably colder in comparison to contemporary weather patterns in those regions (appx. 2 Celsius blow present averages). It was a period known as the “Little Ice Age”, where Europe and North America were subjected to long periods of food security crisis.  According to history Brian Fagan, agricultural output in Europe during late seventeenth century had dropped so drastically, that “Alpine villagers lived on bread made from ground nutshells mixed with barley and oat flour.”[4] Works by historian Wolfgang Behringer also suggested connections between periods of intensive “witch-hunting” practices in Europe and the reduced food security during the Little Ice Age. [5]

frozen boston harbor
Ships frozen in water outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Partial reprint of a canvas oil painting by Fitz Hugh Lane, 1741. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). New York Harbor also regularly experienced similar “froze-over” conditions during the “Little Ice Age”.

New York Times, “When New York Harbor Froze Over 1780

Over in North America, by the 1740s Manhattan had the second-largest slave population of any city in the Thirteen Colonies.  In addition to African slaves, which comprised roughly 20% of the city’s population, indentured servants and other poor working-class whites together constituted the bulk majority of the city’s population growth during that time. The population increase of course further compounds the city’s already severely constrained food and fuel supply. [6]  Large scale persecution of the city’s poor broke out in Spring 1741, shortly after a series of fire incidents took place on the Manhattan Island. More than two hundred black slaves and dozens of poor whites were arrested by the city’s colonial authority for allegedly “conspiring to burn the city down”. [7]    Similar to the Salem Witch trials, those arrested were expressively tried and convicted. More than one hundred people were exiled, hanged, and burned alive at the stake. [8]   
1741 Slave Revolt burned at the stake NYC

“Convicted” slaves being burned at the stake after New York violent crackdown of 1741. 13 black men were burned at the stake a little east on Magazine Street. Additionally, 17 black men, two white men, and two white women were hanged at the gibbet next to the Powderhouse on the narrow point of land between the Collect Pond and the Little Collect [9] 

While fire incidents were relatively common occurrences on the Manhattan Island, the “Great Fire of 1776” proved to be a particularly devastating one. The “Great Fire” started in the southern tip of the Manhattan Island during the early hours of September 21, and quickly spread throughout the city and kept burning through the night, destroying up to a quarter of New York’s developed urban area [10]:

Great Fire of 1776

Contemporaneous depiction of the “Great Fire of 1776[11],  with captions written in German and French: “Terrifying conflagration which took place in New York of the Americans during the night of Sept. 19th, 1776 whereby all buildings on the west side of the new stock exchange along Broad Street up to the King’s College of more than 1,600 houses, including the Trinity Church, the Lutheran Chapel and the Charity School were reduced to ashes.[12] Note that the print incorrectly stated the date of the “Great Fire”, which actually took place on September 21st.

The Great Fire of 1776 took place during the early stages of the American War of Independence, amidst military struggles between the British forces and George Washington’s Continental Army for control of New York and New Jersey. In addition to long existing economic division, the city’s population at that time was also sharply divided along political lines — between “Patriot” and “Loyalist” organizations. [10]  Much of the New York’s Loyalist population fled the city in early 1776 when Washington’s Continental Army forces occupied the streets. A few months later, after the British capture of long island, many Patriots also left the city in anticipation of British invasion. Six days before the Great Fire broke out, on September 15, about 12,000 British soldiers landed on lower Manhattan Island and quickly captured the mostly empty New York City without much fighting.

A 1776 map of lower Manhattan with contemporaneous markings in red indicating the area destroyed by the Great Fire of 1776. The caption reads: “To His Excellency Sr. Henry Moore, Bart., captain general and governour in chief, in & over the Province of New York & the territories depending thereon in America, chancellor & vice admiral of the same, this plan of the city of New York, is most humbly inscribed by His Excellency’s most obedient servant, Bernard Ratzer” [13]

The precise cause of the Great Fire of 1776 remains uncertain, though under the combining conditions of abandoned buildings and urban warfare one might consider such a incident hardly surprising. Nonetheless, both the British and Revolutionary forces suspected arson and accused each other for starting the “terrifying conflagration”.  In the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire, the British military confiscated many surviving buildings supposedly owned by the Patriots. The British also arrested more than two hundred “arson suspects”, despite no official charges were ever made. [14]  





1. Björnsson, Páll. 2003. Gunnar karlsson, iceland’s 1100 years: The history of a marginal society, (London: Hurst, 2001). 418 pp. ISBN 1-85065-420-4. Scandinavian Journal of History 28, (3): 298-300

2. Witham, C. S. and Oppenheimer, C. “Mortality in England during the 1783–4 Laki Craters eruption”. Bulletin of Volcanology. December 2004, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp 15-26.

  1. Franklin, Benjamin. “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures (1784).”  Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Volume 2. Manchester, UK: Literary and Philosophical Society, 1785. 

4. Fagan, Brian M. (2001). The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850

5. Behringer, Wolfgang. “Climatic Change and Witch-hunting: the Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities”. Climatic Change 43 (1): 335–351.(Springer Netherlands: 1 September 1999) .

6. James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan, New York: DaCapo Press, Inc., 1930; reprint, 1991

7. Bond, Richard E. “Shaping a Conspiracy: Black Testimony in the 1741 New York”, Early American Studies, vol. 5, n. 1 (Spring 2007).

8. Edwin Hoey, “Terror in New York – 1741”, American Heritage, June 1974, accessed 9 Apr 2009

9. “COLONIAL NEW-YORK CITY; Burning of Negroes Amid the Hills of Five Points. GRIM RESULTS OF AN ALLEGED PLOT” The Gibbet on Powder House Island Bore Strange Fruit for Many Months in the Year 1741, New York Times, November 24, 1895. (Picture see

10. Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York. New York: Walker & Co, 2002.

11. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Representation du Feu terrible a Nouvelle Yorck” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 25, 2015.

12. Translated from the German caption: “Schreckenvolle Feuersbrunst welche zu Neu Yorck von den Amerikanern in der Nacht vom 19. Herbst Monat 1776, angelegt worden, wodurch alle Gebäude auf der West Seite der neuen Börse längst der Broockstrent biss an das Königl Kolleg mehr als 1600 Häuser, die Dreifaltigkeits Kirche, die Lutherische Kappelle und die Armen Schule in Asche verwandelt worden.

13. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “To His Excellency Sr. Henry Moore, Bart., captain general and governour in chief, in & over the Province of New York & the territories depending thereon in America, chancellor & vice admiral of the same, this plan of the city of New York, is most humbly inscribed” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 11, 2015.

14. Johnston, Henry Phelps. The campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. Brooklyn: The Long Island Historical Society, 1878.