On the death of Domitian peace was restored to the Christian church which lasted throughout the brief reign of Nerva (96-98) and the first 13 years of Trajan. It is a curious fact that some of the best of the Roman emperors (Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Decius and Diocletian) were harsh to the Christians, while some of the worst (as Commodus, Caracalla, Heliogabalus) left them in peace (see PERSECUTION, 17). Christianity had been rapidly spreading in the interval of tranquillity.
Pliny became governor of Bithynia in 111 AD and found, especially in the eastern part of his province, the temples almost deserted. Some Christians were brought before him and on established precedents were ordered to be executed for their religion. But Pliny soon discovered that many of both sexes and all ages, provincials and Roman citizens, were involved. The Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial; but being of a humane disposition he shrank from carrying out the wholesale execution required by a consistent policy.
He wrote to Trajan telling him what he had already done, rather covertly suggesting tolerant measures. Should no distinction be made between old and young? Should pardon not be extended to those who recanted and worshipped the emperor's image and cursed Christ? Should mere profession (nomen ipsum) be a capital offense if no crimes could be proven, or should the crimes rather be punished that were associated with the faith (an flagitia cohaerentia nomini)?
He then explains his procedure: he gave those who were accused an abundant opportunity of recanting; those who persisted in this faith were executed. He considered their "stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy" (pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem) as in itself deserving punishment. But the administration having once interfered found plenty to do. An anonymous list of many names was handed in, most of whom, however, denied being Christians. Informers then put forward others who likewise denied belonging to the faith.
Pliny was convinced their meetings were harmless, and on examination of two deaconesses under torture discovered nothing but a perverse extravagant superstition (sup. pravam immodicam). Trajan replied that no universal and definite rule could be laid down, apparently confirming the correctness of Pliny's action and perhaps disappointing Pliny in not yielding to his humane suggestions.
Nevertheless, the emperor made three important concessions: (1) the Christians were not to be sought out by the police authorities, but if they were accused and convicted they must be punished; (2) anonymous information against them was not to be accepted; (3) even those suspected of flagitia in the past were to be pardoned on proving they were not Christians or on renouncing Christianity.
Some regard this rescript of Trajan as the first official and legal authorization to proscribe Christianity; but we have already seen that Christianity as such was proscribed as a result of the Neronian investigations. Besides, there is not the slightest trace of any new principle of severity, either in the letters of Pliny or in the rescript of Trajan. The persecution of Christianity had been "permanent" like that of highwaymen, but not systematic or general. Neither was Trajan's rescript an edict of toleration, though on the whole it was favorable to the Christians in minimizing the dangers to which they were exposed. The question was as yet purely one of administration.
Trajan initiated no procedure against Christians--in fact rather discouraged any, asking his lieutenant to close his eyes to offenders--and Pliny consulted him in the hope of obtaining milder treatment for the Christians by putting in question form what he really wished to be approved. Trajan's rescript "marks the end of the old system of uncompromising hostility."
Is China still persecuting the Church? Yes, there are many underground Bishops and priests still under arrest, religious pilgrimages are still forbidden and attacked, and living a good and open Christian life is very difficult in most of China, especially because of their "one child" policy.However, an even more important issue might be that no Bishops have been permitted by the Vatican to be ordained in many years for the underground Church in China. The September 2007 newsletter of the Cardinal Kung Foundation points out a potential consequence of a very risky Papal venture:
The underground Church is rapidly to become extinct because the Holy See has not appointed any new bishops in the underground Church for the last 10 years or so. Currently, only approximately 31 underground bishops remain. Of the 31, 20 are more than 80 years old, and 6 are between 70-80 years old. There are only 5 underground bishops who are under 70 years old! Obviously, without the ordination of any new underground bishops, within the next five years, in keeping with standard mortality statistics, few underground bishops will remain. Thus, the Pope’s emphasis on unity will ring hollow when within 5 or 10 years, there will be a single-digit number of underground bishops. By that time, there will be only the official Patriotic Church’s bishops shepherding the Catholic Church in China. With whom does the Holy See wish the official CPA-controlled Church to unite?The entire issue of the Cardinal Kung Newsletter needs to be read to understand the difficulties of the Catholic Church in China. So does a current article in AsiaNews that focuses on Hu Jintao's "harmonious society." We need to pray for Pope Benedict XVI as he tries to obtain increased freedom of the Church to operate in China. Undoubtedly, we do not know all that he knows, but I suspect he understands that China will be the next Roman Empire with its economic and military might. Consequently, China's conversion to following the one true God and His Church is absolutely required for our future world and civilization.
Without the appointment of new bishops in the underground Church, the suffering underground Roman Catholic Church, whose members will have by then experienced more than 60 years of severe persecution for their Faith to God and for their total obedience and loyalty to successive Popes, will finally be de-facto eliminated, not by the Chinese communists, but by the Holy See itself by virtue of its refusal to appoint any more underground bishops. Rome would possibly lose the loyalty and obedience of tens of millions proven faithful in China who have suffered immeasurably for the Successor of Peter.