How the top-heavy Catholic Church is losing the ground game in China
The Taihang Mountains run south from Beijing through the heartland of China like a primordial scar. For centuries, the range has been famed as the birthplace of Nüwa, the matriarchal creator of humans according to Chinese mythology. Military strategists have cast a colder eye, finding value in narrow passes that could be easily defended. Nowadays, industrialists covet its vast deposits of ore and coal that have turned it into a world center of steelmaking.
But for the past 400 years the Taihang range has also been the Catholic Church’s axis mundi in China, a focal point of its history and growth. Beijing is where Christianity found a permanent foothold in the early 17th century, allowing the faith to radiate down through the country on either side of the range. To the east lies the province of Hebei, with important centers like the National Shrine to Our Lady of China. To the west lies the province of Shanxi, home to the pilgrimage site of Bansishan. Clinging to the Taihang Mountains a bit farther south is a less famous but perhaps more telling center of Catholicism: Dongergou.
Early one bright, windswept morning in May, this dusty village (pronounced DOHNG-are-go) is the picture of rural piety. The bell of the local church tolls for morning prayers. A family prepares a giant feast for a traditional wedding. Tour buses begin arriving with pilgrims visiting a mountaintop shrine. Devotional flags snap, rosary beads click and prayers rise up to heaven.
Watching the day unfold is Liu Wenxia, a short, energetic 42-year-old dressed fashionably in black tights, a colorful skirt and a billowing blouse over the wiry physique of a migrant laborer. Like many locals, Ms. Liu left Dongergou for the provincial capital of Taiyuan because local farms are too small and the climate too dry to support more than subsistence farming. For 20 years in Taiyuan, she cleaned homes, sold bedding and hawked medicine to patients in hospitals—a common practice in China’s do-it-yourself medical system. “I’ve done it all!” she says, laughing, but then she turns serious. “And now I have the chance to come back home and help revive Catholicism.” (Note: All quotations from interviews have been translated from the Chinese.)
Two years ago, she and her husband returned to Dongergou to meld their hard-won entrepreneurial skills with the village’s growing reputation as a pilgrimage site. They sublet an empty restaurant at the base of the mountain and refurbished it as “The Home of Pilgrims”—a way station for the tens of thousands who journey to Dongergou each year to the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church.
The couple has also helped organize a massive donation campaign to expand the pilgrimage path up the Mountain of Seven Sorrows, or Qikushan in Chinese. New stations of the cross have been built, along with an enlarged ceremonial gate atop the mountain. Behind it is the distinctive church, which resembles the emperor’s palace in Beijing. Tour operators have posted online drone footage of the spectacular ascent, helping fuel a boom in pious Chinese travelers.
Dongergou is symptomatic of many challenges facing Catholicism in today’s China. The religion is still predominantly rural, but Dongergou and much of rural China are emptying out, with faith sometimes not making the leap to the big city.
And although this village and many religious centers across China are benefiting from a boom in religious tourism, it is not clear that the underlying number of believers is growing. Indeed, some reliable estimates show that China’s Catholic population may be shrinking because of low birth rates, a failure to evangelize and the longstanding rift between Beijing’s Communist rulers and the Vatican.
This failure to grow—estimates have the current Catholic population in China at not much above 10 million in a nation of 1.4 billion—has led many members of the church to see recent negotiations between the Holy See and the country’s Communist Party as especially important. Although talks have slowed in the past few months, locals are hopeful that better ties will inject a new sense of dynamism into the church. They even hope that the pope can visit one day, an event they believe will revive enthusiasm for the faith.
But many also caution that improved, or even normalized ties between Beijing and Rome would be only a partial solution. That is because what tests the church in China most is not so much the challenges of worshiping under Communism, but the difficulty of speaking to people who are living through an era of upheaval.
China’s Catholic population may be shrinking, due to low birth rates, a failure to evangelize and the longstanding rift between Beijing’s Communist rulers and the Vatican.
In some ways, this is a problem facing established religions in many parts of the world. But it is especially pronounced in China because of the rapid urbanization occurring here.
For people like Ms. Liu, these hopes and difficulties manifest themselves each day in the crowds that trek up the mountain to venerate the Virgin Mary. Many of the Chinese visitors, she says, come from Catholic families but lost their faith during the decades of hardline Communist opposition to religion. Pilgrimages can inspire these people, she says, helping them see the beauty and power of the Catholic Church. “They lost their faith, but now the Lord has brought them back,” Ms. Liu says to me as the first pilgrims of the day begin walking toward the stations of the cross. “But when they leave the mountain today, will they come back tomorrow?”
Survival Over the Centuries
Christianity first came to China in the seventh century, when the Church of the East—or the so-called Nestorian church—arrived. Like Buddhism six centuries earlier, it traveled east via the Silk Road, the great trading route across Central Asia. But neither the Nestorians nor a subsequent Franciscan mission in the 13th century lasted. Both closed when wars shut off links back to the West.
It was only in the 16th century that Christianity gained a permanent foothold in China. In 1552 the Jesuit Francis Xavier landed on Chinese soil, arriving on a Portuguese trade ship at an island off the southern coast of Guangdong Province. He soon died but was succeeded by another Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, a remarkably gifted scholar, linguist and diplomat who landed in China in 1582 and slowly moved northward until, in 1598, he reached his goal: the imperial capital of Beijing. While trying to convert senior officials there, he probably also spread the word to traveling merchants from provinces like Shanxi, helping plant the seed in villages like Dongergou.
In the context of China’s more than 3,000 years of recorded history, Christianity’s permanent presence of 400 years might seem short. But its survival is still remarkable. For the first time since Buddhism’s arrival two millennia ago, a new religion has gained a permanent foothold among the Han Chinese majority, outliving the fall of dynasties and warlords, and waves of state-sanctioned persecution, to become a permanent part of China’s religious landscape.
This success is partly due to one of the Catholic Church’s greatest strengths: its global reach and resources. Until the mid-20th century, the church channeled money and sent missionaries across the vast land. Schools, hospitals and orphanages soon followed. Besides the provinces around the Taihang Mountains, Catholic missionaries penetrated the hills in the southern part of Yunnan Province—vividly captured by the Chinese writer Liao Yiwu in his book God Is Red. They also created important centers of faith in the country’s most international city, Shanghai, and many other towns and hamlets across the country.
Despite these successes, the church was slow to localize. The Vatican did not approve an independent hierarchy for the Chinese church until 1946. When the Communists took power three years later, most Catholic-run hospitals, schools, orphanages and other institutions were still run by foreigners. Of the 137 religious regions in China, only 28 were run by Chinese (21 bishops and seven prelates). The other 109 bishops and prelates were born elsewhere.
So when the Communists expelled almost all foreigners from China in the early 1950s and cut ties with the Vatican, the church was decapitated and struggled to survive. Evangelization essentially stopped, and conversions rarely happened outside marriages into Catholic families.
This trauma is reflected in the sluggish growth in the number of Catholic believers. In 1949 China had an estimated three million Catholics. Today’s highest estimate, 12 million, suggests that the number of Catholics did no more than track the country’s overall population rise, from 400 million in 1949 to nearly 1.4 billion today.
This stagnation is especially vexing, given the explosion of religiosity in China over the past few decades. Under the rule of Communist China’s founding leader, Mao Zedong, religion was heavily persecuted. But since Mao’s death and the adoption of capitalist-style reforms in the late 1970s, religion has taken off, part of a broader search for values in a society that has otherwise emphasized economic growth and materialism.
When the Communists expelled almost all foreigners from China, the church was decapitated and evangelization essentially stopped.
Across China, the number of Buddhists and Taoists has risen quickly and is now in the hundreds of millions. The comparison with Protestantism is even more striking. In 1949, China had one million Protestants. Today, the figure is estimated at 50 million to 60 million, with Protestant congregations especially strong where Catholicism is weakest—in China’s rapidly growing cities and among well-educated white-collar professionals. (Islam, the other main religion in China, is confined to 10 non-ethnic-Chinese minority groups and numbers just 23 million. Like Catholicism, its growth is mainly due to natural population increases and not conversions.)
A key reason for this divergence goes back to the issue of localization. The church’s reluctance to indigenize until the mid-20th century contrasts with the explosive growth in the number of indigenous Protestant leaders as early as the 1920s and ’30s. Many were jailed by the Communists, but their followers formed the basis of today’s huge Protestant “house church” movement. For better or worse, Protestantism in China travels lightly, with self-taught pastors forming churches and attracting large congregations in only a few years.
This sort of spontaneous institution-building is harder to realize in a more formally structured faith like Catholicism. This is especially true because of China’s state control over religion. In the 1950s, the Communist government set up patriotic associations to control all five religious groups in China—Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism. These committees now manage mosques, temples and churches, appoint key clergy, and run seminaries.
For groups like Protestants, government control is a burden, but they are more decentralized, so they can ignore hierarchies and flexibly respond to demand. Put simply, any pious believer can form a Protestant church and declare himself or herself head of it.
That is harder for Catholics to do. After the Communists set up the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957, state officials began appointing their own bishops. Many Catholics began to feel uncomfortable about attending churches under government control and some stopped going. Others set up an underground Catholic Church in certain parts of China. This church does not recognize the “patriotic” church’s legitimacy. But even the underground church has a fairly rigid hierarchy, with appointments requiring approval by highers-up in China.
Many Catholics began to feel uncomfortable about attending churches under government control and some stopped going. Others set up an underground church.
Over the years, the split between the “open” and the underground church has become less pronounced, especially after Benedict XVI’s letter to the church in China in 2007. In it the pope essentially said the underground church should not be a permanent institution (“the clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church’s life”) and that Catholics can participate in services offered by the state-recognized church.
But state control over religion is still problematic, hampering growth and regularly spilling into public view. In 2012, for example, the government appointed Thaddeus Ma Daqin auxiliary bishop of Shanghai. But Bishop Ma announced his resignation from the Patriotic Catholic Association at his episcopal ordination Mass—apparently a protest against the government’s regulation of religion. He was put under house arrest at the Sheshan Seminary, where he largely remains today, a situation that shut down one of the country’s most important seminaries for over a year.
In another case, seminarians in Beijing boycotted their graduation ceremony in 2014 when they discovered that a bishop who was consecrated without Rome’s approval would conduct graduation Mass. The students were expelled without graduating. Along with the events at Sheshan Seminary, that meant that in just two years, two graduating classes of seminarians were lost. “The abnormal relations between Beijing and Rome precipitated these events,” says Anthony Clark, a Whitworth University professor of Chinese history who has written extensively on the church in China. “The Catholics in the pews do pay attention. It is unsettling.”
The Double Edge of Prosperity
On one level, the name of the church in Dongergou, Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, refers to the Virgin Mary and the seven trials she endured as the mother of Jesus. But it also refers to a local story. In 1912 a Franciscan monk was ordered to leave Dongergou and took with him a statue to Our Lady of Lourdes that had been brought to the parish in 1901. When villagers objected, believing the statue itself possessed numinous power, he left town in anger, shaking his shoe at the village and cursing them as Judeans.
The story is recounted in The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales From a Chinese Catholic Village, a slim but powerful book by the Oxford historian Henrietta Harrison. According to the story, Dongergou suffered seven years of bad harvests, alleviated only when villagers built the shrine to the Holy Mother at the top of the mountain.
Since then, Dongergou has been a pilgrimage site, especially for those who feel that fate has dealt them a bad hand. One I encountered there was Zhao Miaoling, a pilgrim from Gansu, who had traveled with 40 other pilgrims on an overnight bus to visit the shrine. The group made their way up the hill praying the Stations of the Cross, stopping at each bend in the path to recite chants in their local dialects.
Ms. Zhao is 52 and, like many women of her age in China, unemployed. She was given early retirement as an accountant from a state enterprise. Wondering what more there was to life, she dabbled in Buddhism and later came to Catholicism.
“We’ve come according to the heart of Holy Mother,” she tells me. “We have our own problems. Many of us have a lot of pressure, a lot of frustration. We can’t solve it on our own. We can only rely on God. We hope that after requesting it, it can be fulfilled.”
“Village life and everything about it began to seem backward. Catholicism seemed part of that old way of life that people were casting off.”
After a Mass in the church at the peak, Ms. Zhao and I walk around the plateau at the top of the mountain, and she tells me why she converted. “Society isn’t just lacking faith; it is completely devoid of faith,” Ms. Zhao says, but she then adds, “All my friends are interested in religion.” Most, she says, are drawn to Buddhism because it is more present in daily life and feels more familiar culturally. For herself, Catholicism was attractive because her mother-in-law is Catholic. “Most people haven’t heard of it,” she says. “But I married in, so through family I learned about it.”
That is not an unusual story—in fact, it is probably how most conversions to Catholicism happen. Compared with Protestant churches, Catholic churches set up relatively few Bible study groups at universities and rarely invite curious strangers to their churches on days like Christmas, which is gaining in popularity as a secular holiday.
Some in the church bemoan this lack of evangelization. Ren Jin, a local priest in Dongergou, says Catholicism was strongest in China in the Mao era. Then it was under attack and people banded together. Villages like Dongergou were often entirely Catholic. With residents not allowed to leave their villages, local ties and faith deepened, even if public worship was banned.
When these restrictions were lifted, Catholicism initially came out of hibernation. Churches were rebuilt, young people joined seminaries, and evangelists who had survived the persecution spread the word with fervor.
But then came prosperity. People left village life to work in the cities. Few were like Ms. Liu, with her restaurant at the base of the mountain, returning home to reconnect with their faith.
“Village life and everything about it began to seem backward,” Father Ren tells me. “Catholicism seemed part of that old way of life that people were casting off.”
The Vatican Seeks a Thaw
It is in this context that some wonder if the number of Catholics here is actually declining. One of the most respected observers of the church today, Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, has extensively mined public data and paired that with interviews with people in the underground church. His conclusion: The number of Catholics in China peaked at 12 million in about 2005, plateaued for a few years and now is in decline.
In a report published last spring, Dr. Lam estimates that the Catholic community in China would need 210,000 baptisms per year to cover natural losses, but in fact baptisms are no more than 35,000. He believes that the total Catholic population is now about 10.5 million.
This is reflected in the number of vocations in the open and in the underground church. Between 1996 and 2014, according to Dr. Lam’s estimates, the number of male vocations has dropped from 2,300 to 1,260, while the number of female vocations has plummeted from 2,500 to 156. He also writes that the number of ordinations dropped from 134 in 2000 to 78 in 2014.
Many Chinese Catholics hope that renewed ties with the Vatican will lead to better times. Starting last year, it became known that negotiations between the two sides had resumed, and some observers predicted a speedy resolution. But Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung of Hong Kong, the diocese where the Vatican has based its negotiations with mainland China, voiced caution in an interview with the Catholic News Agency. “A healthy realism,” said Bishop Yeung, who succeeded Cardinal John Tong Hon on Aug. 1, “is indeed required to guard against false hopes and unrealistic expectations on the one hand and premature closing of doors to further dialogue on the other.”
One of the key sticking points has been how to choose candidates to become bishops—a problem that led to the Vatican’s not recognizing and even excommunicating bishops appointed by the Chinese government. According to people familiar with the negotiations, a likely deal is that Beijing authorities will pick candidates, with the Vatican holding veto power. Apparently still unresolved is how to deal with the bishops not recognized by the other side. In addition, Beijing has sent mixed signals, for example by detaining a bishop in Wenzhou.
More generally, the government under President Xi Jinping has followed a harder line against independent associations of any kind. Nongovernmental organizations have been shut down or forced to register. Last year, the party held a rare conference on religion, calling on all faiths in China to “Sinicize”—meaning that religion must be controlled by the state. (In his interview with CNS, Bishop Yeung noted that the Chinese government seems concerned about the “patriotism” of Catholic leaders.)
At the very least, negotiations seem to be on hold until a once-in-five-years Communist Party congress is held this October or November (as of this writing, a date had not been set).
“I would think that nothing will happen until after the party congress,” says Richard Madsen, a sociologist at the University of California in San Diego who has written about the church for decades. “But it’s hard to know if there will be a resolution and when.”
Even if a deal is reached, some are doubtful that it will help the church. They suspect that Beijing sees an agreement as a way to increase control over Catholicism and not as a way for Chinese Catholics to gain more leeway or closer ties to Rome. Father Ren says that Catholics should spend less time worrying about high-level negotiations and focus more on their own actions--especially evangelization and engagement with the faith. “People have a thirst and a need,” Father Ren says. “If Christianity can slake it, then they’ll convert to Christianity. If Buddhism can, then they’ll become Buddhists. But we have to go out and evangelize.”
Keeping Faith in the City
One day in Dongergou I chance upon a wedding. Two 29-year-olds, Duan Yuqiang and Jia Xiaoru, are getting married after a matchmaker introduced them to each other last year. Mr. Duan is a local lad, a long-distance truck driver whose Catholic ancestry goes back six generations. His bride, Ms. Jia, is also Catholic, from the neighboring village of Yao. Their first criterion for a mate: that the other be Catholic. “My family wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Ms. Jia, slender and smiling in a red silk Chinese qipao, while her new husband stands by, nodding. “I feel I can only really understand someone who shares my faith.”
The wedding is low-key. They have carried out the legal ceremony a few months earlier and today simply bow in front of each other’s parents, who take turns sitting in massive redwood chairs to receive the young couple’s respects. This arrangement means the couple are paying obeisance to their elders—a typically Chinese action—but in an acknowledgement of the couple’s Catholicism there is a also a giant picture of Jesus on a table between the chairs.
The event is powerful and moving, but in some ways a throwback. Like many of his friends, Mr. Duan has come back to the village for his wedding, but he and most of his friends are rarely here. Indeed, the only people present at the morning and evening Masses in Dongergou are older people. Even on Sundays the church is dominated by the elderly—because almost no young people are left in the village.
"We are not as ambitious and bold as Protestants.... But what we focus on now is try to influence people with our deeds, not with our lips.”
In the big cities, faith is hard to preserve and harder to spread. One young Catholic facing this challenge is Du Xiaodong, a 25-year-old who moved to Beijing two years ago to work in tech support at an internet company. A native of a small village in the Taihang Mountains, he struggles to keep his faith while in the new city. “When I first came to Beijing I felt quite lost,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do with my faith and where to go.”
Things changed when he married Jing Anqi, a vivacious 27-year-old from a nearby village who had also moved to Beijing. Now they go to Mass together and are expecting a child. But even so, the level of engagement with Catholicism is not as great as back in their hometowns. “When we were in Handan, there are a dozen of us [Catholics] who always get together on the weekend and share ideas,” Ms. Jing says. “Now we still try to keep this going, but the frequency is every two weeks or once a month.”
Both say they want to do more to evangelize, but as Catholics they want to focus more on deeds than words. In her hometown, Ms. Jing says, local Catholics offered foot massage to people suffering paralysis from a stroke. That practice reportedly led to 30 baptisms, but she doubts that this sort of activity would work in a city like Beijing. “We do feel that in terms of expansion, we are not as ambitious and bold as Protestants,” she said. “They can preach more confidently. But what we focus on now is trying to influence people with our deeds, not with our lips.”
A Friend of the Family
Most mornings in Dongergou, I ascend the mountain with Xing Fu’ai, a 42-year-old brother in the Order of the Divine Word, or the Steyler Missionaries. We pass the newly refurbished stations of the cross, stopping to pray and encountering few people as the sun rises over the far mountains and illuminates the path.
Long before the pilgrims arrive, we are at the top, looking down at the dusty bowl formed by two branches of the Taihang Mountains. In the middle of it, a smoggy blotch 20 miles to the north of us, is the provincial capital of Taiyuan, one of the largest dioceses in China. We walk to the enormous Chinese-style church on the summit, with its curved eaves and columns, pray and walk back down the mountain for breakfast.
Religious orders are banned in China, so Mr. Xing has no official role in the church. And if he did, he should by now have been transferred to another diocese. But he remains because of an injury that left him crippled. Fifteen years ago Mr. Xing fell down a mountain ravine and almost died from the fall. He now drags his right leg and speaks only with difficulty—a slowness of speech that is not due to any impediment in his thinking, just in his reaction time. This makes it easy to think he has nothing to say, when in fact he can see Dongergou and all of its problems more clearly than anyone else I have met.
I come to realize that in the rapidly changing world of Dongergou, he is part of the thin membrane of faith that holds it together. I think of him as an example of the church’s hidden strengths: deep, stubborn and lasting—qualities hidden by his self-deprecating words. “I guess you could call me a kind of counselor,” he says. “Even though I’m not trained as one. Sometimes I just sit with families and cry with them.”
There are many reasons to cry in Dongergou, as anywhere in the world. One is the birth of a child with a severe handicap. This happened to Giuseppe Wu Jinwen and Maria Qin Fulan, seventh-generation Catholics. I meet them one quiet afternoon in their living room. Next to their sofa on proud display is a certificate of apostolic blessing from Pope Francis, a trophy that a friend brought back from Rome earlier this year. “Us go to Rome?” Giuseppe says. “It’s a dream, but one I can’t afford.”
Now 61, Giuseppe just retired as principal of a nearby high school. A former physical education teacher, he has a thick neck and broad arms. “Wrestling,” he says, when asked his sport. “People asked me to join the Communist Party,” Giuseppe says. “It’s important if you want to get ahead, but for me as a Catholic it was impossible. You have to be atheist to join. But it’s O.K. I just refused.”
In a rapidly changing world, Mr. Xing is an example of the church’s hidden strengths: deep, stubborn and lasting.
While we speak, their daughter quietly stands in the back of the room. She cannot read or speak very clearly and is frightened by most people. For years the couple have despaired of her fate: What will happen to their daughter when they die, if she cannot not find a husband and establish her own family? Their sons have left Dongergou to work in the city. One day the young woman will be on her own.
Over many visits Brother Xing has sat with them and listened to their troubles. They have read the Bible together. He prays for them in his small chapel. Slowly, they have come to trust that God will find a way to provide for their daughter in old age. “He is a good soul,” Giuseppe says of Brother Xing. “He’s a friend of the family. He is always there. Reliable.”
Walking the Path
One morning I wake up late. Dawn has already broken and Brother Xing has already left for the mountain. I catch up with him only on the back side, on a crude road cut into the rocky inclines and ravines with explosives. Huge chunks of rocks line the way. Even with hiking boots I have to pick my way down, careful to avoid the jagged edges. Then I come upon him.
I figure I have caught up to Brother Xing because of his limp until I notice his feet: bare and bloody. He sees my gaze and laughs. “I don’t do this every day. Just some days. A few times a year. To remember.”
Remember what? I ask. He says that a few years ago he had a vision. “I saw Jesus and he was carrying the cross. And then I noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes when he was carrying the cross. Of course, I knew that before. But at that moment I thought of it and how he was carrying the cross. I thought: He isn’t carrying it alone. Along the way someone stopped to help him.
“I can’t compare what I’m doing to that, but by walking barefoot I feel I’m filling that role, walking the path for him.” I offer my arm, but he smiles and turns away. “If I accept help, the sacrifice won’t be worth it. It will be without meaning.”