Catholics Have a Messaging Problem in China

The Vatican seems desperate to beat Protestantism in the race for Chinese souls. Can it convince the population that it’s not a “cult”?

Children dressed as angels attend a Christmas mass at a Catholic church in Beijing.
Children dressed as angels attend a Christmas mass at a Catholic church in Beijing. (Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters)

Nearly half a century after Mao Tse-Tung banned religion in China, the country is home to an estimated 72 percent of the world’s religiously unaffiliated people. Yet if Christianity continues to grow at its current rate there, in a few years there will be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

By claiming just a sliver of China’s population of 700 million religiously unaffiliated people, religious groups can drastically change their size and influence. As Christian religions lose ground across much of the Western world, China is one of the few countries where Christianity is experiencing stunning growth—from approximately 3.8 million adherents in 1956 to an estimated 87 million today.

Knowing this, Christian leaders are participating in a kind of gold rush for Chinese faith. And the Protestants are winning.

That the vast majority of new Chinese converts are Protestants, not Catholics, represents an important reversal in a country where Catholic missionaries have historically had the most success converting the Chinese to a Christian religion. In 1956, there were roughly three Chinese Catholics for every Protestant. Today, there are between six and 10 Protestants for every Catholic. Those numbers don’t look good to the Vatican—which may help explain why, over the last few months, Pope Francis has started to make a series of major concessions to the Chinese government. (Protestants don’t hold the pope to be the head of their Church.)

At the end of January, the Vatican asked two of its Chinese bishops to step aside, replacing them with bishops approved by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), one of whom had been previously excommunicated. Ever since the Vatican and the Chinese government severed ties in 1949—when the CCP took power—the Chinese Catholic Church has been divided. It is now split almost evenly between underground house churches that submit to the Vatican, and state-approved churches that submit to the government. Under those circumstances, bishop selection has become a major point of contention between Rome and Beijing, with the Vatican appointing certain bishops and the CCP appointing others. Recently, the Vatican and the CCP have been collaborating on a plan to govern bishop selection. While details of that plan aren’t yet public, the Vatican’s decision to replace its bishops signals that the pope is ready to yield some of his authority in China.

Over the past two years, the Chinese government has been cracking down on both Catholics and Protestants—demolishing churches, issuing fines, replacing pictures of Jesus with pictures of President Xi Jinping in people’s homes. But even if the Vatican cozies up to the CCP, Catholic leadership will probably still have a hard time keeping pace with Protestantism.

Particularly among young people in China, the Catholic Church has a messaging problem. Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to more than 30 young Christians at universities across the country. These students, who found Christianity through American teachers, student fellowships, or local churches, identify simply as Christians. None know the words “Baptist,” “Lutheran,” or “Presbyterian”popular denominations of Protestantismand most aren’t sure what it means to be “Protestant” (the word doesn’t translate into Chinese). They do, however, all know the word “Catholic”—and they’re convinced it has nothing to do with Christianity.

“Catholics believe in Mary, but we believe in Jesus,” said a senior at Hengyang Normal University in Hunan, China. “Catholics have a different bible or something like that.” Another senior at Jiangxi Normal University said, “Catholics believe in Mary—that makes people believe in two Gods, and it’s not right.” When I told this student that I was raised Catholic, she looked concerned. “But does that mean you’re in a cult?”

Catholics pray to Mary as the mother of God, and many Protestants consider that, along with praying to various saints, to be idolatry.

Many of these students have parents or grandparents who engage in Buddhist or Daoist rituals, even if they don’t identify with those faiths. In China, 44 percent of religiously unaffiliated people have worshipped at a burial site in the past year. Students I spoke with—both Christian and atheist—generally looked down on these traditions, calling them “superstitious” and “old-fashioned.” Easten Law, a former lecturer at American University who specializes in Chinese Christianity, believes this mindset may explain why more young Chinese aren’t choosing to become Catholic.

“Catholicism is very high-liturgy,” Law said. There’s a lot of standing up, sitting down, kneeling, and repeating designated words at designated times. “From the outside, it can look like a lot of gesturing.” The Catholic mass, he said, might remind young people of the rituals they see their parents perform—rituals they don’t see as connected to religion. “The more you see things that are heavily ritualized, the more you think of chanting monks in Buddhist temples with incense, the more it seems highly orchestrated, the more it looks ‘superstitious.’” Chinese young people, he said, want a more “modern” faith.

Even the decor of a church may invoke the Buddhist traditions from which young people are eager to distance themselves. “They walk into a Catholic church, and there are statues of the saints and candles lit for them—which obviously creates the same ambiance as lighting candles for the Buddha or any number of deities,” Law said. Protestant churches in China, on the other hand, are a lot simpler. The only decoration is typically a large red cross, the symbol of the government-sanctioned Protestant church.

Catholics and Protestants have always been starkly divided in China, as they have elsewhere. They use two different words for God—Protestants use the term Shangdi, roughly translated as “Lord on High,” while Catholics use Tianzhu, “heavenly Lord.” Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries in China worked hard to differentiate themselves from one another. “They did such a good job that the government basically codified that difference,” Law said. In the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution, the CCP slowly began allowing Christian churches to reopen. While the government refuses to recognize different denominations of Protestantism, it has perpetuated the idea that Catholics and Protestants have very little in common.

“The state came in and said, okay—this we call Christianity, the other we call Catholicism,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of Chinese religion at Purdue University. “Once that became the official discourse, the influence was huge. People simply became used to thinking along those lines.”

There’s some precedent for the Vatican’s recent moves in China—and it does not necessarily suggest they will broaden Catholicism’s appeal. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian compared the situation to communist Hungary in the late 1940s. When the Vatican struck a similar deal there, allowing the government to select its own bishops, the Hungarian Church started to shrink. “There was a lot less energy in a church run with the Communist Party pulling the strings,” Piotr Kosicki, a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, told Ebrahimian. If history provides any indication, the Vatican’s moves in China may backfire.