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 Protestantism—and 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.