11/13/2009, 00.00
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After 60 years of communism, Church in China faces most critical moment

by Anthony Lam*
Zero growth among Catholics; declining vocations; bishops too young. Meanwhile, Party and government control continues along the same lines of the past 60 years.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - The People’s Republic of China is celebrating her 60th anniversary this year.  It is a good time to evaluate the development of the Catholic Church in China during the last six decades.

Most people divide the sixty years of the Chinese Communist regime into two even parts.  The first thirty years, from 1949 to 1978, were full of political campaigns.  The government was always ideology-oriented.   The communist party presented herself as a totalitarian government.  All social non-government organizations, including the Catholic Church, were under severe control.

The third plenum of the 11th National Congress of the party in December 1978 marked the beginning of the second thirty years.  During this latter thirty years market economy was re-introduced.  The government is, relatively speaking, more tolerant towards the social and non-government organizations.  Foreign correspondents are allowed to visit and interview in China.  White Papers on Human Right as well as on Religious Freedom in China, and many other similar kind of document have been officially promulgated since the 1990s.  China has tried hard to catch up with the universal standard in different social aspects.   It gives the outside world an impression that things are all right in China.  But what is the reality?

For me, I would like to say that the Catholic Church in China is facing the most critical moment in her modern history.   It can be a good opportunity to enjoy further and promising development if people grasp the opportunity with great effort.  But challenges is everywhere, and the Catholic Church in China will suffer greatly if she fails to deal with her current problems properly.  She is facing the following serious problems.

 No significant increase in Catholic population

According to the different sources, the Catholic population in China has not experienced any significant increase in the last ten years. The situation is even worse than that during the Cultural Revolution when the Church still recorded growth in population.  It is true that every year there are some 150,000 new baptisms joining the Church, but this is just enough to compensate the natural loss of the Catholic population.  On the other hand, a great number of Catholics, especially those moving from the rural area to the coastal urban area looking for jobs, are left unattended in the new emigrant city.  Most of them become “CEO” Catholics, that is, going to the Church on “Christmas and Easter Only”.

 Shortage of all kinds of vocations

Following the decline of Catholic population growth is the decline in vocations.  The absence of the tier of youth alone already causes great difficulty in recruiting priesthood vocation, not to mention the impact of materialism and One-child Policy.

More important is that in China the Church lacks all kinds of vocations.  Sisters vocations are declining.  Mature vocation is not well cared for.  (Basically there is no institute taking care of mature vocations in China.  If one wishes to join the priesthood after thirty, it seems that the only possible way is to join a congregation abroad.)  Religious brother vocations and formation is still forbidden, at least not officially approved, in China.   Twenty years ago, a late bishop in Central China told me that he would like to recruit some young men as brothers, but the government had never given them the green light.  Vocation of permanent deacons has not yet been introduced to this country.

 Bishops are too young

Contrary to the phenomenon of an ageing Church, the Episcopal class is getting younger and younger.  Due to the closing down of the seminaries for more than twenty-five years from mid-1950s to early 80s, middle-aged priests were very rare in China at the time when the Church was re-opening her door to the outside world in 1980s.  Even nowadays, middle-aged clerics are still a minority.  Some bishops or bishopric candidates find themselves too young to take up the post.  Through the last two years there is no open consecration of bishop in China.  It may be attributed to many reasons, but we cannot deny that quite a number of candidates have turned down the proposal or appointment as bishops in China.  The problem will be solved after a few years when the young tier becomes mature.  The question is how to handle the existing Episcopal vacancy not at the cost of the diocesan development.

 The control of the Party

To conclude this article, I think it is not appropriate to neglect the influence of political impact on the Church in China.  Actually, the government has never given up her ambition of controlling the Church.  They are still sticking to the strategy as they did in the first thirty years, but just doing it the other way round.   New and advancing technology have not changed the government’s attitude towards the social and non-government group but just reinforcing their ability of control.  It seems that the party and the government still do not trust the Church.  In fact the control asserted by the government and the party is simply unnecessary.  The government should not be afraid of the Church.  Even without the government’s interference, the Catholic Church already has many difficulties to tackle.  The government should show some mercy to the Church. 

* Expert from the Holy Spirit Study Center of the Diocese of Hong Kong

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