Diplomatic Spring Between Rome and Beijing. But for the Chinese Church It Is Winter

Diplomatic Spring Between Rome and Beijing. But for the Chinese Church It Is Winter

Baptisms are dropping off, vocations are collapsing. The numbers describe a Catholicism in full decline. And meanwhile the negotiation proceeds. Two revealing contributions from Cardinal Parolin

by Sandro Magister

ROME, September 1, 2016 – The disclosures about a possible agreement between the Holy See and Beijing concerning the appointment of bishops have found indirect confirmation in two consecutive contributions from the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, second in command of pontifical diplomacy.

The first is the interview released by the cardinal on August 24 to the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, “Avvenire”:

> Parolin: con l’accoglienza si costruisce la pace

The second and more substantial contribution is the conference Parolin held on August 27 in Pordenone, entirely dedicated to the work of Cardinal Celso Costantini, first apostolic delegate in China from 1922 to 1933 and an ardent supporter of official diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Chinese republican regime at the time, relations that were effectively established in 1946 but shortly afterward annihilated by Mao Zedong’s rise to power.

Parolin took care not to enter into the thick of the dispute between optimists and pessimists over the negotiation underway, represented respectively by – among others – the two Chinese cardinals John Tong and Joseph Zen Zekiun, the last and second-to-last bishops of Hong Kong:

> In Appointing Bishops, the Pope Leans Toward Beijing

The secretary of state instead sought to throw water on the fire and to guarantee that the Holy See will do everything possible to “arrive at an agreement that may be satisfying for all.”

*

When asked by “Avvenire” about the negotiations underway, Parolin responded as follows:

“The contacts between the Holy See and China continue with the spirit of good will on both sides. The Holy See is particularly eager that Chinese Catholics may be able to live out their membership in the Church in a positive way, and at the same time be good citizens and contribute to reinforcing the harmony of all of Chinese society. And this precisely because Catholics in China are fully Chinese and, at the same time, fully Catholic. The journey of mutual understanding and trust requires time, patience, and farsightedness on both sides. It is a matter of finding realistic solutions for the good of all.”

And on the “two” Churches present in China, the one submissive to the regime and the one without official recognition and exposed to every form of harassment, he said:

“To maintain that there are two different Churches in China does not correspond either to the historical reality or to the faith life of Chinese Catholics. There are instead two communities that both want to live in full communion with the successor of Peter. Each of them bears with it the historical baggage of moments of great witness and of suffering, which speaks to us of the complexity and contradictions of that immense country. The Church in China knows figures of heroic witness to the Gospel, a river of holiness that is often hidden or unknown to most. The hope of the Holy See is to behold, in the not-too-distant future, these two communities reconcile, welcome each other, give and receive mercy for a shared proclamation of the Gospel that may be truly credible. Pope Francis has at heart that the tensions and divisions of the past may be overcome, in order to be able to write a new page in the history of the Church in China. I trust that this journey may be an eloquent example for the whole world, building everywhere bridges of brotherhood and of communion.”

*

Less focused on current events but even more eloquent was the conference Cardinal Parolin later held in Pordenone.

For example, in reviewing Celso Costantini’s lack of success in establishing diplomatic relations with China, a lack of success due to resistance from the Vatican authorities, Parolin contrasted the distrust back then with the good will of the current pope, much more in “harmony” – he said – with the farseeing proposals of the apostolic delegate at the time:

“Costantini took into account the failure of the two negotiation attempts, considering them battles lost that did not preclude the attainment of the final victory: to establish diplomatic relations between Church and state in China. I am reminded of the harmony between this attitude and what Pope Francis has indicated about ‘the holiness of negotiation.’ In his homily at Santa Marta on June 9, 2016, the pontiff affirmed: ‘There is the need to live out “the tiny sanctity of negotiation,” or that “healthy realism” which “the Church teaches us”’: it is a matter, that is, of rejecting the logic of ‘either this or nothing’ and setting out on the path of the possible in order to be reconciled with others.”

And having come to the conclusion, in drawing a lesson for today from that great precursor who was Constantini, Cardinal Parolin said:

“Today, as then, many are the hopes and expectations for new developments and a new season in relations between the Apostolic See and China, to the benefit not only of Catholics in the land of Confucius but of the whole country, which boasts one of the greatest civilizations on the planet. I would dare to say that this will also be to the benefit of an orderly, peaceful, and fruitful coexistence of peoples and nations in a world, like our own, torn by so many tensions and by so many conflicts.

“I consider it important to emphasize this concept forcefully: the hoped-for new and good relations with China – including diplomatic relations, if God should will it so! – are not an end in themselves or a desire to be attained perhaps as “worldly” successes, but are pondered and pursued, not without fear and trembling because here it is a matter of the Church, which is a thing of God, only inasmuch as they are ‘functional’ – I repeat – to the good of Chinese Catholics, to the good of the whole Chinese people and to the harmony of the whole society, on behalf of world peace.

“Pope Francis, like his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, knows well the burden of suffering, of misunderstanding, often of silent martyrdom that the Catholic community in China bears on its shoulders: it is the weight of history! But he also knows, together with the external and internal difficulties, how alive is the yearning for full communion with the successor of Peter, how much progress has been made, how many living forces are acting in witness to love of God and love of neighbor, above all of the weakest and neediest persons, which is the synthesis of the whole of Christianity. And he knows and encourages, above all in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy, reciprocal forgiveness, reconciliation between brothers and sisters who experience division, the effort of growing in understanding, in collaboration, in love!

“We are all called to accompany with affectionate closeness, respect, humility, and above all with prayer, this journey of the Church in China. This is a matter of writing a page unheard of in history, looking forward with trust in divine Providence and healthy realism, to guarantee a future in which Chinese Catholics may feel profoundly Catholic, even more visibly anchored to the firm rock that, by the will of Jesus, is Peter, and fully Chinese, without renouncing or diminishing all that which is true, noble, just, pure, lovable, honored (cf. Phil 4:8) that their history and culture have produced and continue to produce. There is nothing genuinely human, Vatican II reminds us, that does not find an echo in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples! (cf. GS no. 1).

“It must be realistically accepted that the problems to be resolved between the Holy See and China are not lacking and can generate, often because of their complexity, different positions and orientations. But such problems are not entirely dissimilar from those that arose and were addressed positively 70 years ago. Cardinal Celso Costantini therefore remains a source of inspiration and a model of extreme relevance.”

*

The following day, from Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying commented on Cardinal Parolin’s conference as follows:

“We are positive and sincere in improving relations with the Vatican and with the new pope, but we naturally have some principles on which we insist. We have seen progress between China and the Vatican. We maintain tranquil, friendly, and efficacious channels of communication. There is progress in our relations. We hope to work together with the Vatican to continue improving our relations.”

One difference with respect to the times of Costantini is that today the sides are reversed. Back then the one resisting the offers of the counterpart was the Holy See, while today it is the Chinese government that is more reluctant to give up its position of strength and is standing firm – as its spokesman said – on some of its “principles” that in practice are nonnegotiable, and anything but easy for the Church to smooth over and accept.

The latest of many confirmations of this hesitancy is an article published on August 29 in “Global Times,” the international magazine of the state-run “People’s Daily,” entitled “Obstacles continue to stall China-Vatican ties,” which digs up the longstanding request that the Vatican “cut its official ties with Taiwan”:

> “Global Times:” Obstacles and pessimism in China-Vatican relations

And it states:

“China is not eager to establish formal ties with the Vatican, the only European country that has not established such relations with China, because it is not an urgent issue which will affect China’s international status if it is not dealt with immediately.”

But then there is another difference, more substantial. During the years in which Costantini was apostolic delegate in China, the Catholic Church underwent an extraordinary blossoming, which he himself described like this, as Cardinal Parolin recalled:

“When I went to China in 1922 the missions, meaning the ecclesiastical districts, were 57, and none of them was entrusted to an indigenous prelate. When I left, in 1933, there were 121 ecclesiastical districts. And 23 of these were entrusted to Chinese superiors.”

Today the opposite is happening. The Chinese Church’s state of health is anything but thriving. It is a Church in retreat, grown old, with no more of the propulsive thrust of years gone by, afflicted with a sharp fall in baptisms and vocations, both male and female.

This diagnosis has been made by Anthony Lam Sui-ky, a great expert on the Church in China, in an article full of statistical details that appeared in the latest issue of “Tripod,” the magazine of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong:

> Catholic Population in China Since 2000 and Its Impact

Here it is reproduced [in comment] below.

A must-read. Because the adventure of the Chinese Church is not made only of diplomacy, but also with its “tiny sanctity.”

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One comment on “Diplomatic Spring Between Rome and Beijing. But for the Chinese Church It Is Winter

  1. The drop in the Catholic population in China and its impact on the Church

    by Anthony Lam Sui-ky

    Since the year 2000, the Catholic Church in China has been facing a series of challenges. Of these challenges, a downturn in the Catholic population numbers is one of the most significant. The stagnation of Catholic population growth is accompanied by the aging of members in the Catholic Church. That also brings with it a crisis in the number of vocations.

    In the year 2000, nobody worried about vocations in China. At that time, people were just concerned about how to construct larger seminary campuses to host the ever-increasing number of seminarians. But within ten years, the number of recruited seminarians dropped dramatically.

    Catholic population on the plateau and its downturn

    The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published the Blue Book of Religions (2010) on August 11, 2010. It contained statistics on membership in both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in China. This was rather groundbreaking at the time, so I would like to discuss it with our readers. According to the publication:

    “As of December 10, 2009, there were 3,397 Catholic clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) in China. Included in the figure were 3,268 priests residing in about 100 different dioceses. In mainland China, there were 10 major seminaries with 628 major seminarians; 106 convents with 5,451 Sisters who had taken their vows, and 30 preparatory seminaries with 630 minor seminarians. There were about 350 members of male religious congregations. 5,967 churches or prayer centers existed throughout the country. According to incomplete statistics, China has 5,714,853 Catholics. (Blue Book 2010, p. 98)”

    What makes this assessment different from the past was that the researchers who compiled the study “took into consideration some special circumstances. Therefore the actual number of Catholics in mainland China should number more than 6 million.” (ibid.) And, the Blue Book added, “after 400 years of development [since the mission of Matteo Ricci and companions], it could be as many as between 6 and 12 million.” (op. cit., p. 107)

    It is interesting to note that the difference between our figure and the official figure remains rather stable. In 1988, when I first suggested that the Catholic population in China should be about 8 million, the government-sanctioned figure was 3.5 million. The ratio between the two figures was 2.3:1. In 2005, when I estimated that the figure for the number of Catholics should be 12 million, the official figure was 5.3 million. The ratio between the two estimates was still 2.3:1.

    The above figures reflect that the ratio between the official figure of the Chinese Catholic population and our figure remained stable. Presumably both sides were consistent in using their own method of research. The discrepancy between the numbers was due to some questions, like “a different definition of the open and underground Churches,” “the black market population,” etc. It was good that the Blue Book of Religions (2010) agreed that “the actual number of Catholics in mainland China could be more than 6 million.” It showed that they would like to cope with the reality in a more pragmatic way.

    “The Plateau Phenomenon”

    The traditional understanding of “the Plateau Phenomenon” is that a community, after rapid development, failed to keep up the momentum. This means that the increase in new members just replaced the number of lost members but failed to achieve any further growth. I took a series of different data, and found that no later than 2000, the Catholic Church in China had already entered into “The Plateau Phenomenon”.

    If we take the figure of 12 million as a basis, and consider that life expectancy in China is 75.6 years of age, and presume that the average age of baptism is 18, every year the Church would need 210,000 new baptisms to cover the natural losses. This does not include the drainage of faithful to other religions or sects, like the infamous “Oriental Lighting.”

    The official side of the Catholic Church in China claims that from 2004 to 2010, every year on average, there were between 90,000 and 100,000 baptisms. Together with the figure from the unofficial side, the total number of baptisms might have been marginally good enough to cover the natural losses. For the last few years, however, the average Easter baptisms only numbered about 21,500. The following table presents the figures of Faith Press.

    Number of New Baptisms at Easter:

    2011: 20,000

    2012: 22,000

    2013: 16,000

    2014: 24,000

    2015: 19,554

    Put together with other baptisms during the rest of the year, the official side of the Church may have had around 30,000 to 35,000 new baptisms annually. Compared to the figures of 90,000 to 100,000 baptisms annually in the period from 2004 to 2010, one can see that the numbers for the Catholic population are obviously going down.

    Considering all the different figures, and especially my findings from some interviews conducted in the summer of 2014, we can project that the Catholic population in China currently numbers around 10.5 million (about 0.77% of the total population). A colleague of mine did another calculation, and found that the number of Catholics in China should be between 9 and 12 million (0.66% – 0.88% of the total population). This figure matches well with my findings.

    On April 13, 2015, Gallup International, which consists of 75 independent polling organizations, released a report of their research on religion in 65 countries or areas during the period September to December 2014.

    According to this report, the least religious country was found to be China where 61% of the people claim to be convinced atheists, approximately twice as many as any other country, and 29% say that they are not religious. Just 7% of Chinese citizens claim to be religious.

    Another data resource which is worthy of our attention is The Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the American-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2007. In 2008, they issued their report, which stated that 14 percent of adults in China said that they are religiously affiliated, and that Catholics made up one percent of the national population. According to the Gallup survey of 2014, the Catholic population made up just 0.5 percent of the total population of China.

    The decline and loss of vocations

    The downturn in the Catholic population will directly cause a downturn in the number of vocations, but it will take a few years for the phenomenon to emerge. During the last 15 years, priestly and religious vocations in China have suffered a great loss. The following table reflects the decline in the number of vocations among young men.

    Open Church seminarians, major and minor:

    1996
    Major 1,000
    Minor 600

    1998
    Major 1,000
    Minor 600

    2000
    Major 900
    Minor 700

    2002
    Major 870
    Minor 800

    2004
    Major 710
    Minor 740

    2006
    Major 650
    Minor 530

    2008
    Major 610
    Minor 550

    2010
    Major 630
    Minor 600

    2012
    Major 533
    Minor 490

    2014
    Major 560
    Minor 400

    Underground Church seminarians:

    1996: 700

    1998: 800

    2000: 800

    2002: 800

    2004: 800

    2006: 400

    2008: 400

    2010: 550

    2012: 450

    2014: 300

    Total seminarians:

    1996: 2,300

    1998: 2,400

    2000: 2,400

    2002: 2,470

    2004: 2,250

    2006: 1,580

    2008: 1,560

    2010: 1,780

    2012: 1,473

    2014: 1,260

    Now we come to young women’s vocations. Their situation is even worse.

    Sisters in formation, open Church:

    1996: 1,500

    1998: 1,500

    2000: 1,500

    2002: 900

    2004: 600

    2006: 320

    2008: 200

    2010: 100

    2012: 50

    2014: 50

    Sisters in formation, underground Church:

    1996: 1,000

    1998: 1,000

    2000: 1,000

    2002: 900

    2004: 600

    2006: 230

    2008: 200

    2010: 100

    2012: 100

    2014: 106

    Total sisters in formation:

    1996: 2,500

    1998: 2,500

    2000: 2,500

    2002: 1,800

    2004: 1,200

    2006: 550

    2008: 400

    2010: 200

    2012: 150

    2014: 156

    The number of ordinations

    In China it is not easy to compile concrete figures for the underground Catholic communities. During the decades between 1999 and 2008, the total number of ordinations in the underground communities is estimated to have been around 280.

    On the open Church side during the same period, the number of ordinations was about 560. On average, about 50 young men were ordained annually. The figure is not very many, but not too few either. What makes the figure worrying is that more ordinations were carried out in the previous years of this century. From 1999 to 2004 on average every year 70 to 80 new ordinations took place. Numbers have been decreasing ever since.

    As the number of ordinations depends on the number of vocations. The “fruitful” result of ordinations during the first years of 21st Century is just a follow-up to the flourishing of vocations in the late 20th Century. Following the decline of vocations in the 21st Century, we can foresee that the number of ordinations in the future is not so optimistic.

    Below is the table of ordinations (open and underground communities together), which took place since the year 2000.

    2000: 134

    2001: 110

    2002: 171

    2003: 87

    2004: 164

    2005: 89

    2006: 76

    2007: 82

    2008: 40

    2009: 47

    2010: 65

    2011: 46

    2012: 78

    2013: 66

    2014: 78

    Concluding Suggestions

    Surely the decrease in the number of vocations is the result of a variety of reasons, including even political ones. However, the above data prompt me to draw attention to the following points:

    1. As the number of vocations is decreasing, the work of further formation for young priests should be strengthened. In the past, seminaries had to cope with a heavy teaching task and no effort could be spared for further formation. Now is the time to fill in this gap.

    2. The formation of the laity should be improved. As the number of new priests diminishes, more work in the church communities should be assigned to lay people. Therefore, they need and deserve good training.

    3. Late vocations should be encouraged. Recruitment of seminarians is an all-encompassing work. It should not only be aimed at young people. As China is shifting to a middle-class society, more professionals may be re-examining their lives, and maybe considering a second career. Among this group of people, perhaps some seeds of a vocation have been planted. The Church should give them the necessary support by providing them with spiritual upbringing and vocation discernment.

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