‘We believers just go to church and pray’: Chinese Catholics feel removed from Vatican-Beijing tensions

Newsletter

Ian Johnson, the veteran reporter on religion in China (interviewed on Sinica here and here), writes (paywall) in the New York Times on ordinary Chinese Catholics’ view of the ongoing Vatican-Beijing negotiations. His central conclusion, from visiting a faithful community in southeastern China:

  • “Many are less concerned about disputes over the clergy than about a hollowing out of Catholic life in the Chinese countryside. Others say that the outside world’s binary view of Chinese Catholicism — of loyalist underground church members and government flunkies — misses more subtle realities on the ground.”

Here’s what he means:

  • Catholicism in China is shrinking, down to 10 million from a peak of 12 million in 2005, particularly as young rural churchgoers have left for the cities for work. Though the issue of who gets to decide the legitimacy of bishops in China — Beijing or the Pope — is the historical sticking point of the progressing and intensely controversial negotiations, Chinese Catholics have little faith that it makes much difference for the survival of their congregations.
  • Though Western media has long focused on the very real harassment and persecution that the underground church sometimes faces in China, many Chinese Catholics see little difference between underground and state-approved places of worship.
  • One Catholic said of the Vatican-Beijing politics, “This is something higher-ups will decide…we believers just go to church and pray,” while another opined that “it makes no difference to me…it is the Lord we believe in.”
  • Compromise can already be found between the “underground” (a term Johnson calls “largely a misnomer now”) and state-approved branches, as “many government-appointed bishops, for example, have quietly received the Vatican’s blessing,” while “in many places, underground Catholics have built their own churches, sometimes huge cathedrals, without government interference.”