La Stampa’s Asia editor Francesco Sisci offers a contrarian vision of a ” Catholic ‘Destiny’ in China ” on the newspaper’s blog today, predicting an early rapprochement between the Vatican and the Chinese government. China already has 130 million Christians, according to Chinese government estimates, Sisci reports, significantly more than the 70 million to 110 million range cited by most Western sources.
Christian conversion, though, is broad but shallow, Sisci reports:
Most just follow whichever pastor they meet out of “yuanfen,” or fate. Many of those pastors are self-taught, having read a translation of the Bible in Chinese. The translation may be not very accurate or done in a scholarly way. To this very weak Biblical background they add their own preaching, which is bound to draw more from the local Chinese lore (non-Christian) than from the Bible, simply because the Bible is not part of Chinese education or tradition. Many pastors mix Christianity with Taoism and Buddhism.
What explains the enormous rate of nominal conversion? According to Sisci,
. . . many of these new Chinese Christians are new converts to ‘modernity,’ which in China is largely tantamount to ‘Westernization’or the American way of life. They pray to Jesus as they eat at MacDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. But just as they can’t eat hamburgers every day (and can’t digest cheese and can’t stand its smell), so they can’t take the pure overeducated Christianity, and even the purely American Presbyterians or Evangelicals are hard to swallow. In the same way they add soy sauce or rice vinegar to their food, to Evangelical faith they may add belief in feng shui (“wind and water,” traditional Chinese geomancy) and the Yijing (an ancient soothsayers’ manual).
To gauge the depth as well as the breadth of Christian conversion, Sisci argues, one has to focus on the Catholic population. He cautions, “If one takes a closer look at these numbers, little appears to have changed since 1949. The Catholics, even in the rosier estimates, are about 12 to 13 million, or 1 percent of China’s population, the same percentage as in 1949”. The question is, Sisci believes,
Can this tiny Catholic minority in Chinawhich, anyway, is more numerous than the Catholics in extra-Catholic Irelandbe the backbone of a new Catholicism worldwide? Now more than ever: God knows. These Catholics have a very strong faith because they have converted twice: They accepted a religious tradition that is strange to them, and they have accepted a culture and rituals that are totally foreign.
The Chinese government attitude towards Christianity changed dramatically in 1999, Sisci notes, when the Falun Gong offered a challenge to modernization rooted in traditional Chinese beliefs. The government feared that a politically potent traditionalist movement might fill the spiritual void that emerged in China after Mao was discredited. Chinese Christianity presented a purely spiritual direction with no political ambitions or centralized structure, unlike Falun Gong, and the government viewed it benignly.
At the 2007 Communist Party Congress, Party Secretary Hu Jintao prasied the role of religion in building a “harmonious society.” Sisci foresees a new era of trust between China and the Holy See, following decades in which the government forced Catholics to join a “patriotic association” or work underground. He offers a detailed account of the state of Vatican-Chinese relations, arguing that
. . . there is growing trust between the two sides. China and the Holy See reached a common agreement for the man who became bishop of Beijing last year, after the demise of Fu Tianshan. Fu had been appointed by the government but not recognized by Rome. Conversely, in 2007, through intense consultations, Beijing and Rome jointly picked young Li Shan (born in 1965) for the prestigious and symbolic position of Bishop of Beijing, virtually the head of the Chinese Catholic Church.
Sisci is the author (with Fr. Francesco Strazzari) of a recent book on China’s relations with the Holy See, Santa Sede - Cina: L’incomprehensione antica, l’interrogativo presente .