Alex Jürgen Thumm clarifies its role:
Misconceptions abound about China, and that’s no less the case when it comes to the country’s Christian population. Many assume a Communist country that is officially atheist would allow no religion. (Mao Zedong once said “religion is poison.”) But religious freedom is guaranteed in the 1978 constitution — or at least what the government considers “normal religious activity,” occurring in government-sanctioned places of worship serving one of the five official faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Religion is on the rise in China, with one-third of people claiming an affiliation. To all my Chinese friends’ surprise, there are as many as 130 million Christians in China; the only countries with more are the United States and Brazil. Churchgoers in China outnumber those in all of Europe.
In an interview, religion scholar Richard Madsen discusses the country’s growing Catholic population:
The Catholic Church has not spread as quickly in China as evangelical Christianity. There are about twelve to fourteen million Catholics, which in absolute terms isn’t insignificant, although it’s just 1 percent of the population. That pretty much tracks the population increase since 1949. In 1949 there were three million Catholics and now there are twelve million. The national population has about quadrupled so it’s about right. One of the strengths of the Catholic Church is it’s been tied to community and family, but it’s also a weakness too. It’s harder for outsiders to come into it. And the dependency on clergy also inhibits it. So for things like that it’s growing more slowly. And naturally you have the split of the official Catholic Church in China from the Vatican, which has created a schism between the official Church and the underground church [which is more loyal to Rome].
Does all this mean that Christianity has failed in China?
It hasn’t failed. What does success mean for a religion? Taking over the country? Or is it just becoming an accepted part of the plurality of understandings, and permanent in a sustainable way? You can definitely argue that it’s like that for Christianity in China today. We’re seeing new ways for people to find meaning in their lives. It’s definitely changing and broadening. Christianity is part of it.
(Image of priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a 7th- or 8th-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in China, Tang Dynasty, via Wikimedia Commons)