Despite an increase in the number of Roman Catholic and Protestant worshippers in China, the number of worshippers enrolling at state-ordained seminary schools is on the decline.
Tensions between Beijing and overseas religious leaders have led to a fractured worshipping environment for devoted followers in the country. Chinese worshippers are forced to choose between “legitimate” churches and leaders authorized by the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which follow the direction and authority of the state, or practice their religion underground in unregistered churches that follow the direction of the Vatican.
According to Liu Yuanlong, Vice-President of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the number of recruits to the priesthood in China’s Catholic Church has dropped sharply in recent years. Liu said fewer than 800 trainee priests are currently studying at the nation’s 10 major seminaries. Meanwhile, Vice-President of the National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China, Li Shuxing, claims Chinese seminaries prioritize training priests who are patriotic and can adapt to society. “The priests do not live in a vacuum. It is important for them to adapt well to society and serve their parishioners,” said Li.
In addition to state intervention over religious teachings, a China Daily report last year claimed that clergy belonging to a number of different religions are also facings a lack of social assistance. According to the China Religious Survey, more than 40 percent of religious institutions in China have not purchased pension plans for their clergy and more than 26 percent have not bought medical insurance.
Liu blames the decrease in state-approved clergy largely on the proliferation of underground churches, which the Chinese government has fought hard to curb.
In 2014, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuoan, announced the government would nationalize Christianity arguing, “construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s condition and integrate with Chinese culture.”
Since then, the Chinese government has removed hundreds of crosses from churches, and arrested prominent clergymen such as Reverend Li Guanzhong and Joseph Gu for protesting the policy.
The most recent development in the growing rift between Beijing and the Holy See occurred late last month. During the “two sessions”, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association announced a new government policy that will ordain bishops “under the leadership of the government” and convert unregistered clergy to the government approved church.
The Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants, and the Islamic Association of China are also state-endorsed religious organizations in China. Neither are dependent on outside religious authorities.
The stakes are high for the battle over the souls of China. A 2010 Pew research report claimed there were 68 million Christians in China, a number estimated by some sources to rise to 250 million by 2030.