Last week more than 100 bishops, priests, nuns and lay leaders shuffled dutifully into the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. They took their seats in the Great Auditorium, under a vast ceiling emblazoned with a red star – a reminder that in China the Communist Party reigns over all. The group belonged to the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. But among them were Vatican-approved bishops who signalled subtle disapproval by not wearing their episcopal clothes. Yu Zhengsheng, a high-ranking communist official, told the audience to “ensure that the leadership of the Chinese Catholic Church is held firmly in the hands of those who love the nation and the religion” – rather than in the Vatican’s hands, that is.
The gathering marked the Patriotic Association’s 60th anniversary. In 1957, Christianity could plausibly be presented as a foreign religion. But today there are roughly 100 million Chinese Christians, more than the 89 million-strong membership of the Communist Party. Over the next three decades, the number of faithful is expected rise to 400 million, making China the country with the world’s largest Christian population.
That’s why the government thinks it is necessary to remind even Patriotic Association members to be obedient to the state. (Before we dismiss this too quickly, recall that both Britain and America also regarded Catholics as having divided loyalties until relatively recently.)
Yet, at the same time, China seems committed to talks with the Holy See. Last month its negotiators reportedly visited Rome to discuss the appointment of bishops, the greatest obstacle to reconciliation between Rome and Beijing.
It is hard to know how close the parties are to a deal. The Vatican has hardly wavered in its commitment to talks, despite grave concerns expressed within the Church. Beijing has veered all over the place, suggesting that the Holy See is the keener of the two. The Vatican has responded to provocations only when it has had to – denouncing, for example, the recent disappearance of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou.
It is difficult to see how the two sides can find common ground when Rome (rightly) insists on its authority to name bishops while Beijing argues that the state is supreme. Yet the Vatican has faced such impasses in the past and overcome them.
What does Rome see when it looks at China with its centuries-long vision? Perhaps a future powerhouse of the faith. Pope Francis has said several times that the Church’s future lies in Asia – not, as others think, in Africa or Latin America. He is not necessarily thinking of the populous Catholic Philippines or the dynamic South Korean Church, but possibly of the roughly 12 million Chinese Catholics who are thriving despite oppression. Long after the last Communist Party member has died, Christianity is likely to be a significant force in China. Not only that, but the Chinese Church may influence the whole world in ways we cannot now imagine.
Given this historical momentum, it is better for Rome to wait for a good agreement than rush into a bad one.
Germany’s taxing question
The latest set of figures from Germany confirm what everyone has known for some time: that Catholicism is in decline, and so is Protestantism. Germany is gradually de-Christianising.
In the year 2016, membership of the Catholic Church fell by 162,093 souls. The only comfort to be found in this is that in 2015 membership fell by 181,925 souls, so one could point to a slowing rate of decline. There are 23.6 million Catholics in Germany, of whom a little more than 10 per cent attend church at least once a week.
These figures are grim. Moreover, they are also accurate. In Germany the Church knows who is a member and who is not thanks to the church tax, an institution that Germany shares with a few other countries. People leave the Church through a formal act of defection in order to avoid paying the tax, which is levied by the government on behalf of the Church.
But the exodus from the Church cannot be attributed solely to a desire not to pay the tax. The malaise goes far deeper, and the tax is emblematic, as this magazine has pointed out before now, of everything that is wrong with the German Church: it is rich, it employs a vast army of workers, it administers a huge charitable arm. In other words, it resembles a hugely successful NGO, rather than a Church of the poor for the poor. St Francis of Assisi would be horrified by the gargantuan, worldly and institutional nature of the German Church were he with us today. For where in all this is the prophetic voice of the Church?
The single best thing the German Church can do to counter its decline is to abolish the church tax, as Benedict XVI himself came close to suggesting in a speech made in Freiburg in 2011, and on subsequent occasions. Sadly no one in Germany seems to be listening. The voluntary renunciation of the tax would not of itself cure the German Church of its ills, but it is a necessary precondition of any sort of recovery.