In the city of Yining in north-west China local Catholics built a soaring church. Beneath two red, blue and gold striped domes stood two statues. Between them rose a giant cross. At least, it did until February 27. That was when officials descended on the church, tearing down the domes, the saints and the cross. Then, according to the respected site ucanews.com, they went inside, took down the Stations of the Cross and even chipped off cross-shaped decorations in the pews.
The church is one of the latest victims of what China’s critics are calling the “new Cultural Revolution”. They argue that the present crackdown on Christianity is comparable to the one led by Red Guards between 1966 and 1976.
Why would Chinese officials tolerate an iconoclastic attack on a Catholic church when they are on the verge of a historic agreement with the Holy See? There are several possible explanations.
One is that the church is located in the relatively obscure Xinjiang province and officials may have hoped that the assault could be kept out of the Western media.
Another is that local party members with a special animus for Christianity targeted the church without Beijing’s permission. The region is notorious for the oppression of religious minorities: thousands of Muslim Uighurs have recently been sent to prison or re-education camps.
A third possibility is that local apparatchiks thought that, given the new anti-religious winds blowing from the capital, targeting the church would please their superiors.
Given the relative obscurity of Yining and China’s tight control of information, we are unlikely to discover the truth. Yet we can say with certainty that a new wave of iconoclasm is sweeping China, and that it appears to have the tacit approval of the country’s ever more powerful leader Xi Jinping, now effectively president for life.
The new assault is not limited to church decoration. Under new rules on religious activities introduced on February 1, Christians are only allowed to worship in churches at government-approved times. Group prayer in any other location – including private homes – is now illegal. Credible reports suggest that churches must now post signs forbidding under 18s to enter.
This is what is really happening in the country that a Vatican bishop recently described as a world leader in implementing Catholic social doctrine.
The Holy See is unlikely to complain about the mauling of the church in Yining. It senses that it is nearing the end of trying negotiations with Beijing over a concordat guaranteeing certain rights for Catholics. If it were to denounce the oppression of Christians now, it would jeopardise that agreement.
But not speaking out is also costly. It emboldens party officials who see believers as a threat to communist rule. It demoralises local Catholics who have readily suffered for their loyalty to Rome. It makes Chinese Protestantism – which is growing at a much faster rate than Catholicism – seem the more uncompromising branch of Christianity. And it dents the Holy See’s moral authority: the true source of its power in the 21st century.
We are failing marriage
The Office for National Statistics has published some bad news for the Catholic Church: the number of Catholic marriages has fallen by more than two thirds in the last 25 years. In 2015, the last year for which statistics were available, there were just over 7,000 Catholic weddings. In 1990, there were more than three times that.
These statistics, recorded by registrars, ignore the number of convalidations; that is, Catholic weddings for couples who have already had a civil wedding. But even so, they tell us a story that we have all heard many times anecdotally: many parishes have very few weddings these days, and some parishes have none at all. The decline in Catholic weddings is part of a larger story, of course. There has been a marked decline in religious weddings too, though the Catholic decline is sharper than the Anglican one. (This may have something to do with the fact that the Catholic Church does not marry divorcees without the previous marriage being declared null, whereas Anglicans by and large do.)
There has also been a decline in weddings all told: fewer people are getting married, and those who are, are doing so later in life. In 2015 the average age was 37.5 years for a groom and 35.1 years for a bride. Fewer marriages mean more children born out of wedlock, and less stability in family life. The Church has to face the truth that its mission to promote the sacrament of marriage is failing. An important part of the Gospel message is not getting through.
Many in the Church are so preoccupied with questions of divorce and remarriage that they miss the point that a growing number never get married in the first place. We need, in a sense, to start again, and where better than with the truth about God and the truth about human beings, so beautifully revealed to us in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis?
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund