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The future of the Church in China

My last review focused on Pope St. John Paul II—not only a great saint, but also a hero in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Both Weigel and Kengor emphasized that the accommodationist policies of the Vatican and the United States had not only failed to contain Communism, but actually enabled its expansion. The fight against Communism continues, but many would like to return to the accommodationism that John Paul II and President Reagan together overcame.

Currently, a debate rages about the attempt to reconcile the illegal underground Catholic Church and the Communist-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association in China, which would place all bishops within the Communist controlled structure. In particular, the Vatican is negotiating a shared agreement with the government covering the appointment of bishops, which includes deposing some underground bishops. In light of this controversy, I’d like to reflect on the growth of Christianity in China and the possibility for greater inculturation of the faith there.

Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang, A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (Templeton, 2015).

Rodney Stark became famous for his study The Rise of Christianity (Harper, 1997), examining the social dynamics that led to the conversion of the Roman Empire. Working with a Chinese graduate student, Xiuhua Wang, he explores the dynamics behind the current “meteoric” rise of Christianity in China. The authors offer a short history of Christianity there from Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century to the present. Catholicism by far was the largest Christian group in China until the rise of Communism. Since then, the authors detail how the government’s persecution of the hierarchy drastically reduced the Church’s ability to expand, while Protestant house churches exploded with growth.

Stark and Wang rely on two extensive, recent sociological studies for much of their conclusions. Overall, they describe how “tens of millions of Chinese have embraced Christianity—thousands more convert every day and more than forty new churches open every week (not counting new underground congregations). If this trend were to hold for even another decade, there would be more Christians in China than in any other nation in the world” (2). These converts are well educated, affluent, and even members of the Communist party (which technically forbids religious affiliation). They become Christian through “social networks,” which “are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place” (50). The book is a short and easy read and will help you to get a quick understanding of the changing religious situation in China.

John C.H. Wu, Chinese Humanism and Christian Spirituality (Angelico, 2017).

Martin Scorsese’s movie, Silence (2016), adapting Shusaku Endo’s novel, made the claim that Asian culture was not compatible with Christianity. The Chinese convert to Catholicism, John C. H. Wu (d. 1986), would disagree emphatically. This remarkable man — student of ancient Chinese culture and Western law, translator of the New Testament, drafter of the Chinese (now Taiwanese) constitution, and teacher at Seton Hall — wrote a remarkable book about the inculturation of traditional Chinese wisdom with the Christian faith. Wu’s book covers the philosophy of Confucius and one of his disciples, Mencius, the mysticism of Taoism, and how these two conflicting movements (one moving toward the world and the other away from it) are fulfilled by the supernatural revelation of the Gospel.

Wu looks to St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a model for the mystical vision necessary to inculturate the faith in China: “For me as a Chinese, the most intriguing thing about Thérèse’s little way of spiritual childhood is that it is reminiscent, on the one hand, of the Confucian teaching of filial piety, and, on the other, of the Taoistic insight concerning the mystical significance of the little and the low, of the supple and the docile, of the feminine and the new-born” (97). He argues that Chinese culture offers fertile ground for the Gospel both with its teaching on the natural law and its yearning for the absolute. Wu knows the Chinese and Catholic traditions remarkably well and offers the reader great wisdom not only for the meeting of cultures, but also for navigating the challenges of modern, Western materialism.

With the growth of the Christian faith in China, it is not a time to bow before the Communist government, but to evangelize boldly, following in the footsteps of the many great Chinese martyrs and confessors.

Jared Staudt
R. Jared Staudt, PhD, is a husband and father of six, the Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver, a Benedictine oblate, prolific writer, and insatiable reader.
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