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Catholic demographics in China prompt new questions

HONG KONG (SE): In the 1980s and 1990s the Church in China had arguably the fastest growing membership on any country in the world, outstripping on a percentage basis even the monumental growth being experienced on the African continent.

However, Anthony Lam Sui-ki, from the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, says that this growth has plateaued in recent years and that the now, the Church is struggling to replace its natural attrition, apart from leakage to various sects and quasi-religious groups.

In an article published in Tripod, Lam says that after the great wave of baptisms experienced in the official Church communities in the years 2004 to 2010 of up to 100,000 annually, they have now dropped back to between 30,000 and 35,000.

He said that this leaves the Church more or less stable, but stagnant as regards growth.

Exact statistics on the Church in China have always been hard to come by, but generally speaking estimates placed its population at between six and 12 million.

Lam notes that an important event in this context is the publication by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on the Blue Book of Religions in 2010, which took into account the special circumstances of the Church in China.

It recorded the Catholic population at the time as being 5,714,853, but noted, “After 400 years of development (since the mission of Matteo Ricci and companions), it could be as many as six or 12 million.”

Lam explains that one of the problems in estimating the number of Catholics has always been how you count them. He points out that in 1988, he estimated that it was about eight million, when the government figure sat at 3.5 million.

“The ratio between the two figures was 2.3 to one,” he notes.

He then notes that in 2005, when his estimate sat at 12 million, the official figure was 5.3 million. “The ratio was still 2.3 to one,” he says.

Lam points out that the consistency in the ratio of difference indicates that both he and the government have been consistent in the criteria they used for their calculation, as things like a varying definition of the official and unofficial Church communities, and the black market population led to different conclusions.

However, on the plus side, he says that the admission by the Blue Book that the total may be as many as six million was a positive sign, as it was an indication that the government would deal with the Church in a more realistic manner.

However, he does not foresee such a rosy future, saying that presuming there are 12 million Catholics and that the average life expectancy is 75.6, with the average age of baptism 18, China would need to baptise 210,000 people each year just to keep up with natural attrition.

However, he adds that he thinks that today, the Catholic population may have dropped a bit and be closer to 10.5 million.

Other private estimates have varied significantly, with one done by Gallup in 2014 showing only 0.4 percent of the population as Catholic, but the survey mostly interested itself in estimating the number of people with a religious bent.

It concluded that China is the least religious country in the world, with 61 per cent of people saying they are confirmed atheists and only seven per cent they are religious.

However, the survey was criticised at the time as unreliable as it applied western criteria to data, which do not necessarily hold true in Asian cultures, leading to false presumptions on the interpretation of responses.

But another one carried out by the Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life seven years earlier, showed 14 per cent of people interested in religion, with Catholics numbering one per cent of the population.

While Lam notes that a downturn in the Catholic population will lead to a downturn in the number of vocations, there are many other factors that can affect that as well.

However, statistics that he quotes from the past 20 years show disturbing trends, with the number of major seminarians in 1996 more or less halving by 2014 in both the official (1,000 to 560) and unofficial (2,300 to 1,260) Church communities.

Sisters fared much worse, with women in formation in the official Church dropping from 1,500 to 50, and the unofficial numbers from 1,000 to 106.

While numbers are often hard to come by in the unofficial communities, Lam says a reasonable estimate of the number of ordinations between 1999 and 2008 is 280, while the official Church recorded 560, with an annual average of around 50, which means that between the two there were 70 to 80.

However, he says that the worrying point about this is that the years 2000 to 2002 saw bumper crops with an average of 138, but then there was a sudden drop to an average of less than 70, with the exception of 2004 which saw 164. But they were really the fruit of vocations in the 1990s.

Where to move in the future Lam says is difficult to foresee, however, he interprets the trend as a call for better formation for priests, as well as a push for a better educated laity with more opportunities for them to fulfill their vocation as baptised members of the Church.

He also suggests looking at mature age vocations, but experiences in other countries in this area have shown up many complications and difficulties.

But he concludes, “As China is shifting to a middle class society, more professionals may be re-examining their lives and maybe considering a second career.”

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