FU’AN, China — For nearly four centuries, a swath of farming and fishing villages on China’s southeast coast has survived as a stronghold of Catholicism, sometimes flourishing, other times withering, its fate often dependent on decisions or conflicts far away in Beijing or Europe.
Now, a new clash is resonating in this rural region, known as Mindong. This time, it centers on talks between China and the Vatican to bridge their historical differences by settling the thorniest issue dividing them: control of the bishops and priests who run the Roman Catholic Church in China.
The basic plan would give the Vatican a formal role, and possibly even veto power, in how clergy are appointed in China. That would be an unusual concession by Beijing, which is deeply suspicious of foreign interference.
In return, the Vatican may force many local communities to accept clerics appointed by China’s Communist authorities rather than popular “underground” church leaders who have resisted state control for decades.
The prospect of such an agreement has unleashed intense emotions around the globe, with critics accusing the Holy See of “selling out” loyal Catholics in China. The Vatican’s defenders, meanwhile, argue that it must compromise to prevent China’s Catholics from splintering further, especially as the government of President Xi Jinping tightens control of religion.
But the people most affected by these proposed changes — residents in places like Mindong — say they feel a sense of powerlessness, as if awaiting a storm that they cannot control.
Many are less concerned about disputes over the clergy than about a hollowing out of Catholic life in the Chinese countryside. Others say that the outside world’s binary view of Chinese Catholicism — of loyalist underground church members and government flunkies — misses more subtle realities on the ground.
“This is something higher-ups will decide,” said Huang Xiaofeng, 40, a shopkeeper catering to pilgrims who visit a holy mountaintop cave. “We believers just go to church and pray.”
The Vatican has already asked Guo Xijin, the underground bishop in Mindong, to yield his leadership of an estimated 70,000 Catholics to a government-appointed cleric who commands about 10,000 followers — a huge concession to Beijing.
Bishop Guo, 59, who has been a priest in Mindong since 1984, said in an interview that he was willing to accede if it helped heal the long split between the underground and government churches.
But he added that it would not address larger problems that are diminishing Catholicism here. “The main problem is believers’ educational level and spiritual foundation,” he said. “They have belief, but there is no depth to it.”
Bishop Guo was referring to the fact that while Catholicism is strongest in poorer, rural parts of China, the countryside is emptying out. A few decades ago 80 percent of Chinese lived in rural areas; today only half do.
In areas like Mindong, that has meant a collapse of churchgoing. Bishop Guo estimates that more than a third of local Catholics have left Mindong to find work elsewhere. Almost all young people are gone, leaving villages dotted with churches used only on a rotating basis by a dwindling elderly population.
Mindong’s problems reflect a larger trend. According to surveys of the official and underground churches by Anthony Lam, a researcher with the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, the total number of Catholics in China peaked around 2005 at 12 million and has since declined to 10 million.
That makes Catholicism the smallest major religious group in China, and the only one that is shrinking — even as other faiths, especially Buddhism and Protestantism, have grown rapidly amid a nationwide religious revival.
Visitors to the Bishop Bai Cave near Mr. Huang’s shop speak constantly of these challenges. Many are migrants working in cities like Shanghai. In the days before the Chinese New Year, they come home to see their parents and visit holy sites like the cave, where a Dominican friar hid from Qing dynasty soldiers in the 1700s before being executed.
But few of them are practicing Catholics any more, and their own children are growing up without the faith. There are Catholic churches in the cities but they seldom reach out to migrants.
Lin Gang, 36, who left Mindong to open a shop in Changzhou, a prosperous city on the Yangtze River, said he rarely had time for church and that almost none of his neighbors there are Catholic.
“If we could get off Sundays for Mass it would be easier,” he said. “But I have to keep the store open to take care of my family.”
“One’s faith grows weaker when one goes out to work,” he added.
The roots of the church’s problems in China go far back. The Qing emperor banned Christianity for about a century before Western powers forced the dynasty to let missionaries in again. When the Communists gained control of China in 1949, Catholicism was hit especially hard because of the Vatican’s strident opposition to communism.
The new government also expelled most foreigners from China, decapitating the Catholic Church, which had relied on foreigners to run its schools, orphanages, seminaries and religious orders. Catholicism survived as a clan-based, rural religion without its old missionizing impulse.
In 1957, the authorities added to the church’s problems by setting up the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to replace the Vatican in appointing the clergy and give Beijing’s atheist leaders control over the church.
Many worshipers resisted. They boycotted the government church in favor of underground churches led by clergy members whom they elected. Over time, the Vatican approved most of these locally appointed clergy. That created two Catholic lineages in China: those appointed by Beijing and those by the Vatican.
This is the rift that is the focus of the current negotiations. But the picture is more complicated than it seems.
Many government-appointed bishops, for example, have quietly received the Vatican’s blessing. And Pope Benedict XVI said in 2007 that loyal Catholics could worship in Chinese government-approved churches.
Even the term “underground” is largely a misnomer now. Although some clergy have been detained and face harassment, others mostly operate in the open. In many places, underground Catholics have built their own churches, sometimes huge cathedrals, without government interference.
Bishop Guo, for example, lives in a seven-story residence next to a twin-spired church clad in white tiles. Mindong is dotted with dozens of these churches, many of them with soaring spires, chapels, residences and nunneries, all of them technically illegal.
Moreover, many of the churches received construction permits with the help of Zhan Silu, the government-appointed bishop to whom the Vatican has asked Bishop Guo to cede his position.
Bishop Zhan declined to be interviewed, but local Catholics say he signed off on the permits to reach out to underground believers.
“It shows it’s not underground at all,” said Eugenio Menegon, a professor of history at Boston University, who wrote a book on Catholicism’s deep roots in Mindong. During his time in the region, he said, he found that the unofficial clergy often gets along fine with the local authorities.
Tensions arise when one side pushes the other. Recently, the pressure has come from Beijing, which has adopted new regulations that are meant in part to curb underground churches.
The Vatican’s desire to have Bishop Guo step aside in favor of Bishop Zhan also worries residents. Many feel they should be consulted on the appointment of their spiritual leader — an issue that could come up in other Chinese dioceses where the future of as many as 30 underground bishops is uncertain.
One lay nun whose order has deep roots in Mindong said Bishop Zhan would have difficulty running the diocese because most worshipers are in the underground church and support Bishop Guo. Still, she said that if the Vatican recognized Bishop Zhan, she would obey.
Though weakened by migration and buffeted by change, Mindong remains a place where one can still sense the world of the Dominican friars who first brought Catholicism to these hilly shores in the 1630s — and the powers of faith that can outlast politics.
Not far from Bishop Guo’s cathedral is Shangwan Village, the burial site of a Catholic priest named Miu Zishan who was persecuted by Communist zealots in the 1960s and died shortly after.
In front of his grave, Wu Saiqing, 49, was sleeping on a stone bed. Locals believe that doing so cures illnesses, and so Ms. Wu was there for a midday nap, hoping to improve her health.
Ms. Wu said her family’s Catholic roots dated to the 17th century. Two of her siblings serve the official church, one as a nun and one as a priest. But she attends an underground church.
“It makes no difference to me,” Ms. Wu said. “It is the Lord we believe in.”
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