BEIJING -- Christianity in China is booming despite the government's rigorous attempts to control religious practice. Yet in the past 15 years, Protestantism has grown at more than twice the rate of Catholicism, a fact that may reveal as much about the government's hold on the churches as it does about the spiritual vitality of China.
Worshippers pray during a mass in the morning at the Liuhe Catholic Church in Liuhe village on the outskirts of Qingxu county, northern China's Shanxi province, September 11, 2011. Liuhe is one of the largest parishes in mainland China, where about 90% of the population are Catholics.
But the trend holds even in studies factoring those who worship outside the state-approved churches. According to a December 2011 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Protestants worshipping in both the official and unofficial churches were estimated at 58 million, while Catholics numbered 9 million in total. Other, more high-end estimates of Catholics reach around 12 million.
The primary reason for this growth disparity is generally agreed upon by experts both within and outside of the Church: It's simply tougher to become Catholic.
Lucia Cheung, the China editor of the Union of Catholic Asian News, explained that the process of Catholic conversion usually takes a year and a half of study, though the process is accelerated in some places in China. "Catholics [are] more strict in accepting a new member," she said. "It is not like the Protestants. Some of them just need to say, 'I believe,' and they're regarded as a Protestant."
As China has urbanized and liberalized, many people have found the much-lauded attainments of wealth or status unfulfilling. Foreign religious workers often reference China's exceptional "spiritual curiosity."
And unlike in the West, large portions of the population have no previous contextual knowledge of religion whatsoever.
Protestantism's simplicity has fueled its spread -- but China's Christian population is increasingly urban, educated and sophisticated. Such converts pose hard questions to their spiritual leaders, and they want thoughtful answers.
The Catholic Church is, at least theoretically, in a better position to answer tough theological questions
Priests-in-training generally study around seven years, preparing not only to preach but also to administer sacraments. Their Protestant counterparts, whose responsibilities are simpler and less ceremonial, typically graduate from Bible school in fewer than four years. Many Protestant pastors have one year or less of formal training.
In China, educational opportunities are sparse for both Catholics and Protestants. There are only 12 official Catholic seminaries and fewer than 25 Protestant seminaries in all of China. And because Catholics spend more time in study, the official Catholic seminaries graduate fewer than 20 each year, while Protestant schools graduate up to 200.
While priests can get training outside the state-run schools, either abroad or in unregistered Chinese-Catholic seminaries, they face significant hurdles because they must operate covertly. Even counting those trained in so-called "underground" seminaries, there are only about 3,500 priests for China's entire Catholic population. One could justifiably suspect that this leadership deficit contributes to Catholicism's slower growth.
Another factor may be that Catholicism is often perceived to be more politically loaded within China, where politics often remain a decisive factor in career success.
In China, Protestantism's Simplicity Yields More Converts Than Catholicism - International Business Times