All around the world, and not just in developed countries, fertility rates are plummeting. For many people, including dedicated demographers, large families and healthy fertility rates belongs to a bygone era.
Many have also become skeptical of the fact that the Christian faith can still have the seemingly magical power of keeping fertility rates up. They point especially to the United States, Brazil and southern Europe, where the fabled “Catholic fertility” has all but disappeared, and suggest that Islam now appears as the only successful pronatalist faith. Others, including the academic Hans Rosling, believe that socioeconomics, not religion, now dictate fertility rates.
But as the following examples from Asia show, Rosling and co are at least partially wrong. Catholic fertility is still around; it’s just not happening in places where you might usually look for it. Even in a continent of depressed birth rates, especially Eastern and Southeastern Asia, Christianity can still be a major factor behind population fecundity.
Once dubbed “Head of the Church in the Far East”, Vietnam’s Catholic Church has had a tumultuous recent history full of martyrdom, persecution and amazing resilience. Today, Vietnam’s Công giáo (the Universal Church, i.e. Catholic) is in relatively good shape, despite harsh restrictions. The days of when Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, who spent years in Communist prison and re-education camps doing hard labour, are, thankfully, becoming a distant memory. Vocations are flourishing in Vietnamese seminaries, and the church is known for its good works and social services, providing aid and combatting prostitution/human trafficking. Mass attendance in Vietnam is also relatively healthy compared to the West, with churches full of parishioners everywhere in the nation.
Today, the Church’s battles in Vietnam are often more against greed, hedonism and materialism rather than aggressive Communist ideology. Church property rights are often violated as greedy local officials steal land from the church and its faithful for economic benefits in a booming and land-hungry economy. A stone’s throw away from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City is the seedy “backpackers street” of Phan Ngu Lao, where scantily clad Vietnamese women get high on laughing gas and consort openly in the street with Western sex tourists.
Although it also lives under Communist rule, Vietnamese Catholicism has one great strength compared to its counterpart in China: its unity. Unlike in China, there is no “official patriotic” church and underground loyal church. Thankfully, the split was never attempted by the Vietnamese Communists, and today the Church as a whole is in communion with the Vatican.
A less obvious strength of the Vietnamese church is the higher fertility rate amongst the faithful, which shows a relatively consistent adherence to Catholic teachings regarding morality and sexuality. Vietnam has in the past pursued a population control policy similar to but less restrictive than China’s: a two-child policy, now abandoned, that saw the total fertility rate has plummet from around 6 to around 2.03-2.09 today. That relatively healthy figure is partly the result of higher fertility among Catholics.
This was confirmed in a 2011 government report regarding the country’s fertility based on data from the 2009 Vietnamese census. In rural Vietnam, where two-thirds of the nation’s population lives, the differential is particularly obvious. According to the report, Catholics nationwide had a fertility rate of 2.28 in 2009, significantly higher than the national average TFR of 2.03. In rural areas, however Catholics have a TFR of 2.53 compared to the national rural average of 2.14.
If we compare this to rural Buddhists and Vietnamese with no religion (a majority of the country belongs in the no religion category) the differences are even more stark: rural Buddhists only have 1.97 children on average, whilst secular rural Vietnamese have 2.12 children on average. That means rural Vietnamese Catholics have a 20% higher fertility than the national average and a 30% margin over their Buddhist compatriots. Urban Catholics have a TFR of 1.86, which is higher than the 1.67 for Buddhists and 1.81 for the national urban average.
In 2019, Vietnam’s fertility slightly increased compared to 2009, as it rose to 2.09, but it is very likely that the 2011 rates still apply.
If we break it down even further, things get even more interesting. In 2019, Vietnam counted 5.9 million Catholics, or around 6.1% of the country’s population. They have the highest concentrations in the following regions: the northern dioceses of Phat Diem and Bui Chu, and the southern diocese of Xuan Loc.
Phat Diem diocese in Ninh Binh Province and Bui Chu diocese in Nam Dinh Province have traditionally been the Catholic heartlands of Vietnam and the Catholic president of southern Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem fervently wanted to include them as part of his territory despite the Partition of Vietnam across the 17th Parallel in 1954.
The bishop Thaddeus Le Huu Tu, who served as the Apostolic Vicar of both dioceses, even had a Catholic militia going, making much of the two dioceses an autonomous Catholic territory for years until the Partition. Many Catholics, including Le Huu Tu, moved to the south after 1954, mostly settling in Dong Nai Province, where the diocese of Xuan Loc is situated.
Today, Nam Dinh Province and Ninh Binh Province have far higher TFRs than the national average at 2.74 and 2.46 respectively. Dong Nai, situated in the far less fertile south and near Ho Chi Minh City, which is the fertility lowpoint in the country, still manages to achieve 1.9 in its TFR, one of the highest in the Mekong Delta Region and far higher than the 1.39 of Saigon.
Unlike Vietnam, China does not have any clear census data for its religious population, never mind the fertility rate of its religious communities. In a country where even the national TFR rate is manipulated and “adjusted” higher to justify the national population control policy, the demographic situation of Chinese Christians can only be described as murky at best. Estimates also vary wildly regarding how many Christians there are in China (including both Catholics and Protestants).
However, one can find plenty of anecdotal evidence regarding the fertility boost authentic faith brings to religious communities, even in the most anti-natalist of nations. For that, however, we have to go to the rural “ethnic Catholic” villages of northern China.
Founded due to centuries of intense persecution, these communities today account for a few million Catholics, some of the largest of them in the provinces of Hebei and Shanxi. A prominent example is Donglu in the diocese of Baoding and Hebei, which saw Marian apparitions in 1900 and 1995 and is a pilgrimage site dedicated to Our Lady of China. Some 90% of Donglu’s 9000 or so villagers are Catholic. Pilgrimages are frequently blocked and disrupted by security forces and many Donglu villagers worship in “illegal” underground churches. The diocese of Baoding and Hebei Catholic communities in general have been underground strongholds for years.
The largest Catholic community in China is located in Qingxu County near Taiyuan, which is the capital of Shanxi Province. Centuries ago Catholics fled persecution to Liuhecun in this remote part of Shanxi. It has grown to a 10,000-strong Catholic village, with a majestic cathedral rebuilt after the thaw on religious restrictions following the Mao era. In 2010, before the oppressive Xi era, church historian Dr. Anthony Clark of Whitworth University visited Liuhecun and wrote an account of what he saw there: a vibrant faith but also noticed something exceedingly rare in Mainland China – an abundance of children. He wrote:
The villagers can rely on each other for support and encouragement; they are willing to bear the monetary fines when having more than one child since their Catholic neighbours support and assist them. Liuhecun remains China’s largest Catholic village largely because it has formulated strategies for having multiple children, who are subsequently raised in devoted Catholic households. Attending Mass in the immense church, one is bewildered by the number of children whirling through the aisles before the service, a unique sight in one-child-policy China.
A video of what Clark saw depicts what seems like the entire village coming out of the cathedral after a Mass. Villages in northern China are usually full of the elderly left behind by the youths who have largely moved to the cities for better work opportunities. Hundreds of thousands of rural schools in China have closed in the past two decades owing to urban bound migration and the harsh birth restriction policy. That was not the case in Liuhecun when Clarke visited in 2010.
Certainly, those were better days for religious people than now, but one must also remember that Clark visited during the strict one-child policy era. In 2011, another profile of Liuhecun titled “Village of God” appeared in the English edition of the Chinese blowhard tabloid the Global Times It’s admission the resistance in Liuhecun was straightforward: Traditional villagers follow the teachings of the Catholic Church in a dogmatic way that opposes any means of contraception. Having four or five children is normal in the village where the official One Child Policy is not enforced.
Liuhecun was far from alone in its active resistance against the one-child policy: there are tales of teams of family planning workers getting pelted with stones when they entered Catholic villages in Hebei in the 1980s, when the power of family planning officials reached its peak almost everywhere else and struck terror across rural China, with forced abortions and sterilization. Later on, pressure was applied through coopting priests to persuade “stubborn” villagers to obey the national policy. Some priests capitulated and even joined the local family planning commissions, but many others stood firm, while asking their villagers to use natural family planning methods.
Even in severely anti-natalist environments such as Vietnam and China, local Catholics have shown that it is possible to continue to adhere to the teachings of their Church and carve out a way of resistance. However, the greatest threat to these heroic tales may not be brutal enforcers of the one-child policy or persecution; it may well be urbanization.
The backbone of Catholic resilience lies in the strong communal living environment which offers protection and security. Rapid urbanization in both China and Vietnam threatens to erase this identity and the very existence of these communities. It is up to the Church in both countries to ensure that the preservation of these identities continues, but one can dare to remain hopeful, for the communities there have already withstood the worst of tests and yet they remain standing.