In the shadow of an atheist superpower: Catholicism in Taiwan

Christians make up between 1 and 2 percent of the population of the island territory of 24 million people.

A woman prays in front of a statue of Mary in October 2018 at a Catholic church in Hsinchu, Taiwan. (CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters)

On May 23, Pope Francis appointed Thomas Chung An-zu as the new archbishop of Taipei, Taiwan in a move that came just days after Taiwan’s devoutly Catholic vice president, Chen Chien-jen, stepped down from office to return to his career as an epidemiologist.

Located only about 100 miles from mainland China, this island territory of 24 million people (Catholics account for between 1 and 2 percent of the population) largely functions as an independent country, but has never formally declared independence. In fact, one of the few western nations to recognize an independent Taiwan is the Vatican.

Catholic missionaries first came to Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa) in 1626, when Father Bartolome Martinez and five other Dominican priests accompanied a Spanish expedition team. But more than two centuries would elapse before missionaries from the nearby Philippines were able to establish a permanent Catholic presence and begin evangelizing to aborigines and mainland Chinese migrants arriving from across the Taiwan Strait.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Chinese Communist Revolution that spread across the mainland led to a significant Christian migration to Taiwan. A 1960 Time magazine article reported that, over the course of the 1950s, Taiwan’s Catholic population multiplied by a factor of more than 40 times (from 5,000 to 200,000+), mostly owing to refugees from the mainland. Since the 1960s, however, Taiwan’s Catholic population has not expanded along with the overall population.

Over the course of these decades, Taiwan has lived with the prospect of increased interference from the mainland. The ongoing feeling of concern among Taiwanese Catholics is “probably the same” as that of the rest of the population, according to Father Patrik Páleník, SVD, a native of Slovakia who serves at Miraculous Medal Church in Taipei. He adds that, in general, Taiwanese Catholics are no more strongly opposed to China than non-Catholic Taiwanese.

There is no mainland Chinese supervision of any Catholic worship in Taiwan. Things become more ambiguous, however, when talking about geopolitics. The United Nations does not officially recognize Taiwan. Nor, for that matter, does Taiwan’s biggest ally, the United States. In fact, there are only 15 nations worldwide that formally acknowledge Taiwan. Almost all of these nations are in Central America, the Caribbean, or the Pacific. The only exception, aside from the Vatican, is Swaziland.

Excluded from the World Health Organization (WHO), Taiwan thus far has contained the COVID-19 pandemic much more effectively than just about every other highly-populated location on the planet. Virtually next door to mainland China, Taiwan was one of the first places hit by the coronavirus, with its earliest documented case surfacing on January 20. And yet it has seen a total of just seven coronavirus fatalities (as of mid-June).

Páleník agrees that Taiwan’s handling of the pandemic has been remarkable. Without any assistance from the WHO, Taiwan had to rely on its past experience with the SARS epidemic, and was very quick to implement an effective quarantine system.

Taiwanese churches have gradually started reopening for Mass, with some parishes having resumed services as early as May 1. Services for other faiths are resuming as well. The two most common religions in Taiwan are Buddhism and Taoism, with each accounting for about one-third of the population. About 10 percent have a folk religion and 20 percent have no religion. Christians account for about 4 percent of the population, and there are roughly about the same number of Catholics as Protestants.

There are seven dioceses and one archdiocese in Taiwan, which has three Catholic universities. Citing statistics from 2010, Páleník says there are 30 Catholic high schools, along with 2 technical schools, and 11 primary schools. Among the 664 diocesan and religious priests in Taiwan, about 300 of them come from Taiwan or mainland China. Among the 1,033 sisters, about 70 percent of them come from Taiwan or mainland China.

Páleník mentions a somewhat recent survey of 5,000 respondents which shows that the majority of Taiwanese Catholics are either converts themselves or have parents or grandparents who converted. He suspects, however, that the percentage of converts (almost 27 percent) is inflated, because “people participating in the survey are a self-selecting audience, and the newly converted are more likely to participate.”

Taiwan’s largest Catholic immigrant groups come from Vietnam, followed by the Philippines and Indonesia. Foreign priests tend to come from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, or sub-Saharan Africa. Páleník, who is in his early 30s, says that European and American priests tend to belong to the older generation.

In Taiwan, Mandarin Chinese is the official language and the most commonly used. However, the majority of Taiwanese wish to make English their second official language. As of yet, though, most churches in Taiwan do not offer Mass in English.

To date, no Taiwanese Catholics have received canonization, beatification, or the designations of “Venerable” or “Servant of God.” Perhaps the most admired individual in Taiwanese Catholicism was Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi, a champion of inter-religious dialogue, who died in 2012.

Cardinal Shan had formerly served as the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hualien. In this diocese, located on Taiwan’s mountainous eastern coast, Catholics comprise a significant percentage of the population. This is largely due to the area’s high aboriginal population (persons who lived on the land for thousands of years before ethnic Chinese arrived), who have a much higher rate of Protestant and Catholic worship.

More than one-third of Taiwan’s Catholics are from the aboriginal population. This group, however, accounts for only about 2 percent of Taiwan’s current overall population.

In Páleník’s view, the biggest problem facing the Church in Taiwan is the lack of evangelization. He would like to see the Church become more assertive regarding “evangelization and Mission-oriented parishes.” He is hopeful about the future, “as long as we are willing to move from maintenance to mission.”


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About Ray Cavanaugh 13 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

3 Comments

  1. The Church in Taiwan is unfortunately still very much identified as foreign as far as its clergy, religious, members, and discipline are concerned. Very few locals join every year. Added to this is the maintenance – rather than missionary – mode that the Church keeps in its life and faith.

  2. This is very promising. But I have to say the 1 to 2% Christian demographic seems low. I’ve found as many as 5 to 6% Christians. I would advocate the Vatican declare Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi as venerable and on the road to sainthood. Perhaps Mainland China will object and throw a hissy-fit. So I suppose Pope Francis will continue to appease them. We may have to wait for the next Pope to bring about a better policy between the two Chinas.

    • “1 to 2% Christian demographic seems low.”

      If one was to look at Catholic Church in the US and do a head count a head count of faithful that does not include the cafeteria variety in the set, the numbers might not be that much higher here today, either…

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