China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/Jul

New documents arouse concern

At the same time as US bombs were falling on Baghdad and the SARS epidemic was invading Hong Kong, a bombshell exploded on the Catholic Church of China in the form of three documents passed at a joint meeting of Chinese Catholic bishops and Patriotic Association members held on March 21-22 this year in Beijing. There is the danger that the three documents, if implemented, could completely rupture the already tenuous link that now exists between the Chinese Catholic Church and the universal Church.

New documents

The three documents are: The System for the Joint Conference of Chairpersons of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and of the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China; Work Regulations for the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association; and A Management System for Catholic Dioceses in China. They vary in length: The Joint Conference document contains only nine articles while the Work Regulations contains 37, and the Management System document contains 77.

New relationships

Basically the documents call for a closer working relationship between the clergy and the members of the Patriotic Association. All three call for periodic meetings between the leaders of the clergy and leaders of the Patriotic Association – on either the national or local level – to discuss important church matters. Gone is the division of labour where the bishops, priests and Sisters would be in charge of ecclesiastical matters, while the Patriotic Association would handle the church’s dealings with the government. Now lines of responsibility are blurred as representatives from both groups are to meet to decide together about church matters in the name of running the church democratically. The phrases used to describe the democratic running of the church are: “collective leadership, democratic supervision, mutual consultation and joint decision.”

Deciding Church matters

A glaring example of an important church matter to be discussed by the leaders of the two groups is the election and consecration of bishops. While all three documents allude to this matter, the Joint Conference document states: “The work and function of the Joint Chairpersons Conference is to discuss and decide the most important affairs of the Chinese Catholic Church, including #3: Matters relating to the election and ordination of bishops in each diocese and with the adjustment of diocesan boundaries.” Then regarding the actual election, consecration and taking of office of the bishop, these must be carried out according to the order and method prescribed in “The Regulations for the Election and Ordination of Bishops of the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference”(cf. Tripod, No. 77, Sept.-Oct. 1993, pp. 52-4). No mention is made of the Holy Father’s right to freely appoint bishops or to confirm those lawfully elected (Canon 377, no.1).

Appointment of bishops

The method for choosing and consecrating bishops proposed in these three recent documents goes completely against the Catholic Church’s traditional canon law. This is why many in the universal Catholic Church wonder in which direction the Chinese Catholic Church is going. Foreign observers are afraid of what the Church of China will become if the Holy Father does not retain his right to appoint bishops.

Spiritual matters

Other strictly spiritual matters are also open to discussion and decision by Patriotic Association members, according to the recent documents. In addition to the matter of re-adjusting dioceses, these include: “to formulate methods and procedures for determining the qualifications of the clergy,” (Joint Conference, Art. 3 no. 4) “jointly run well the seminaries and convents” and “carry out well the political and professional training of the clergy, as well as their spiritual formation.” (Work Regulations, Art. 18, nos. 2, 3). Except for politics, the other matters should strictly be the prerogative of the clergy and religious.

Confusing church and political matters

The way the documents get around the distinction between ecclesiastical and political matters is as the Work Regulations document states: all Catholics can be members of the Patriotic Association, including bishops, priests, Sisters and lay persons (Art. 3). But how can faithful Catholics, be they clergy, religious or lay, hold to one of the requirements for membership in the Patriotic Association which reads: “To firmly uphold the policy of the independent administration of the church and the principle of the self-election and self consecration of bishops” (Art. 21)? If faithful clergy and lay people cannot accept this principle and therefore cannot become members of the Patriotic Association, what will happen? Most likely people from society, non-Catholics, who can accept this principle (as well as those contained in Art. 20: support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, etc.), will join, or be assigned to, the Patriotic Association. Then they will receive baptism, almost as an afterthought, to fulfill the third requirement for membership, namely “to have a firm faith and fervent love of the Lord,” etc. But one wonders how deep the faith of such persons would be if they receive baptism just to have a job.

The church and democracy

In promoting the running of the church “democratically,” the three documents ignore the fact that that the church is a hierarchical organisation and not a democracy in the political sense. The Management System document seems to acknowledge this in its Article 8, where it says: “The diocesan bishop is the legal representative of the diocese.” This presumably means that the bishop has the final say in any and all matters concerning the diocese. Thus it would have been better if the documents had pointed out that when the bishop seeks wider consultation, even from lay “experts,” their opinions are only consultative and not deliberative. This is especially true of ecclesiastical matters, but should also apply to economic matters as well.

Negative effect on church personnel

There is the danger that the three documents could discourage the younger clergy and religious. They had high ideals when they entered the seminary and the convent. They still had those high ideals when they were ordained or made their first vows. However, they soon run into the stifling atmosphere represented by these three documents, an atmosphere which has already been in existence for many years. This seems especially true of the document on the Management System. Article 47 (#7) states that the bishop, in assigning a parish priest, should seek the advice and opinions of the local patriotic association. But #1 of the same article states that the parish priest “shares the work of Christ… he performs the duties of teaching, sanctifying and governing in a parish community.” If the parish priest’s job is spiritual and ecclesiastical, why seek the advice of the patriotic association, which a political organisation, regarding his assignment?

Who’s in command?

Of course, the above question is related to the situation in each local parish. In other words, can the newly assigned parish priest get along with the local patriotic association? Will there be conflicts? That is, if the parish priest wants to run some pastoral activity, must he submit it for approval to leaders of the local Patriotic Association? If such permissions are needed, the CCPA may turn the parish priest’s request down saying that they want to have a political study meeting at the same time. So there is a conflict, etc. The parish priest’s apostolic fervour gradually diminishes. Never mind, the Management System document tells him (Art. 72), “The body of a priest is considered as dead, so that he can offer himself completely in service to mankind.” In the view of the documents, then, are priests just to be “zombies” or “vegetables” not having a thought of their own? The same sentiment appears in Article 73. Priests are exhorted “in a spirit of faith to carry out the commands and perform the works given them by their bishop, or by any other authoritative leader above them.” Who are these other authoritative leaders? Patriotic Association members? Government cadres? The article does not say, but the message is the same: Be a quiet vegetable, and obey orders.

Priests’ pastoral and spiritual needs ignored

Article 74 exhorts the priest to continually study politics, laws and regulations, patriotism, and socialism, to uphold the principles of the independent and democratic running of the church and to persist in adapting to socialist society. They are to do this in order to be ‘the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” When Jesus said this to his disciples, I think he was referring to His own Gospel, and the effect this has on the people who hear it. Strangely here, a Scripture passage is cited to encourage political study. And yet, no mention is made of the need of priests to continue their studies in Scripture, theology, or on how to give a good homily. These are the proper areas of study for a priest and not politics. Showing that the authorities realise that young priests may have a problem with accepting these documents, even the last article (77) of the Management System document seems aimed at supposed recalcitrant clergy. It reads: “Based on this system and the local situation, the “two committees” of each province, autonomous region and municipality can formulate regulations and norms of conduct for the clergy.”

Discipline and control

Thus, while some acceptable things were written in Chapter Eleven of the Management System document on the life of diocesan priests (Articles 72-74), the general overall impression given is that the clergy are a group to be disciplined and controlled. The whole atmosphere conveyed by the documents is that the church is something to be controlled. There is the danger that in such circumstances the apostolic zeal of the young clergy will gradually wane. The first reason given for the formulation of the Management System document is “for the purpose of spreading the Gospel.” While Article 37 does mention the setting up of a pastoral council to help the bishop “to explore and suggest possible methods of carrying out pastoral work in the diocese,” little else appears on the subject of evangelization.

The overall impression of the documents is one of reining in, or even stifling, initiative. One wonders how “the Gospel can be spread,” or the Church’s “develop,” under such circumstances.

Nagging questions

Many questions could be asked. Why are these restrictive measures against the Catholic Church of China being imposed in these modern times? Are the three documents an effort by the government to set up a national church, like the Church of England in the time of Henry VIII? Do they represent the religious policy of the new leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao? The Party has made so many strides in many areas, like fighting corruption, and in cooperating internationally on public health and trade matters. Does it want to maintain such a restrictive policy towards the Catholic Church in the 21st century as represented by these documents?

Final note of hope

A note attached to the copy of the documents that came to Hong Kong reads, “a draft for soliciting opinions.” Does this mean the documents can still be amended or even abrogated altogether? We hope this happens for the sake of the future of the Church in China.