Subject:America Mag: Vatican tells Chinese clergy to follow their conscience on government registration

America Magazine

Gerard O’Connell
June 28, 2019

The Vatican has issued a document of the utmost importance regarding the obligation of “civil registration” for all Catholic clergy in China and provides “pastoral indications” or concrete ways for them to approach this civil duty without violating their consciences.

Significantly, at the same time, the Holy See calls on the Chinese authorities to refrain from using “intimidatory pressures” on the members of the underground church communities “as unfortunately has already happened.” It makes clear that such a way of acting is contrary to the spirit of the provisional agreement it signed with the Holy See last September. It is the strongest stance to-date by the Holy See on this crucial issue that is causing great distress in many Catholic underground communities, and also creating division within the church as well as tensions with the state.

The text, which is signed by “the Holy See,” indicating that it comes from the highest levels in the Vatican, seeks to address the plight and crises of conscience of many bishops and priests in the “non-official church communities” (commonly known as the underground church communities), who in many parts of China have experienced threats and pressure to get them to register civilly by joining the Patriotic Association.

The Holy See’s guidelines, perhaps for diplomatic reasons, never uses the words “Patriotic Association,” but it is clear that this is what it is referring to when it says “the modality of such registration—which is obligatory, according to the new regulations on religious activities, on pain of inability to function pastorally—requires, almost invariably, the signing of a document in which, notwithstanding the commitment assumed by the Chinese authorities to respect also Catholic doctrine, one must declare acceptance, among other things, of the principle of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Church in China.”

Article 3 of the Statutes of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (normally referred to as Patriotic Association) calls for the implementation of “the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the church.” Benedict XVI, in his 2007 letter to Catholics in China (No. 7) declared that this purpose is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”

The Vatican acknowledges that “many pastors” in mainland China are “deeply disturbed” at being obliged, indeed forced, to register in this way and recognize that it causes them “crises of conscience.” It has received many distressing reports of what is happening. At the same time, it recognizes “the complex reality” in China and that “there does not appear to be a uniform praxis with regard to the application of the regulations for religious affairs,” because some authorities act with greater severity than others.

The document states clearly that “the Holy See does not intend to force anyone’s conscience.” In line with what Benedict XVI wrote in 2007, it says it considers that “the experience of clandestinity is not a normal feature of the Church’s life and that history has shown that Pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith.”

Then, in a message addressed not only to the clergy but also to the Chinese authorities, the text says, “the Holy See continues to ask that the civil registration of the clergy take place in a manner that guarantees respect for the conscience and the profound Catholic convictions of the persons involved.” It makes clear that “only in that way, can both the unity of the Church and the contribution of Catholics to the good of Chinese society be fostered.”

Aware that in many places in China the authorities have put pressure on the clergy drawing on the provisional agreement with the Holy See, even suggesting that the two sides are on the same page on this question, the Holy See today seeks to set the record right by providing its understanding of that agreement and how it understands the civil registration, something that is common in many countries.

It begins by insisting that “the eventual declaration that must be signed upon registering” should bear in mind article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China that “formally guarantees religious freedom.”

Secondly, it notes that the 2018 Provisional Agreement recognizes “the particular role of the Successor of Peter” and states that this “logically leads the Holy See to understand and interpret the ‘independence’ of the Catholic Church in China not in an absolute sense, namely as separation from the Pope and the Universal Church, but rather relative to the political sphere, as happens everywhere in the world in the relations between the Universal Church and the particular Churches.” It explains, presumably for the benefit of the Chinese authorities, that “to affirm that for the Catholic identity there can be no separation from the Successor of Peter, does not mean making the local Church an alien body in the society and the culture of the country in which she lives and works.”

In the third place, the Vatican reminds all involved that “the context of the actual relations between China and the Holy See, characterized as they are by a consolidated dialogue between the two Parties, differs from that which saw the birth of the patriotic structures in the 1950s.” In other words, the situation has changed radically, and this should be recognized by the authorities since the relation between the Holy See and China is no longer one of hostility, but of dialogue based on an accord.

The Vatican goes on to emphasize that today, unlike the period from the late 1950s up to Sept. 2018, “all Chinese Bishops are in communion with the Apostolic See and desire an ever greater integration with the Catholic Bishops of the whole world.”

The Holy See tells the Chinese authorities, as well as the Catholic clergy, that “in light of these facts, it is legitimate to expect a new approach on the part of everyone, also when addressing practical questions about the life of the Church.”

Then referring to meetings it has had with the Chinese authorities since the signing of the September agreement, the Holy See says it “continues to dialogue with the Chinese Authorities about the civil registration of Bishops and priests in order to find a formula that, while allowing for registration, would respect not only Chinese laws but also Catholic doctrine.”

It should be noted that the Chinese authorities refused to discuss the situation of the clergy and faithful of the underground church communities until the Holy See and China had signed the provisional agreement. The Holy See accepted that but is now seeking to address this fundamental question in the negotiations, though today’s communication indicates that the task is not an easy one, and suggests that a rapid solution is not in sight.

Deeply conscious that an agreement has not yet been reached on this crucial question that is so important for the reconciliation between the members of the official and underground church communities in China, the Holy See offered “concrete” pastoral approaches to help clergy resolve the crisis of conscience when faced with the obligation of civil registration.

It says that, “if a Bishop or a priest decides to register civilly, but the text of the declaration required for the registration does not appear respectful of the Catholic faith, he will specify in writing, upon signing, that he acts without failing in his duty to remain faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine.”

But, it adds, “where it is not possible to make such a clarification in writing, the applicant will do so at least orally and, if possible, in the presence of a witness.” It declares that “in each case, it is appropriate that the applicant then certify to his proper Ordinary with what intention he has made the registration.”

Moreover, it says, “the registration is always to be understood as having the sole aim of fostering the good of the diocesan community and its growth in the spirit of unity, as well as an evangelization commensurate to the new demands of Chinese society and the responsible management of the goods of the Church.”

The Vatican is well aware that not all bishops and priests of the underground church communities are prepared to follow that route because of problems of conscience. They will opt for the path of resistance, even great suffering. Addressing this reality, the Holy See which has already made clear that it would not ask anyone to act against their conscience, now significantly declares that it “understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions.” Moreover, it says, “The Holy See remains close to them and asks the Lord to help them to safeguard the communion with their brothers and sisters in the faith, even in the face of those trials that each one will have to face.”

Then turning to the local bishop, the Holy See says he “should nurture and publicly manifest his esteem for his priests, showing them trust and praising them, if they deserve it” and “he should respect and require others to respect their rights and should defend them against unjust criticism.” Moreover, he “should act swiftly to resolve controversies” that if prolonged “can overshadow fraternal charity” and “damage the pastoral ministry.”

The Holy See called on the lay faithful in China “to understand the complexity of the situation, described above” and “accept with an open heart the anguished decision taken by their Pastors, whatever it may be.” It asked them “to accompany their pastors in a spirit of faith, with prayer and affection, refraining from any judgement of the choices of others, maintaining the bond of unity and demonstrating mercy towards all.”

The Vatican text concludes by asking the Chinese authorities “that no intimidatory pressures be applied to the ‘non official’ Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened.”

It asks for this “until such time as a modality for the civil registration of the clergy that is more respectful of Catholic doctrine, and thus of the consciences of those involved” has been established “through a frank and constructive dialogue” between China and the Holy See.

[WATCH: The Catholic Church in China: a short documentary]

Gerard O’Connell is America’s Vatican correspondent.

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