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What China’s Catholics really think of the Vatican deal

In many Chinese provinces, under-18s are forbidden from entering churches (Getty)

A secret agreement between Beijing and the Holy See has left the faithful facing confusing dilemmas

Recently I strolled slowly up a hill with a local priest in a remote area of China. He remained close to me as we ascended steep slopes to a Marian pilgrimage church, not because he was unsteady on our climb, but because he wanted to speak in a quiet whisper about what is going on in China.

“The local authorities sent workmen with heavy equipment to ‘Sinicise’ our church,” he told me, “which meant that they destroyed our outdoor statues while we all watched in agony. What can we do? This is just the way things are.”

A few days later I was in another province at a Catholic home for orphans, the elderly and the severely handicapped. The woman in charge, a consecrated virgin, informed us that their large statue of St Joseph near the front gate had recently been removed by the authorities. No explanation was given.

What struck me most about these two incidents is that they had occurred after the provisional agreement was signed between the Holy See and the Chinese government in September 2018. The situation for Catholics in China was expected to improve after the agreement, but life for those in the pews each Sunday is no less complicated than it was previously.

To be fair, some places I visited were thriving more than I’ve seen before. But those were all locations frequented by foreign visitors, such as Beijing and Shanghai. The Church in China has entered a new era, one that requires some explanation, and one that has inspired a great deal of angst and disagreement within the larger Church.

Events since the agreement was announced on September 22 last year can only be understood within a larger context. The Church has been forced to function under a communist government that is openly opposed to religious belief and practice, despite what the Chinese constitution asserts.

Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China says: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.” This is closely followed by the caveat that the state “protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The paradox here is that the state discerns what is “normal”, what “interferes with the educational system of the state” and what constitutes “foreign domination”. Being a Catholic in China in effect means that one is always under threat of being labelled “abnormal” – out of sync with state-accepted educational objectives, and subject to a foreign leader. Chinese Catholics often say that their religious “freedom” is only free when in total compliance with state ideologies.

Educated Chinese Catholics like to quote Emperor Taizong (598-649) from the Tang dynasty. After the death of a beloved adviser, he said: “With a bronze mirror, one can see whether he is properly attired; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a nation; with men as a mirror, one can see whether he is right or wrong.” That is to say, China’s Catholics are keen to remember the Party’s past behaviour the more clearly to apprehend its present motives.

Two examples will illustrate how Catholics judge the present government by its long history of anti-Christian discrimination. Among the heroes of China’s Church is Candita Xu (1607-1680), the granddaughter of Paul Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), a companion of Matteo Ricci SJ (1607-1680). She amassed a fortune producing silk and embroidery, and helped finance the Jesuit mission in China, building churches and promoting the daily recitation of the rosary. The Xu family’s influence and wealth formed the foundation of Shanghai’s substantial Catholic mission, which was almost entirely seized by the communist authorities in 1955. The city’s bishop and many of its priests were arrested for the crime of being “ideological saboteurs”.

Even before its victory and establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Party had spent more than a decade tyrannising – and even killing – Catholics. Early in 1940, Mao Zedong’s forces arrested and shot 12 of the Chinese monks belonging to the order founded by the Belgian missionary Fr Frédéric-Vincent Lebbe (1877-1940). Chinese Catholics had hoped that the anti-Christian violence of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 would never be repeated, but the official rhetoric of the Party praised the Boxers for their “resistance against Christians”, and new forms of “resistance” were encouraged as the Party grew more dominant in the 1940s.

What has now changed in China’s Catholic landscape is that for the first time since 1949 the Vatican has sat at the same table as the Party and signed an agreement, albeit one that remains a secret. Why, China’s faithful ask, must the Vatican keep secrets from the people whose lives this agreement has already begun to affect? Usually it is the Party that operates in secret, not the leaders of the Catholic faith.

We now have another announcement from Rome. The Vatican has issued guidelines for Chinese priests and bishops as they decide whether to sign statements promising to conform to state policies, in return for being able to practise their Catholic ministry legally.

A few examples from the “Pastoral guidelines of the Holy See concerning the civil registration of clergy in China” will serve to illustrate why this new document has left so many of China’s faithful bemused.

The document’s first paragraph acknowledges that priests in China are required to sign an official commitment to support the state’s expectation that the Church adheres to “the principle of independence, autonomy and self-administration”. As “autonomy” and “independence” are essentially the same thing, a better translation of the Chinese regulation would be: “self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating”.

The state insists that clergy must agree in writing that the Church cannot be governed by any entity outside China, including the Holy See; cannot accept any material support from outside China; and cannot allow any foreign missionary activities.

The Vatican document confronts this reality with a rather curious assertion: “The Holy See does not intend to force anyone’s conscience … [and] 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.”

China’s Catholics wonder if this statement makes any sense at all. For how is it possible that China’s government can both “respect the conscience and the profound Catholic convictions” of clergy while at the same time requiring them to sign an agreement that is manifestly contrary to Catholic belief?

The Vatican document attempts to address this contradiction by referring to part of the September agreement. “The provisional agreement … recognising the particular role of the Successor of Peter logically leads the Holy See to understand and interpret the ‘independence’ of the Catholic Church not in an absolute sense”, as both a spiritual and political authority, but rather to affirm “that for the Catholic identity there can be no separation from the Successor of Peter”.

But what does this mean for the Catholic priest in China who, according to his conscience, is obliged to sign a document that requires him to agree that the Chinese Church is “independent” from all foreign powers, and in many provinces requires him to prevent anyone under 18 from entering his church or even being exposed to religion within his family home? In China the state asserts its primacy over religion, and this is not acceptable for a Catholic who accepts the primacy of God and the Church over all else.

The new Vatican guidelines also say that “the Holy See continues to dialogue with the Chinese authorities about 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.” Many Chinese Catholics – as well as non-Chinese Catholics such as myself – judge that expecting them to reconcile “Chinese laws” with Church doctrine is naïve, if not irrational.

The guidelines recommend that a priest “specifies in writing” the points of the registration that he disagrees with. This is an odd expectation. The Party has not previously allowed believers to sign agreements with the state along with an amendment that the signer disagrees with the agreement. And if the priest or bishop signing the registration is permitted to make such a stipulation, the Vatican surely cannot recommend that such clergy subject themselves to the vicissitudes of the state’s treatment of Chinese Christians.

Finally, if the Holy See is asking the priests of God’s Church to sign a civil registration that is against Church teaching, that is against the Church, and that is against religion in general, China’s Catholics cannot avoid asking what, precisely, the Holy See signed last September.

Catholic media have given much attention to cardinals who have submitted requests for clarifications from the Holy See about recent pronouncements and decisions. The most famous are the five dubia (or “doubts”) regarding the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia that were submitted by four cardinals in 2018.

Now another cardinal, the outspoken Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has submitted yet more dubia to Pope Francis. They concern the suitability and soundness of the new guidelines for Chinese priests and bishops.

The media have failed to recognise the gravity of these dubia, issued by a cardinal of the Church. For in principle, dubia submitted to the pope challenge the authority of the document they are disputing. The Latin idiom lex dubia non obligat means that “a doubtful law is not binding”. In other words, Cardinal Zen’s dubia call into question the acceptability of the guidelines on how China’s clergy should respond when asked to sign a civil registration to practise their ministry.

When he first read the guidelines, Cardinal Zen immediately booked a flight to Rome, walked to the Pope’s residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, and submitted his dubia to the papal household. He was invited to a dinner with the Holy Father that evening. At the end of the meal Cardinal Zen asked the Pope about his dubia. Francis reportedly answered: “I can handle this matter.” Nothing else was said.

Cardinal Zen’s dubia conclude with a passionate appeal: “Lord, please have pity on the Church of our homeland, and don’t allow those who wish to destroy the true faith to succeed.”

The cardinal is not the only Church leader who is concerned about the state of China’s Catholic faithful. But his distress shows that Catholics in China are desperate for evidence that Rome understands their faith and life in the Church and guides them with wisdom and clarity.

I like the image of China as a dragon. In China, this mythological creature is an auspicious being, while in the West dragons are perceived as cunning and dangerous. Whether the East or the West is right, JRR Tolkien was correct when he advised: “Never laugh at live dragons.”

Anthony E Clark is professor of Chinese history and director of the Asian Studies Program at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington