Last week the Vatican made its most important intervention on China since it announced a “provisional agreement” with the communist authorities in September. It unveiled new guidelines for priests and bishops on the vexed issue of “civil registration”.
To understand why these new “pastoral orientations” are significant, we must go back to February 2018, when China introduced new regulations requiring Catholic clergy to be registered with the government and to align themselves with the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. In order to register, priests and bishops are asked to sign a document accepting the “independence, autonomy and self-administration” of the Church in China.
For clergy of the “underground” Church, which has valiantly preserved the faith since communists took power in 1949, that principle poses a grave dilemma. Many have risked their lives to uphold the authority of the papacy. They fear that if they were to sign a text affirming the “independence” of the local Church they would be betraying the Catholic faith.
Chinese officials have not hesitated to use the agreement with the Holy See to increase pressure on these heroic priests and bishops, telling them that the Vatican now wishes them to join the Patriotic Association. Clergy are unsure whether this is true because the text of the Holy See-China accord has never been published.
The Vatican intervened last week to clarify what it expects of underground clergy facing coercion. Its guidelines – which, curiously, were unsigned – say that clergy are now permitted to join the once despised Patriotic Association – but they are not obliged to do so. “The Holy See understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions,” the text says.
If clergy have qualms about signing the “independence” declaration, the Vatican recommends that they specify in writing that they “remain faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine”. If this is impossible, then they should declare orally, ideally in the presence of a witness, that they continue to uphold Church teaching.
The Vatican has also appealed to the Chinese authorities, albeit in the most diplomatic terms, to cease pressuring clergy into registering with the state. “The Holy See asks that no intimidatory pressures be applied to the ‘non-official’ Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened,” it said.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Bishop of Hong Kong and a leading critic of the Holy See-China agreement, immediately raised a series of pointed questions about the new guidelines. Why was the text not signed by a Vatican official or attributed to a curial department? Are underground clergy now regarded only as a “tolerated minority”, rather than as courageous witnesses to the authentic Catholic faith? And what does the provisional agreement actually say about papal authority and the “independence” of the Chinese Church?
The cardinal did not answer these questions, but he seems to be implying that no one at the Vatican is willing to take responsibility for guidelines that suggest that the agreement has put long-suffering underground clergy in an invidious position. He also appears to be suggesting that the Holy See and China have different understandings of “independence” that may not be reconcilable.
The guidelines might take some immediate pressure off underground priests and bishops (assuming they hear of them). But they do not resolve the wider problem that the Vatican has signed a deal just as the Chinese authorities are cracking down aggressively on unofficial religious groups. Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, the state has tightened its grip on religious communities, using a policy of “Sinicisation” as a pretext for repression. While claiming to be removing “foreign” influences, officials have torn down crosses, headstones, shrines and churches in scenes reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. In an attempt to prevent the transmission of the faith, authorities have even banned children from attending Masses.
The Vatican believes that the best response is not resistance but negotiation. It argues that China is rapidly changing and that the best way to safeguard the Church’s future is to deepen its ties with Beijing. But it also seems sensitive to accusations that it is sacrificing underground clergy for the sake of peace. The new guidelines therefore appear to be a face-saving measure. But they may not be enough to help underground Catholics weather the onslaught.