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Orientations for the Chinese Clergy, respecting their freedom of conscience

The Pastoral Orientations of the Holy See for Bishops and priests facing the government’s requests for civil registration: safeguarding Catholic doctrine and conscience. (Full text included)

By Andrea Tornielli

The full respect of the freedom of conscience of each, closeness and understanding for the current situation of Catholic communities, suggestions for concrete operational decisions allowing the Chinese Clergy to register without breaking with the Catholic Church’s beliefs regarding communion with the Successor of Peter: these are included in the Note of the Holy See on the Pastoral Orientations for Bishops and Priests in the People’s Republic of China.

The document was born out of many questions put to the Vatican by the Chinese clergy. What is the appropriate behaviour when facing governmental pressure to register, according to what is established by law and political authorities? What to do with the dilemma of conscience presented by some problematic texts that they are often asked to subscribe to?

The Holy See’s immediate response to these questions is the reiteration of a fundamental general principle: freedom of conscience must be respected, and therefore no one may be forced to take a step they do not wish to take.

The signing of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China regarding the appointment of Bishops in September 2018 represented a new beginning in Chinese-Vatican relations and led to the initial important result of the full communion of all Chinese bishops with the Pope.

However, not all issues were resolved: the Agreement represents only the first step of the process. Today, one of the difficulties concerns the request for all priests and bishops to register officially with the authorities, as required by Chinese law. Despite the commitment to finding a shared and acceptable solution, in many regions of the People’s Republic of China, priests are asked to subscribe to texts which are incompatible with the doctrine of the Catholic Church, creating struggles of conscience, when they are asked to accept the principle of independence, autonomy and self-management of the Church in China.

Today’s situation is a far cry from the 1950s, when an attempt took place to create a national Chinese Church, separate from Rome. Today, thanks to the Provisional Agreement, the authorities in Beijing recognize the special role of the Bishop of Rome in appointing candidates for the episcopate, and thus his authority as the Shepherd of the Universal Church. The Holy See continues to work so that every declaration required during the registration is in line not only with Chinese law, but also with the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and is, therefore, acceptable to bishops and priests.

Considering the peculiar situation of the Christian communities of the country, who await a permanent resolution of the issue, the Holy See suggests therefore a possible concrete way to allow a person in doubt, but wishing to register, to overcome his reservations.

It consists in a suggestion arising from the Letter to Chinese Catholics published in May 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI. In that text, the Pope recognized that “In not a few particular instances, however, indeed almost always, in the process of recognition the intervention of certain bodies obliges the people involved to adopt attitudes, make gestures and undertake commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their conscience as Catholics.” He also added: “I understand, therefore, how in such varied conditions and circumstances it is difficult to determine the correct choice to be made. For this reason the Holy See, after restating the principles, leaves the decision to the individual Bishop who, having consulted his presbyterate, is better able to know the local situation, to weigh the concrete possibilities of choice and to evaluate the possible consequences within the diocesan community.”

Twelve years ago, the Pope had already shown understanding and de facto authorized the single Bishops to make a decision, with the good of their respective communities as their primary concern.

Today the Holy See takes a further pastoral step in the process, in an objectively different context from the past. The recently published Pastoral Orientations suggest that the bishops ask for the inclusion of a sentence, upon registration, affirming that the independence, autonomy and self-management of the Church must be understood without undermining Catholic doctrine. That is, political independence, administrative autonomy, and pastoral self-management, which all local Churches in the world currently enjoy.

Should the written addition not be allowed, the Bishop or priest intending to register is given the opportunity to make this clarification at least orally, in the presence of a witness. They are also asked to immediately inform their Bishop of the registration and the circumstances in which it took place. Those who do not wish to sign up to these conditions should not face undue pressure to do so.

The document is clearly based on a realistic outlook on the current situation and the persisting difficulties, the intent to help those who are in doubt, always respecting each person’s conscience, in the knowledge of the suffering they have endured, the will to contribute to the unity of Chinese Catholics and favour the public exercise of the Episcopal and priestly ministries for the good of the faithful. The clandestine condition, as Benedict XVI wrote in his Letter, “is not a normal feature of the Church's life”.

Reading between the lines of this latest Note of the Holy See, we can see the supreme law of the salus animarum, the salvation of souls, and the commitment to cooperating for the unity of Chinese Catholic communities, through the eyes of the Gospel, showing closeness and understanding for what the Chinese faithful have endured and continue to endure. On 26 September 2018, in his Message to Chinese Catholics, Pope Francis expressed “sentiments of thanksgiving to the Lord and of sincere admiration – which is the admiration of the entire Catholic Church – for the gift of your fidelity, your constancy amid trials, and your firm trust in God’s providence, even when certain situations proved particularly adverse and difficult.”

Finally, it must be clearly stated that there is no naivety in the Pastoral Orientations. The Holy See, as written in the Note, is aware of the limitations and the “intimidatory pressures” faced by many Chinese Catholics, but it wants to show that we can look beyond and walk forwards without compromising the fundamental principles of ecclesiastical communion. The Pope’s heartfelt concern allows these Pastoral Orientations to be founded on Christian hope, following the Spirit, pushing the Church towards this new chapter.

The official English-language translation of the guidelines is below:

Pastoral guidelines of the Holy See concerning the civil registration of clergy in China

          For some time requests have been received by the Holy See, from Bishops in Mainland China, for a concrete indication of the approach to be adopted in relation to the obligation of presenting an application for civil registration. In this regard, as is known, many Pastors remain deeply disturbed since 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.

          The complex reality of China and the fact that there does not appear to be a uniform praxis with regard to the application of the regulations for religious affairs, make it particularly difficult to decide on the matter. On the one hand, the Holy See does not intend to force anyone’s conscience. On the other hand, 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 (cfr. Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics of 27 May 2007, n. 8). Thus, 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. Only in that way, in fact, can both the unity of the Church and the contribution of Catholics to the good of Chinese society be fostered.

          In what concerns, then, the evaluation of the eventual declaration that must be signed upon registering, in the first place it is necessary to bear in mind that the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China formally guarantees religious freedom (art. 36). In the second place, the Provisional Agreement of 22 September 2018, recognising the particular role of the Successor of Peter, 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. 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 context of the actual relations between China and the Holy See, characterised 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 the fourth place, a factor of great importance should be added, namely, that over the years, many Bishops who were ordained without the apostolic mandate have asked for and received reconciliation with the Successor of Peter, so that today all Chinese Bishops are in communion with the Apostolic See and desire an ever greater integration with the Catholic Bishops of the whole world.

          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. For its part, the Holy See 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.

          In the meantime, bearing in mind what has been noted above, 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. 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. In each case, it is appropriate that the applicant then certify to his proper Ordinary with what intention he has made the registration. The registration, in fact, 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 evangelisation commensurate to the new demands of Chinese society and the responsible management of the goods of the Church.

          At the same time, 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 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.

          The bishop, for his part, “should nurture and publicly manifest his esteem for his priests, showing them trust and praising them, if they deserve it. He should respect and require others to respect their rights and should defend them against unjust criticism. He should act swiftly to resolve controversies, so as to avoid the prolonged disquiet which can overshadow fraternal charity and do damage to the pastoral ministry” (Apostolorum Successores, Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, 22 February 2004, n. 77).

          It is important, then, that also the lay faithful not only understand the complexity of the situation, described above, but in addition accept with an open heart the anguished decision taken by their Pastors, whatever it may be. The local Catholic community should accompany them 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.

          In any case, 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, is established through a frank and constructive dialogue between the two Parties, as agreed, the Holy See asks that no intimidatory pressures be applied to the “non official” Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened.

          Finally, the Holy See trusts that everyone can accept these pastoral indications as a means of helping those faced with choices that are far from simple, to make such choices in a spirit of faith and unity. All those involved – the Holy See, Bishops, priests, religious men and women and the lay faithful – are called to discern the will of God with patience and humility on this part of the journey of the Church in China, marked, as it is, by much hope but also by enduring difficulties.

          From the Vatican, on 28 June 2019, Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

28 June 2019, 12:00