Chinese priests do not need to register with government, Vatican says

shutterstock 1047733936 Flags of China and Vatican City. | FreshStock/Shutterstock

The Vatican issued new guidance for priests and bishops in mainland China on Friday, addressing government requirements that clergy register with the Communist government. 

The document, issued by the Vatican June 28, provides "pastoral guidelines of the Holy See concerning the civil registration of clergy in China." While recognizing the need to continue efforts to normalize relations between the Catholic community and government authorities, the document "respects the choice" of priests who refuse to register.

"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," the document begins.

Priests in China are required to register with the government in order to be able to minister openly. In the process of doing so, they are expected to acknowledge the government's policy of "sinicization."

"Many pastors remain deeply disturbed [at] the modality of such registration," the Vatican document states.

The Holy See also notes that the act of registration "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."

If, the document says, "the text of the declaration required for the registration does not appear respectful of the Catholic faith," priests should specify - in writing if possible, or else in front of witnesses – that the declaration is made only to the extent it is "faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine."

"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 Catholic Church in China has long been split between the underground Catholic Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are typically unacknowledged by Chinese authorities, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is government-sanctioned.

In September 2018 the Holy See and Beijing reached an agreement meant to normalize the situation of China's Catholics and to unify the underground Church and the CPCA.

Despite Vatican support, that agreement has been roundly criticized by human rights groups and some Church leaders, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong.

The new guidelines acknowledge that the situation in China remains "complex," and that registration requirements are not necessarily enforced in the same way in all places throughout the mainland. There is, the Vatican says, a need to balance the legitimate concerns of some clergy with the broader aim of regularizing the status of the underground Church.

"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."

"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," the Vatican document states, "no intimidatory pressures [may] be applied to the 'non-official' Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened."

In April of this year, government officials offered a bounty for information leading to the arrest of underground religious leaders. Since the signing of the provisional agreement in September, 2018, several Catholic bishops and priests have been either arrested or detained by state authorities.

At a Congressional hearing held in Washington on June 27, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said that religious persecution in China has "never been worse than it is right now."

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"Under 'sinicization,' all religions and believers must comport with and aggressively promote communist ideology -- or else," Smith said.

"Religious believers of every persuasion are harassed, arrested, jailed, or tortured. Only the compliant are left relatively unscathed. Bibles are burned, churches are destroyed, crosses set ablaze atop church steeples."

Noting that article 36 of the Chinese constitution explicitly guarantees religious freedom, the new Vatican guidelines reference the 2018 provisional agreement's recognition of the "independence" of the Church in China.

This independence should in no way be interpreted as an independence from the authority of the pope, the guidelines say, and the term is only to be understood "relative to the political sphere, as happens everywhere in the world in the relations between the Universal Church and the particular Churches."

As the situation develops, the Vatican document urges the faithful in China to take an understanding approach to different decisions made in good conscience by their leaders.

"It is important," the document says, "that the lay faithful not only understand the complexity of the situation 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."

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