VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Holy See on Friday instructed Catholic clergy in China to profess loyalty to Catholic doctrine when signing a document, required by a new Chinese law, which obliges them to accept the principle of a state-sanctioned Catholic church that doesn’t recognize supreme papal authority to appoint bishops.
China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are split between those belonging to the official church and an underground church loyal to the pope.
Pope Francis is seeking to heal decades of estrangement between the Vatican and China’s Communist authorities. Tensions have largely been fueled by Beijing’s insistence that it has the final say over papal appointment of bishops.
Friday’s guidelines noted that many Catholic pastors are “deeply disturbed” by China’s insistence that bishops and priests civilly register in order to carry out pastoral duties and that some had asked the Holy See to indicate a “concrete” approach to their dilemma.
But the Vatican guidelines also recognize some of the clergy loyal to the pontiff don’t want to register at all, saying, “the Holy See does not intend to force anyone’s conscience.”
“On the other hand, it considers that the experience of being clandestine 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.”
So the guidelines spell out how priests and bishops can register while making plain their loyalty to the Vatican doctrine. According to the Vatican, the registration almost always requires declaring “acceptance, among other things, of the principle of independence, autonomy and self-administration” of the church in China.
The Vatican instructed clergy to specify in writing, or, when that’s not possible, orally, preferably before a witness, that despite registering, they remain “faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine.”
Some conservative Roman Catholic prelates have criticized Francis’ drive to resolve the Chinese dilemma in general. They insist that strict loyalty to Rome, even at the price of imprisonment and other persecution, is the only possible approach.
In past decades, many bishops and priests were imprisoned for years by Chinese authorities in retaliation for their unwavering support for the Vatican.
But the guidelines stressed recent “consolidated dialogue” between Beijing and the Vatican, asserting that current relations differ from the tensions of the 1950s, when Communist authorities sanctioned the so-called official Patriotic Church for Chinese Catholics.
Under the 2018 agreement, hailed by Francis, China would presumably recognize a papal right to select bishops. But skeptics have questioned how Beijing would react if it doesn’t approve of the choice.
Although there have been some easing in Vatican-China tensions, the Chinese government in general in past months tightened controls on all religions, especially Christianity and Islam. The crackdown has been described as the harshest anti-religion campaign in China since the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Frances D’Emilio is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio