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Chinese clergy come in six categories

Remember that deeds always speak louder than words, even in the dispute between Beijing and the Vatican

A priesthood ordination in China (UCAN file photo) A priesthood ordination in China (UCAN file photo)
  • 'Rocky'
  • China
  • July 28, 2011
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The situation in the Church of China is extremely complex and the scenarios of Church life vary enormously in different regions. Nevertheless, in terms of the Catholic clergy's positions on maintaining their ecclesial communion with the Holy See, several categories of clergy, i.e. bishops and priests, can still be identified:

1.  Clergy who view themselves as faithful and pledge their allegiance to Rome unreservedly. In general, many of them have been suffering immense external pressures from the Chinese authorities. Thus they feel very isolated, lonely and helpless. They should deserve our praise, support and encouragement.

However, some of them have gone to extremes and may even see themselves as being “more Catholic” than the Holy See! This is often due to their frustration and disappointment with the Vatican, whose policy towards the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and the open Church – from their viewpoint – has been grossly unjust and discouraging in recent years. In this aspect, their reasons for grumbling may be valid but they should beware of the danger of self-righteousness which may creep in and trap them.

2.  Clergy who pledge their allegiance to Rome but when trials come they waver. They may be forced to engage in deeds against their conscience. In such cases, their culpability may be mitigated by external circumstances or psychological factors. However, culpability cannot be entirely removed.

From the moral perspective, human acts always carry an ethical dimension. The actors make themselves the kind of moral persons through their deed(s) performed knowingly and deliberately, for good or evil. So if you directly kill an innocent person, you become a murderer; a liar if you bear false witness to your neighbor, etc. In his book The Acting Person, Blessed John Paul II has shown that persons realize and communicate themselves through their free acts. It is free acts, precisely due to their intransitive character, that can sculpt or determine a person’s moral standing.

The degree of culpability depends on the gravity of the subject matter, knowledge and freedom, as traditional moral teaching tells us. Bishops who think they can no longer withstand continuous severe trials should plainly voice their difficulty to the Holy See. Spiritual discernment and prudence may require them to ask the Holy See for a dispensation from their episcopal duties rather than making themselves a harming factor to the spiritual welfare of its flock. In this situation, a fear of “losing face” – a typical Chinese personality trait – is a psychological hurdle they need to overcome.

3.  Clergy who consider maintaining spiritual ties with Rome to be a "good thing" but not absolutely essential to the core of Catholic faith. They have been encouraged by the so-called Chinese expert-scholars and "open-minded" theologians from overseas to believe that pledging unreserved loyalty to Rome is unnecessary.

For them, the Chinese Church needs to take “the situation of socialist China as a contextual factor” into full consideration. Actually they are advised that what they are doing is “prophetic” because they can set an example and help usher in a worldwide “collegial reform” of the universal Church by highlighting the autonomy of particular churches.

They argue that the Church has long been under the “dictatorship” of the “overly-centralized papacy.” For them, the “papal monarchy” is an “outdated structure of oppression,” which is so much against the “spirit of Vatican II.” Those 300-plus dissident Austrian priests who signed the “Pledge of Disobedience” document against the local Church hierarchy and Rome in Vienna several weeks ago are a good illustration of this faction of “progressive” clergy from the west.

There are also other clergy who believe that remaining obedient to Rome is unwarranted if one has "proportionate reasons" to do otherwise. They think that the good of submission to papal authority can be set aside if in doing so they can attain some presumably “greater good,” for example more “evangelization opportunities,” opening a new clinic, building a larger convent for more nuns, etc.

However, the means can never justify the ends. “The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object…” (Blessed John Paul II in his 1993 Encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, n.78). While it is true that one should take possible consequences of certain acts in moral deliberation, what is even more salient is to choose the intrinsic good or avoid the intrinsic evil of a certain act here and now in this concrete situation, which is determined primarily and fundamentally by the moral object chosen by the will, “whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who ‘alone is good,’ and thus brings about the perfection of the person” (The Splendor of Truth, n.78).

It is, therefore, not our business to calculate or measure the possible consequences of a freely chosen morally good act as God wills it. As a matter of fact, this sort of proportionalist moral reasoning has been authoritatively rejected by the magisterial teaching of Blessed John Paul II in The Splendor of Truth, nn.74-75.

4.  Clergy who are “two-faced,” calculating opportunists and adopt a utilitarian outlook on life. Using a Chinese saying, they “speak human words to humans and ‘ghostly’ words to ghosts.” They claim they are always in communion with the Universal Church under the spiritual leadership of Rome, but in practice they often act against it.

They think they are realists but are in fact only pragmatists in a godless sense, for they do not take the reality of God seriously with a mature Christian sensibility. Shortly before his death, Karl Rahner said that what the future Church desperately needs is mystics because they alone can penetrate the outward appearances and see the hidden reality of God in every event and situation.

5.  Clergy who collaborate with the Chinese authorities and cause harm to Church unity. These clergy have been either offered benefits or bribed by government officials or the CCPA for private gains (for themselves, relatives and/or mistresses, etc). Others have been coerced or blackmailed to co-operate for the sake of covering up their personal character failures or wrongdoings (e.g. financial blunder or/and sexual misconduct).

6.  Clergy who defy papal authority and try to divide and conquer the Chinese Church. They are nominal Catholics and have been “nurtured” over many years to become active partners with the government or the CCPA in controlling the life of a diocese. Some may be clandestine communist party members and have infiltrated the diocese since their early seminarian formation years.

We may not be able to discern for sure who belongs to which category. In real life the category boundaries are permeable so that any clergy may shift from one category to another. But let us remember: human deeds always speak louder than mere rhetoric, shaping and expressing the spiritual-moral reality of a particular person. At the end of the day, deep inside his own heart when he stands before God face to face, each one knows where he truly belongs.

'Rocky' is the pen-name of a doctoral student who is currently studying theology outside China

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