ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: July 19, 2019 07:52 AM GMT
A child stands in a room in a Catholic church in China's central Henan province in August 2018. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)
The Vatican's pastoral guidelines to clergy in China have met with resistance and suspicion among elements of the Church.
While some church observers believe the document has positive aspects, others view it as misleading.
The Pastoral Guidelines of the Holy See Concerning the Civil Registration of Clergy in China issued on June 28 refer to a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops reached between China and the Vatican on Sept. 22, 2018.
The guidelines state that Chinese authorities have undertaken to respect Catholic doctrine, but members of the clergy still have to accept the Chinese government principles of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Church in China.
This relates to long-standing Chinese government opposition to what it has regarded as outside influence, including by the Vatican.
Issuing of the guidelines prompted Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 88, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, to visit Rome on June 29 to meet with Pope Francis.
When Cardinal Zen had dinner on July 3 with the pope and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of state of the Holy See, he specifically cited elements of the guidelines.
Cardinal Zen said Pope Francis replied several times that he would "pay attention" to the matters of concern he raised.
Cardinal Zen’s 'dubia'
Cardinal Zen, when back in Hong Kong on July 5, made a "dubia" non-legally binding response to the guidelines on his blog.
Among other things, he maintained that the communist government did not observe a constitutional provision guaranteeing religious freedom.
Registration rules for the clergy, for example, required them to sign a document that contradicted church doctrine and was “obviously against all fundamental moral theology”.
“If valid, it would justify even apostasy!” Cardinal Zen argued.
He told ucanews.com that since the provisional agreement on bishops' appointments was reached between China and the Vatican, Church unity and communion had been achieved.
However, specific aspects of the guidelines were aimed at the currently unregistered clergy who have "doubts and problems" when going through the registration process that also includes registering of venues for religious activities.
Meanwhile, another church observer said that the guidelines reveal that Sino-Vatican negotiations in June failed to reach a consensus.
The guidelines note that the Holy See is continuing to conduct a dialogue with Chinese authorities about the civil registration of bishops and priests.
However, the observer told ucanews.com that the outcome of the most recent round of negotiations was unsatisfactory.
Chinese Catholics disagree on guidelines
A Catholic named John, from the underground church community in northeast China, remains suspicious, describing the guidelines as misleading.
While the document refers to the "independence" of the Catholic Church in China, in fact it was subject to political directions, he said.
For example, matters of pastoral care, such as preaching and minors entering churches or participating in parish summer camps, are subject to government interventions and prohibitions.
He also raised questions about the role and scope now defined for the government’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association being different from that of the organization created in the 1950s.
John is of the view that the Holy See has been "ambiguous" in its dealings with communist authorities in recent years while outwardly trying to please Beijing through the conducting of negotiations.
However, he stresses that since the signing of the provisional agreement between China and the Vatican, the current situation of the Church in China, particularly of the underground church, has been deteriorating.
The situation as shown in the latest guidelines was not as optimistic as stated but "a step backward." He complained that many important issues were being ignored because "opportunism" had spread throughout the Catholic Church in China.