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Updated: December 27, 1988 05:00 PM GMT
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An eight-point directive revealing the Vatican position on how to deal with China surfaced in September and has been circulating among Catholics as a set of guidelines, especially for those who act as bridges between the Universal Church and the Chinese Church.

The text grew out of a consultation in March 1986 arranged by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, with certain Catholics who keep tabs on developments in the Church in China, especially on the growing contacts it has with the Universal Church.

The meeting recommended that directives be issued on how to deal with laity and clergy linked to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) --guidelines that would be broad enough to accept them as brothers in Christ and still strict enough to keep Church doctrine and discipline whole and intact.


An eight-point directive in English and Chinese translations is the result.

While it is not as weighty as doctrine nor as binding as law, it displays the Roman Curia´s position on sensitive questions such as papal supremacy.

Citing the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), it declares: "Catholic Doctrine affirms with clarity that only those are said to be full members of the Church who ´accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who - by bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion - are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops´ (L.G., n.14)."

It further insists: "Since ´the lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion´ (L.G., n.18) in the Catholic Church is the Roman Pontiff, those who do not profess and do not maintain communion with the Pope cannot be considered Catholics."

At this stage of Sino-Vatican negotiations, when major compromises can be expected by both sides, the text asserts: "Communion with the Pope is not only a question of discipline, but above all of Catholic faith." This implies that the Vatican will compromise on matters of secondary importance but not accept the view that the Chinese Catholic Church is independent from the Holy See.

The Vatican sees fear and uncertainty arising from Chinese Catholics who paid heavily for refusing to cut themselves off from the pope and who may feel victimized by any Sino-Vatican rapprochement. The text affirms these loyal faithful and ends its first point saying that "the Holy See nourishes profound appreciation and admiration for the Bishops, priests, religious and laity who, in every part of the world, in the course of time have always maintained and are maintaining their faith wholely and entirely, including their fidelity to the Roman Pontiff, and encourages them to grow in their faith."

Rome seems not to want to condemn those who have joined the CCPA, but neither does it appear ready to cede to Chinese government wishes that it recognize the CCPA´s sole legitimacy by excluding the unofficial Catholics whose activities are conducted mainly underground. Albeit reluctantly at this stage, Rome thereby explains its position on the CCPA by pointing out the nature of the CCPA and gives its guidance to Catholics on how to relate to it.

Referring to "the constitution of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957, with the declared intention of renouncing the fundamental ties with the Supreme Pontiff and with the Holy See, and of submitting the community of the Catholic faithful to the direct control of the Civil Authorities," the second point of the directive states that "no Catholic in conscience can accept the principles of an association which demands the rejection of a fundamental element of his or her faith, such as indispensable communion with the Roman Pontiff, Visible Head of the Church and of the College of the Catholic Bishops of the world, which cannot exist without him as head."

While acknowledging that "certain more recent positions adopted by some representatives of the Patriotic Association would seem to indicate a certain change of attitude and a tendency on the part of the same Patriotic Association to assume a more political than religious role as a means of communication between the Church and the Government," the text still maintains that "constitutive documents and official declarations of representatives of the said Association confirm the initial intentions."

The directive adds that "it is a fact that the Patriotic Association is still seeking even now to control the choice and ordination of the Bishops in each Diocese and the activities of the various diocesan communities."

The third point notes: "From 1958 on, by reason of an initiative of the Patriotic Association, numerous episcopal ordinations took place in mainland China without the necessary consent (apostolic mandate) of the Roman Pontiff."

The directive implies that one-sided episcopal appointments are unacceptable by any side, so a feasible solution agreeable to both Church and state should be sought through negotiations.

As interaction between the Chinese Catholic Church and the Universal Church has been increasing, even Catholic bishops and clergy outside the mainland seem seldom to question the legitimacy of CCPA-selected Chinese bishops.

The latter are often regarded as the sole legitimate religious leaders of the Chinese Catholic Church, and indirectly as leaders of the unofficial Church which is so active in areas beyond governmental control, mainly in the countryside, even if they have been underminded to a certain degree.

However, the Vatican text reiterates its own assessment of the CCPA bishops:

"According to the doctrine of the Church and its canonical discipline, such ordinations are to be considered gravely illicit; both the one who receives the ordination and the one who confers it incur a ´latae sententiae´ [automatic] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See (cfr. Decree of the Holy Office dated 9 April 1951 and Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law)."

Based on what it understands to be the manner of such consecrations and on other information, the Vatican text suggests that they may not be invalid, but adds: "Naturally, in such situations, a definite judgement is possible only after each case has been attentively and duly examined under every aspect."

It may at first seem harsh to quote Canon Law and refer to doctrine but, to read between the lines, one could conclude that mentioning "´latae sententiae´excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See" by the Apostolic See itself is an indirect reminder to CCPA bishops that there is possibility to avoid such excommunication, if one wishes to do so.

Regarding Sacraments administered by priests ordained by bishops who are not recognized by the Roman Pontiff, the Vatican text states the view that "the presumption remains for the validity of their ordination and therefore also for that of the sacraments administered by them."

How many of these CCPA clergy are actually unrecognized by Rome is still a big question. Probably not all of them fall into this category, but only those who have deliberately and publicly refused to have communion with Rome.

Since this kind of "recognition" cannot be openly noted, ordinary Catholic visitors to China just receive the Sacraments in good faith, and find that the following recommendations are not very appropriate to the actual situation in China, though the content is superb from a doctrinal point of view.

Thus, point four of the directive recommends: "With regard to the liceity of assistance at Mass and of the reception of the sacraments, Catholics are to look for priests who have remained faithful, that is those in communion with the Pope. Nevertheless, in order to meet the requirements of their spiritual welfare, Catholics can have recourse to other priests also, on condition that they avoid the occasion of scandal and the danger that such actions might harm the complete content of the Catholic faith which, as has already been noted, requires full communion with the Roman Pontiff."

In point five, the Vatican text asserts that "communicatio in sacris" should be avoided -- an instruction which is like one given previously to clergy visiting China and which is understandable and practical to follow.

The text says that "on the occasion of visits outside mainland China, such persons may not be invited or allowed to celebrate liturgical acts in Churches or Catholic institutions," but one wonders whether such behavior by bishops and ecclesiastics who visit the mainland can positively foster reunion or else drive a wedge between the Universal Church and the Chinese Church.

Unofficial Catholics are not fools. They can tell that visiting bishops are legitimate while many CCPA bishops are not. For example, they flocked to see Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila, kiss his ring and kneel down for his blessing while ignoring Chinese Church dignitaries who accompanied the cardinal on his first visit to Nantong (South Church) in Beijing.

Moroever, when pro-Rome Church leaders from outside China appear in open churches run by the CCPA, loyal Chinese Catholics are reminded that they are not forgotten. Putting jurisdiction questions aside, orthodox Catholicity is still flourishing in China, and the appearance of orthodox clergy is a sign of communion with those who embrace the same Catholic faith intact.

Point six concerns priestly formation. Textbooks and teaching personnel are insufficient, so sending candidates to seminaries conducted by the CCPA is better than ordaining new priests who have inadequate or no formation at all.

On this matter, the Vatican text offers a prudent suggestion: "The Church has the right and duty, in China as well as elsewhere, to have its own seminaries where its clergy are formed. If, however, that were to be prevented and if it were not possible to adequately form the candidates to the priesthood in another way, even privately, then such candidates could be sent to the seminaries opened under the control of the Patriotic Association, but only on condition that the general orientation and formation imparted there follow the teaching and directives of the Church. Such a possibility should be evaluated according to local circumstances, keeping in mind also the persons who direct such centres of formation."

Difficulties arise in posting religious literature to China since China´s regulations forbid the entry of religious literature through the mails, and yet the seventh point makes this recommendation: "Sacred books, those of the liturgy, catechisms and other teaching texts, are to be used only and in the measure to which they faithfully communicate the doctrine of the Church."

However, the problem of Catholic formation is linked with the lack of religious literature. More basic than whether or not books published in China are orthodox in what they present of Catholic teaching is the fact that hardly a single one of them can serve the purpose of doctrinal formation.

The eighth point raised by the Vatican directive has to do with aid to China by Catholics outside the mainland. The text says: "Any assistance is to be directed to initiatives which serve to maintain the correct doctrine and spirit of faith of the Catholic Church. Regarding assistance to persons or initiatives which do not give such guarantees, each case must be examined in the light of the moral principles concerning cooperation."

Overseas Catholics are not so naive as to put up with great difficulty to recruit all manner of assistance, including money and personnel, to help China and then not have the good of the Catholic Church at heart.

Such projects at first may appear to have no direct link with the Catholic Church, but they can do more good in the long run than people expect. A Jesuit project providing all sorts of material assistance to help young Chinese post-graduate students in California, United States, is an example. This assistance extends to many non-Catholic foreign students, mainly Chinese, to solve their temporal needs. Such timely help can change ideas these young intellectuals, who will become leaders in future, have about the Catholic Church.


Though the directives were meant for private circulation among Catholics outside the mainland, one must expect that China has access to this document.

China was offended by it and, through a statement by Vice Premier Wu Xueqian to a CCPA meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Nov. 29, reminded the Vatican not to "interfere" in China´s internal affairs.

A bishop was ordained Dec. 4 in Beijing´s cathedral in the presence of more than 20 bishops from many parts of China who had attended that meeting.

Whether or not the ordination represents a retaliation to the directive is hard to say, but the timing of that and other recent events shows Beijing is unprepared to surrender its claims on electing and ordaining Chinese bishops.

Even so, it has not generated major ill-feelings from the Chinese government that could jeopardize the ongoing negotiation between China and the Vatican.

In November, the Vatican floated a trial ballon through the Rome-based magazine "Jesus" by suggesting a papal visit to Portuguese-administered Macau, over which China will resume sovereignty in 1999.

China reacted to the suggestion with great calm and, through a CCPA leader, indicated that such a visit would not be a problem for the Chinese government.

In their negotiations, the Vatican will be busily concerned with religious questions, but what clearly interests China most is the political gain it can obtain as regards Taiwan.


* Sister Leung, a Hong Kong Chinese and one of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, teaches in the Department of Political Science of the University of Hong Kong and specializes in Church and Communist state relations.

(by Sister Beatrice Leung)


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