ROME — The Vatican is encouraging Catholic bishops and priests in China to register with state authorities in the pope’s biggest push for rapprochement with Beijing, even at the cost of Church independence .
The Vatican’s recommendation in a document released on Friday targets the clergy of China’s so-called underground church, whose bishops have been approved by Rome but not by the government in Beijing. The Chinese government has long appointed its own rival Catholic bishops, often unsanctioned by the Vatican.
Last year, Pope Francis agreed with China to recognize the bishops that Beijing had nominated and jointly select the bishops from then on. Critics say the special arrangement with China amounts to giving up religious freedom.
Friday’s document is a further sign of Pope Francis’ willingness to accommodate Beijing in its quest to overcome the disunity of Catholicism in China. China severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the country’s communist revolution. Pope Francis has made resolving the rift with Beijing a priority of his pontificate, although full diplomatic relations are not in sight.
Many of China’s roughly 12 million Catholics have refused to register with the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as required by Chinese law. The government in the past has persecuted the unauthorized underground church. More recently it has generally tolerated it, although those who refuse on principle to register often face persecution.
The government requires bishops and priests to sign a declaration that the Catholic Church in China is independent, autonomous and self-governing. Many priests hesitated to move away from Rome in this way.
The two-page document from the Vatican offers guidelines for resisters, recommending that they sign, but with a disclaimer noting fidelity to Catholic doctrine, which holds that the universal Church is led by the pope.
Last year’s deal between China and the Vatican has divided Chinese clergy, said Lucia Cheung, a research assistant at the Center for Catholic Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some underground church priests decided to join the authorized community, but others resisted or left the priesthood, she said.
Friday’s guidelines are an effort “to make it easier for this underground clergy to join the open community without too much resistance from the laity,” she said.
The Vatican document said registration with the government was justified in order to foster unity among Catholics in China, promote evangelization there and protect the material resources of the Church.
However, the Vatican said it “understands and respects the choice of those who in good conscience decide they cannot check in under current conditions.” He asked the Chinese authorities “that no pressure of intimidation be brought to bear on ‘unofficial’ Catholic communities, as has unfortunately already happened”.
Recognizing the tensions between registered and non-registered Catholics in China, the Vatican called on Catholics in China to “accept with an open heart the anguished decision made by their pastor,” whether registered or not.
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