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The guidelines sought to walk the tightrope of urging clergy toward "obligatory" registration with the Chinese Communist Party while respecting Catholic doctrine.
The "Note of the Holy See on the Pastoral Orientations for Bishops and Priests in the People's Republic of China," the official name for the guidelines, was framed as a response to questions from the clergy "for a concrete indication of the approach to be adopted in relation to the obligation of presenting an application for civil registration."
The document gives reasons why clergy might decide to register with the Communist government, including:
On the other hand, the Vatican note also says it "understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions."
It asked Chinese authorities that "no intimidatory pressure be applied to the 'nonofficial' Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened."
In short, the guidelines put forth that the Holy See does not intend to force anyone's conscience. But "it considers that the experience of clandestinity 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."
In other words, the Vatican does not want faithful Chinese priests to remain underground any longer.
Primarily aimed at Chinese Catholic clergy, the note calls on Chinese Catholics to "accept with an open heart the anguished decision taken by their pastor," whether he registers or not.
The increased persecution of Christians in China has been well-documented. Churches have been closed and destroyed, pastors jailed and Scripture rewritten to align with communist doctrine. The situation has been described as the "worst crackdown on religion since the country's Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong's government vowed to eradicate religion."
Steven Mosher, an American social scientist and China expert, speaking at the 2019 Rome Life Forum warned that persecution of Christians, particularly Catholics, in China is currently unfolding in a way the "world has never seen the likes of."
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, "demands total submission from the Chinese people, including Chinese Catholics, who seem to be first on the chopping block," Mosher said. "He is as cruel and merciless an individual as we have seen ruling China since Mao Zedong back in the 1950s and '60s."
"By now it should be clear to everyone, even presumably Vatican diplomats, that things are going from bad to worse in China," Mosher declared.
Andrea Tornielli, director of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, praised the note of the Holy See as "safeguarding Catholic doctrine and conscience."
The cardinal's last parenthetical sentence refers to the secret pact between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party made in September 2018 which allowed the Chinese government greater control in the governance of the Church.
According to The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 14, under the terms of the landmark deal, Beijing would recognize the pope as head of China's Catholics and Beijing would be given control for appointing bishops.
Cardinal Zen called the Vatican-China deal "suicide" for the Catholic Church in China.
"Cardinal Zen is exactly the kind of person that the Vatican should be relying upon for information and for the formulation of strategy about how to deal with the Communist Party," Mosher was quoted as saying in a Church Militant article. "The Vatican does not understand the Communist Party ... visitors never meet ordinary people or those in the underground Church."
In For the Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent, Zen wrote he doubts that such agreements can be reached without compromising the Catholic faith and asks: "Could the underground community join the official community?"
"This is the great problem that we must face directly," he adds.