The Church Must Defend Integrity of Confession in Hong Kong

Michael Warsaw Publisher's Note

Leading human-rights experts say the integrity of the sacrament of penance has been undermined by Hong Kong’s latest draconian domestic-security law. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong says otherwise.

Who’s right?

The diocese’s apparent faith in the Chinese government would appear to be misplaced. Given that a top government official has said that clergy aren’t exempt from being prosecuted for not reporting “treasonous” acts to the police, Hong Kong’s 392,000 Catholics seem to have good reason to fear that going to confession could land them in jail.

Even if no penitent or priest is ever charged because of something shared in the confessional, a seed of doubt has been planted. That’s why it’s so imperative that Catholic leaders — including Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin — speak out against this latest blow to religious freedom and human rights in the Chinese territory.

Like any country, China has a right to protect its national security. The problem is that China’s atheistic communist government views all religious expression not under its direct oversight as a security threat.

That’s the rationale for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s effort to quash “foreign interference” by mandating that all religious groups in China be “Sinicized” to align with Chinese culture — and the Communist Party’s ideology.

No group has paid a higher price for religious repression in China than the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the country’s far northwest Xinjiang region, who have been subject to mass internment, torture, forced sterilization and rape, according to the U.S. government. Catholics on the Chinese mainland also have found themselves in the crosshairs. Those who refuse to join the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association are subject to detention, harassment and arrest. Several Catholic bishops have gone missing for years.

In recent years, similarly repressive measures have been imposed on Hong Kong. The territory’s parliament was supposed to enact new national security laws to replace the ones that ended when the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997, but its attempts to do so have met with fierce public outcry, most recently in 2019, when Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest plans to extradite criminal defendants to the mainland.

The Chinese government responded by imposing a new national security law for Hong Kong in 2020 that has been used to prosecute peaceful dissenters, including retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen and Catholic media magnate Jimmy Lai, who is currently on trial on trumped-up charges that he “colluded” with foreign forces. Lai could spend the rest of his life behind bars if he’s convicted. The number of political prisoners jailed since the 2019 protests now exceeds 1,800, according to the Hong Kong Democracy Council based in Washington, D.C.

The latest security law, known as “Article 23,” a reference to a section of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, was passed unanimously on March 19 by Hong Kong’s opposition-free parliament. The law tightens the screws even more on those who oppose the government, even those living abroad.

It requires the government to pass additional measures against treason, sedition and sharing state secrets, but the law is so broadly worded that virtually any form of dissent could lead to criminal charges punishable by lengthy prison sentences.

“By virtue of the work I do, I will be in breach of both the National Security Law and this new domestic security law every single day of my life,” Catholic human-rights advocate Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive officer of the U.K.-based human-rights organization Hong Kong Watch, wrote on March 12.

When asked about the measure against concealing treasonous acts (now a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison), Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok told journalists on March 7 that it would be “very difficult to create exceptions” for people like clergy and social workers.

China’s ambassador to the U.S., Liu Pengyu, said the new law is “legitimate, lawful and beyond reproach.” He said it was aimed only at “a tiny minority of individuals that are involved in offenses seriously jeopardizing national security.”

For Catholics, this is a grave, non-negotiable matter. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1467) explains: “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives.”

Rogers and other leading human-rights leaders and intellectuals, including Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute and George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, signed a joint statement opposing the measure as a gross violation of religious freedom and basic human rights. The statement urged Pope Francis, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and other world religious leaders to speak out against the measure.

The Diocese of Hong Kong’s own statement was decidedly more muted. “With regard to the legislation of Article 23 on safeguarding national security, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes that citizens have an obligation to ensure national security,” the statement said.

The statement simply added, without elaboration, that the law “will not alter the confidential nature of Confession.”

With all due respect to the diocese, which is obviously in a difficult predicament with the government, its statement is hardly reassuring. Making matters worse is that there has been no public objection raised to date by anyone at the Vatican, which in recent years has gone to great lengths to compromise with the communist government, even after China repeatedly violated the terms of the still-secret Vatican-China diplomatic accord.

Let’s pray that the sanctity of confession in Hong Kong isn’t yet another concession to a ruthless regime.

May God bless you!

Michael Warsaw

Michael Warsaw Michael Warsaw is the Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the EWTN Global Catholic Network, and the Publisher of the National Catholic Register.