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Scaling a Great Wall: On Pope Benedict’s Letter to Chinese Catholics

July 3, 2007
...never interfere in China's internal affairs, including in the name of religion.
China’s FlagThose words from the Chinese government in response to Pope Benedict XVI's Letter to China. A disappointing response, but certainly not unexpected.
I will be the first to admit I do not know the ins-and-outs of the political situation in China, and I am by no means an Vatican Flagexpert on religious freedom in that country. There are many others that could speak more eloquently on the topic. (In fact, the topic comes up in a S+L Witness interview from May with Cardinal Joseph Zen Zi-kiun, bishop of Hong Kong. A portion of which is available on our website, by clicking HERE.) But I do recognize that this is a very serious situation, and the Pope's letter to the Chinese faithful is of great importance.
What is the situation of the Church in China? In its most basic terms, from what I understand -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- the recognized Catholic Church in China is state run, comprised of bishops who are appointed by the Chinese government. This is of course contrary to the practice of the Church, who appoints the bishops herself (the Holy Father goes into detail on the importance of the appointment coming from Rome, an importance that was only highlighted last week in the beautiful imposition of the pallium ceremony seen here on Salt+Light). The Holy Father writes:
... the communion of all the particular Churches in the one Catholic Church, and hence the ordered hierarchical communion of all the Bishops, successors of the Apostles, with the Successor of Peter, are a guarantee of the unity of the faith and life of all Catholics. It is therefore indispensable, for the unity of the Church in individual nations, that every Bishop should be in communion with the other Bishops, and that all should be in visible and concrete communion with the Pope. (sec. 5)
This is not the case with China. (Though on a positive note, in recent years, many of these Bishops have been 'legitimized' by Rome and are recognized as being in communion with the Church. ) In an effort to not be controlled by the Chinese government, an underground Church has developed. The Holy Father writes:
... The clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church's life, and history shows that Pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith and to resist interference from State agencies in matters pertaining intimately to the Church's life. For this reason the Holy See hopes that these legitimate Pastors may be recognized as such by governmental authorities for civil effects too – insofar as these are necessary – and that all the faithful may be able to express their faith freely in the social context in which they live. (Sec. 8 )
Note Pope Benedict's emphasis on the legitimacy of the 'clandestine' Pastors to the Chinese government. And also note the fact that the Holy Father even highlights that an underground Church has only been necessary in situations "amid suffering." The Pope is clearly saying, there is this underground Church because you, the government, have forced it by the way in which you have suppressed religious freedoms. The Holy Father wants no ambiguity with the Chinese government:
...the present College of Catholic Bishops of China cannot be recognized as an Episcopal Conference by the Apostolic See: the "clandestine" Bishops, those not recognized by the Government but in communion with the Pope, are not part of it; it includes Bishops who are still illegitimate, and it is governed by statutes that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine.
It's a strong statement from the Holy Father, and one which is meant to draw attention to the seriousness of the situation. The Church, as Pope Benedict points out in his letter, does not have a mission to "change the structure or administration of the State, ... her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Saviour of the world, basing herself – in carrying out her proper apostolate – on the power of God." (Sec. 4). Again note "the power of God," not the power of the state. And though recognizing the complexity of the situation, the Holy Father does not see this as a bleak situation. He is hopeful that all sides involved can rectify the situation:
...I renew my earnest wish (cf. section 4 above, paragraphs 2, 3, 4) that in the course of a respectful and open dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese Bishops on the one hand, and the governmental authorities on the other, the difficulties mentioned may be overcome and thus a fruitful understanding may be reached that will prove beneficial to the Catholic community and to social cohesion.
Beijing has responded saying:
China has always stood for the improvement of the China-Vatican relationship, and made positive efforts for that. China is willing to continue candid and constructive dialogue with the Vatican so as to resolve our differences. ...
China's stance on improving China-Vatican ties is consistent, that is, the Vatican must sever its so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China.
It is unfortunate that (at least the English published excerpts) Beijing's response did not directly address the suffering of the Catholic faithful, but rather drew attention to China's own political agenda. I imagine the constructive dialogue that China wishes to engage in would be fairly one sided; based on Beijing's order to remove the Papal letter from mainland China websites, that's probably not too far from the truth.
So what happens now? As I wrote in the beginning of this piece, I am far from an expert on this issue, and could not even begin to speculate. The Papal letter is firm, but readers will also sense the genuine concern and affection Pope Benedict has for the faithful of China. The benefits, or repercussions, of the letter will only be answered in time. However, we should consider a suggestion the Supreme Pontiff offers in his conclusion:
19. Dear Pastors and all the faithful, the date 24 May could in the future become an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China. This day is dedicated to the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians, who is venerated with great devotion at the Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.
I would like that date to be kept by you as a day of prayer for the Church in China. I encourage you to celebrate it by renewing your communion of faith in Jesus our Lord and of faithfulness to the Pope, and by praying that the unity among you may become ever deeper and more visible. I remind you, moreover, of the commandment that Jesus gave us, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, as well as the invitation of the Apostle Saint Paul: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:1-4).
You can read the letter in its entirety on the Vatican website, by clicking HERE.
To see our Zoom coverage of the Papal Letter, click HERE, and choose the day Tuesday, July 3rd.

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