Vatican City (AsiaNews) — The unity of the Church in China and its independence from political power, i.e. respect for religious freedom so that the Church can carry out her mission of evangelization. This is the main concern of the "Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China," published today. From this main concern stem the search for "dialogue" with the government, the denial of any role or legitimacy of the Patriotic Association, the idea of a necessary "normality" of the Chinese Church, with the invitation to bishops and faithful to overcome divisions and to display their faith publicly and the abolition of the extraordinary norms conceded to date to the Church in China.
Announced months ago and awaited by the Chinese government itself — which received a copy some ten days ago — the Letter — 54 pages in the English version — also had two Chinese versions — traditional and simplified — and should also be the document with which the Chinese section of the Holy See’s internet site will be inaugurated.
Letter speaks of the "Church in China" and not of "official" and "underground" Church
Being above all concerned with the unity of the Church, Benedict XVI does not use the expressions "official Church" and "underground Church", but speaks only of the "Church in China," which he praises, from the letter’s outset, for her "faithfulness" and recalls her "grave sufferings." And even if "it is true that in recent years the Church has enjoyed greater religious freedom than in the past" (no. 12), "grave limitations remain" and the word "persecution" is also used.
The document is divided in two parts: the first is dedicated to the Church’s situation, the second to pastoral problems. The Letter begins with respectful words of appreciation for what China is doing. It speaks of "significant goals of socio-economic progress" and of "far-sighted planning." Referring then to his "sincere admiration and sentiments of friendship" for the Chinese People, the Pope expressed the hope "that concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China may soon be established (no. 4)." "I realize," he adds, "that the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China requires time and presupposes the good will of both parties. For its part, the Holy See always remains open to negotiations, so necessary if the difficulties of the present time are to be overcome" (no. 4).
The Church does not wish to change the structure of the State
Thus addressing himself to the government of Beijing, Benedict XVI writes of the burdensome "situation of misunderstandings and incomprehension" which serves the interests of neither side, quotes the Council on the political community and the Church being autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields, and reassures Beijing on a particularly sensitive issue: "the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women." And, further on, he states that the Pope is not "a political authority, unduly asserting itself in the internal affairs of a State and offending against its sovereignty (no. 9)" and, in dealing with the question of relations between Church and State, recalls the well-known "give to Caesar…".
If here, and again further on, the Letter deals with one of the two proclaimed impasses of relations with Bejing– that of external "interference" in Chinese affairs — there is no mention of the other issue that Beijing says is crucial, that of relations with Taiwan, which, for Beijing, must be severed. A blank spot filled by a note from the Holy See Press Office, entitled "Certain Highlights", which states that "as has been said in other circumstances, if an agreement is reached with the Government, the transfer to Beijing of the Holy See’s nunciature can take place at any time."
In short, "the civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom" (no. 4).
Communion of bishops with the Pope: indispensible
This is the context in which Benedict XVI addresses the question of bishop appointments. The Pope explains that the unity of the episcopate, of which "the Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation (no. 5)”, is a central and inalienable aspect of the life, thought and essence of the Catholic Church. It is "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" (no. 5).
If the explanation is valid for civil and religious authorities, it assumes a special meaning in a country which sees bishops who are recognized by the government and others who are not, imprisoned or free, with all the consequences that this has on the community of the faithful, creating at times profound contrasts. It is to them that the first affirmation is dedicated: "authentic communion is not expressed without arduous efforts at reconciliation." Recalling that "my venerable predecessor on several occasions addressed to you an urgent invitation to pardon and reconciliation, "my ardent desire is," he goes on to say, "that you will respond to the interior promptings of the Holy Spirit by forgiving one another whatever needs to be forgiven, by drawing closer to one another, by accepting one another and by breaking down all barriers in order to overcome every possible cause of division" (no. 6).
Naturally, the appeal to unity cannot ignore those who are responsible for the rupture of unity, i.e. the state organs that "watch over" religions and those who make this their raison d’etre, i.e. the Patriotic Association. Of the first, the Letter refers to "the significant part played by entities that have been imposed as the principal determinants of the life of the Catholic community. Still today, in fact, recognition from these entities is the criterion for declaring a community, a person or a religious place legal and therefore ‘official’. All this has caused division both among the clergy and among the lay faithful. It is a situation primarily dependent on factors external to the Church, but it has seriously conditioned her progress, giving rise also to suspicions, mutual accusations and recriminations, and it continues to be a weakness in the Church that causes concern" (no. 7).
Condemnation of the Patriotic Association
For the second, condemnation is without any extenuating circumstances. Named explicitly only in a footnote (no. 36), the texts says of the Patriotic Association that its "claim" to place itself "above the Bishops and to guide the life of the ecclesial community does not correspond to Catholic doctrine." The Patriotic Association is again referred to in speaking of "persons who are not ‘ordained’, and sometimes not even baptized," who "control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of Bishops" (no. 8) and when the Letter warns that communion and unity "are essential and integral elements of the Catholic Church: therefore the proposal for a Church that is ‘independent’ of the Holy See, in the religious sphere, is incompatible with Catholic doctrine" (no. 8).
The difference of evaluation is reflected on the relationship that bishops and the faithful can have with them. The Pope, in fact, maintains that "there would not be any particular difficulties with acceptance of the recognition granted by civil authorities on condition that this does not entail the denial of unrenounceable principles of faith and of ecclesiastical communion." In other words, there is, in principle, nothing preventing adherence to the official Church, leaving however the decision to each bishop, because "in not a few particular instances, however, indeed almost always, in the process of recognition the intervention of certain bodies obliges the people involved to adopt attitudes, make gestures and undertake commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their conscience as Catholics. I understand, therefore, how in such varied conditions and circumstances it is difficult to determine the correct choice to be made" (no. 7). Which might not be shared by all members of the faithful. But in this case also, out of concern for the unity of the Church, "I express the hope, however, that it will be accepted, albeit with suffering, and that the unity of the diocesan community with its own Pastor will be maintained" (no. 7).
Differing circumstances among bishops
In the same logic, the Letter addresses the question of the three kinds of Chinese bishops, those underground, those reconciled and the few that are not reconciled. For the first, it expresses the hope that the government recognizes those who "not wishing to be subjected to undue control exercised over the life of the Church, and eager to maintain total fidelity to the Successor of Peter and to Catholic doctrine, have felt themselves constrained to opt for clandestine consecration" (no. 7). For the very reason of their absence from the "College of Catholic Bishops of China" — which instead includes "bishops who are still illegitimate" and "is governed by statutes that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine" — this entity cannot be considered an episcopal conference.
The Letter asks that the second kind, who "under the pressure of particular circumstances, have consented to receive episcopal ordination without the pontifical mandate, but have subsequently asked to be received into communion with the Successor of Peter and with their other brothers in the episcopate" (no. 7), "fully" inform priests and the faithful of the re-establishment of full communion.
Even for those ordained illegitimately, "a very small number", the Pope’s words indicate a search for unity: he recalls in fact that they are illegitimate, but validly ordained; therefore, "although not in communion with the Pope, they exercise their ministry validly in the administration of the sacraments, even if they do so illegitimately." Significant, in this regard, is what can be read in the "Highlights." After recalling the "serious sanctions" (Editor’s note: excommunication) that fall upon those who ordain or let themselves be ordained, it adds: "in the absence of a true area of freedom, in order to declare that a person has incurred a sanction foreseen by the Code, an examination must be made case by case, considering all the circumstances and evaluating the true subjective responsibility."
Again from the perspective of Church unity, the letter tells all bishops that "it is licit to concelebrate with Bishops and with priests who are in communion with the Pope, even if they are recognized by the civil authorities and maintain a relationship with entities desired by the State and extraneous to the structure of the Church, provided that this recognition and this relationship do not entail the denial of unrenounceable principles of the faith and of ecclesiastical communion" (no. 10) and that the faithful should in principle seek bishops in communion with the Pope; "nevertheless, where this cannot be achieved without grave inconvenience, they may, for the sake of their spiritual good, turn also to those who are not in communion with the Pope" (no. 10).
Appointments can be agreed upon with the State
Following this clarification on the situation of bishops, Benedict XVI offers the State the possibility of determining a method for finding an agreeable procedure for also the question of bishop appointments. "The Holy See would desire to be completely free to appoint Bishops; therefore, considering the recent particular developments of the Church in China, I trust that an accord can be reached with the Government so as to resolve certain questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate, the publication of the appointment of Bishops, and the recognition – concerning civil effects where necessary – of the new Bishops on the part of the civil authorities" (no. 9).
All for the "missionary vocation" of the Church. Because, "now it is your turn, Chinese disciples of the Lord, to be courageous apostles of that Kingdom. I am sure that your response will be most generous." (FP)
For the full text of the "Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China," click here: Pope Benedict’s letter to the Church in China