Pope Makes Plea to China’s Catholics
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: July 1, 2007
The New York Times
ROME, June 30 — In an extraordinary open letter directed to Chinese Catholics and released Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the suffering experienced by Catholics under Communist rule but also concluded that it was time to forgive past wrongdoings and for the underground and state-sponsored Catholic churches in China to reconcile.
Openly hoping for a renewal of relations between China and the Vatican, which were suspended in the late 1950s, Pope Benedict reassured the Chinese government that the Vatican offered no political challenge to its authority, while urging the state-sponsored Catholic Church to acknowledge the Vatican’s control on religious matters.
“The misunderstanding and incomprehension weighs heavily, serving neither the Chinese authorities nor the Catholic Church in China,” the letter said.
It was the pope’s long-awaited first official and explicit statement on China’s estimated 12 million Catholics, the majority of whom worship in underground churches to avoid having to register with the government and swear loyalty to it.
Months in preparation, and dated May 27, the 28-page letter was issued in multiple languages, including Chinese, along with an unusual accompanying “Explanatory Note” highlighting main points.
The pope praised China for “the splendor of its ancient civilization” and noted with approval that it had greater religious freedoms and decisive movement toward socio-economic progress. He underlined that the Roman Catholic Church “does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State.”
Gerolamo Fazzini, editor of Mondo e Missione, a magazine for the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, said: “This is a step forward because it states the Vatican position clearly and holds out a hand to civil authorities. It says the church and authorities can be allied in dialogue. That you can be good Chinese citizens and Catholics at the same time. That the church is not looking for political legitimacy.”
But the pope’s message to the Patriotic Church Association, the central government body that oversees the state churches, was that no Catholic Church should operate independently of the Vatican, and he said Catholics should seek to worship with priests who accepted the guidance of Rome. He criticized “grave limitations” in religious practice that “touch the heart of faith.” Still, he said, sacraments administered in state churches were holy.
He officially revoked a set of 1988 directives, promulgated by the previous pope, John Paul II, that gave bishops and priests in China special powers that allowed them to operate without the mandate of the Vatican. The directives were intended to allow underground clerics to operate secretly and independently to avoid persecution; the Vatican says it sees that as no longer necessary.
The letter included a reaffirmation of the Vatican’s right to appoint bishops, a point of deep contention between Rome and the Chinese Patriotic Church. In 2006, the Chinese church enraged the Vatican by appointing three new bishops without consultation.
The Chinese government offered no immediate reaction, and the Patriotic Church Association had been meeting in the past few days, probably to discuss the content of the letter, Mr. Fazzini said.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Zi-kiun, the bishop of Hong Kong and a passionate advocate for the underground church on the mainland, issued a written statement late Saturday evening. “The voice of our bishops and priests in China is often prevented from reaching our leaders; now that the letter of the pope is in the hands of our leaders, our bishops and priests can thus refer to it directly as a common starting point for dialogue,” he said.
Beginning in the 1950s, China expelled missionaries, closed churches, confiscated church property and imprisoned almost all clerics. Tremendous persecution continued until the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping, then the Chinese leader, allowed worship to resume slowly— though within limits set by government. Underground churches held fast in their loyalty to the pope, but their secret meetings have been violently dispersed by the police, and practitioners arrested.
Still, over the last 10 years, the practices of the official states churches and underground churches have converged to some extent, depending in part upon the tolerance of local authorities. And in the countryside, it is not unusual to find official state “patriotic” churches where the pope is openly revered and that hang pictures of him near the altar. An increasing number also get money from Catholic charities abroad to pay for church-building, schools and hospitals.
“The first and by far most important aspect is that for the pope, the church in China is one — definitely one,” Bernardo Cervellera, editor of Asia News, a Catholic missionary news service based in Rome, said of the letter. “He stresses it is time to consider the church one church. To reconcile the bishops from the two churches and the faithful as well.”
Others remained skeptical that the overture would improve relations between the Vatican and the Chinese.
“I doubt that this will help overcome the impasse with the Chinese authorities, because the letter says that it’s up to China to recognize the church should operate in China as it does in 173 countries, even places like Cuba, which is Communist, or Japan, which has strong nationalism — in all of which the pope nominates bishops,” said a priest from Hong Kong, who asked not to be named.
He and others noted that the reaction to the papal letter could be complex among Catholics in China, and some could even feel betrayed by the pope’s message.
“I think that this will have strong repercussions, within the church,” Mr. Fazzini, the magazine editor, said. “Imagine a priest who spent 30 years in jail and now you are told that you have to dialogue with people that have been nominated by authorities. Asking them to reread history with charitable eyes, that won’t be easy.”
The pope’s letter said firmly that cooperating with Chinese Communist state requirements did not constitute a betrayal of Catholicism. The practice of Catholicism and the “safeguarding of the faith,” he said, is “not itself opposed to dialogue with authorities.”
Still, he noted that Catholics in China walked a delicate line between faith and political expedience, and he urged the bishops and priests in Catholic dioceses in China to make the decision about whether to register their churches with Chinese authorities, based on “local conditions and circumstances.”
The pope acknowledged the suffering of Chinese clerics — their persecution and “shedding of blood” — but urged them to show charity toward those “who think different from us in social, political and religious matters.”
“The purification of memory, the pardoning of wrongdoers, the forgetting of injustices suffered and the loving restoration to serenity of troubled hearts, all to be accomplished in the name of Jesus crucified and risen, can require moving beyond personal positions or viewpoints, born of painful or difficult experiences,” he wrote. “These are urgent steps that must be taken.”
Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.