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George Evers {*}

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Benedict's XVI Letter to the Chinese Catholics


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2007, P. 408 - 413
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Pope's long expected letter to the Chinese Catholics was published several weeks ago. It abstains from any polemic and sounds out the scope for the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China. But still no solution of the contentious questions between Rome and Beijing is within sight.


Outside the People's Republic of China Benedict's XVI letter from 29 June to the Catholics in China has received great attention both in the church and in the secular press, whereas the reactions in the People's Republic of China have turned out considerably scantier. There the Pope's letter was only for a short time attainable in the Internet until it was blocked by state authorities. On the part of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association a publication was rejected. On the part of the state there was only a short comment by a speaker of the Chinese State Department, who cautiously signalled agreement to the Vatican's invitation for discussion but apart from that kept to the cliché-ridden repetition of the well-known old demands.

The reporting of foreign media on the religion politics in the People's Republic of China can easily give the impression as if in China the religions were still persecuted and suppressed. The one-sidedness regarding the religious situation in China displayed by some political and also church authorities is then again deplored by the religion authorities and the religious organizations in the country, which for their part point out that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and can also actually be exercised and practiced.

In general all religious communities in China register a constant growth. The statistic data on the part of the state religion authority are not exact and tend to reduce the number of the members of religious communities. Foreign authorities may have the contrary tendency, but in the meantime it is nevertheless the concurrent opinion among the observers of China that the number of the faithful is up to three times higher than officially stated.

According to a opinion poll, which was carried out by the East Chinese university of Shanghai among 4500 persons and the result of which in February 2007 was published also by the semi-official English-language daily "China Daily", 67 per cent of the religious faithful are allotted to Buddhism, Daoism, Catholic and Protestant Church and Islam, religions that are recognized by the state, whereas the actually not recognized traditional Chinese religions have nearly a third of those Chinese who see themselves as religious. It is also striking that the portion of the 16-39 years old people who see themselves as religious is with 62 per cent amazingly high.

The state religion authority (SARA) sets great store on emphasizing the international connections of the religious communities officially recognized in China. That all the more, as it takes part in the organization and topics of a number of international congresses and meetings.



In the year 2006 for example China's Buddhist Association together with the Chinese Association for Religion and Culture created by the state organized the first Buddhist World Forum in Hangzhou and Zhoushan, in which representatives from 37 countries took part. The Chinese Daoist Society organized an international conference in April 2007 about Daodejing, which was also visited by many foreign participants.

In 2006 nearly 10.000 Chinese Muslims had the opportunity to go to Mecca for the hajj. The Chinese Christian Council, the Protestants' official representation in the People's Republic of China, in 2006 organized a Bible exhibition in three American cities. The same Bible exhibition was also shown during the Evangelischen Kirchentag in Cologne in June of this year.

There are however also time and again reports about actions of the police and other state authorities where the authorities proceeded by arrests and destruction of buildings against religious activities that took place without official approval. Particularly Catholics and Protestants who refuse to cooperate with the authorities are time and again concerned. Shortly before the publication of the Pope's letter to the Chinese Catholics the announcement that the authorities intended to blow up the shrine of Mary in Tianjiajing in the province Henan made once again clear that the persons responsible for religion politics in the People's Republic of China do not necessarily pursue a uniform line.


Vatican China Conference in the Run Up to the Pope's Letter

Background of the initiative to hold a special conference on China in the Vatican in January 2007 was the stagnation in the discussions between the Vatican and the government in Beijing that occurred in 2006 after the ordinations of bishops in Anhui, Kunming and Yuzhou, where three bishops were ordained without the approval of the Pope. To get out of that bottleneck and to find new ways for communication a meeting in the Vatican took place from January 18 to 20, where twenty church representatives from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau met with representatives of the Vatican dicasteries.

The highest ranking representatives at this meeting, which was lead by the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, were on the part of the Vatican the cardinals Ivan Dias from the Propaganda, William Levada from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Julian Herranz of the Papal Council for legal texts, and Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli as a proven China specialist. As representatives of Chinese churches Cardinal Paul Shan of Taiwan, Cardinal Joseph Zen and Bishop John Tong of Hong Kong were invited. The purpose of the meeting was to give comprehensive information to the Pope and the Vatican authorities, so that they got a better understanding of the situation of the Catholic Church regarding a long-term strategy for a normalization of the situation.

At the end it was announced that Benedict XVI would address the Catholics in the People's Republic of China by a pastoral letter. At the same time in the official press communiqué the desire was expressed gradually to remove "in a respectful and constructive dialogue the misunderstandings of the past" and to endeavour to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing to be able to work "together for the Chinese people's well-being and peace in the world."

The reactions to the meeting in Rome were generally positive both from circles of the official and the underground church. The conciliatory form of the press statement was welcomed by Chinese government circles and seen as sign that the Vatican seriously works on a solution of the existing problems. After that there were a lot of speculations about the date of the publication of the Pope's letter and even more about its potential contents.

On Whit Sunday, May 27, Benedict XVI signed the letter to the Catholics in China and released it for the translation into different languages. Ten days before the official publication the Chinese authorities were in advance informed of the text. Only three days before the publication the bishops, priests and lay representatives of the "official" church were invited to a two-day meeting from June 27 to 28 to Beijing.

According to statements of the deputy chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, the meeting in Beijing aimed alone at the preparation of the fiftieth anniversary of the Patriotic Association's establishment in the year 1957. Liu Bainian, who at present has something like the position of an official speaker for the Catholic Church in China, turned against speculations that the meeting had also dealt with the forthcoming Papal letter. But the forthcoming letter of the Pope was then nevertheless a subject of discussion. Representatives of the United Front Department and the state authority for religious affairs (SARA) instructed the participants to receive the Pope' letter calmly, no matter what its content was.



The basic trend of the Pope's letter to the Chinese Catholics, which was published on 29 June 2007 together with an "Explaining Note" in Italian, English and Chinese (in long and simplified characters), is the effort to do everything to come to an improvement of the mutual relationship and to avoid all polarizing expressions that could oppose this objective. In awareness of his mission as "St Peter's Successor" and "Universal Pastor of the Church" the Pope wants to deal with some serious developments of the church life in China and to give fundamental instructions for the task of evangelization.

In view of the present situation of the church in China in the age of globalization Benedict's XVI letter emphasizes two aspects. On the one hand there was in the Chinese society a strong interest in the spiritual and transcendental dimension of the human existence, which became apparent in the search for spirituality and religion in particular for Christianity. Contrary to it was a trend that was triggered by the economic development and became apparent in materialism and hedonism.

The church in China is called to develop forms of a "new evangelization" to make the gospel accessible to today's Chinese. In the first, theological main part of the letter the Pope expressly praises the loyalty and the religious testimony of the Chinese Christians in the difficult times of persecution. He expresses the hope that the relationship between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China will return to normal by the establishment of diplomatic relations. The church had no political goals whatsoever and was not committed to any political system. That's why the Catholics in China by no means pursued the goal of changing the political conditions in the country. A continual conflict with the legitimate civilian authorities harmed both sides and could not bring any solution.



The Catholics should as good citizens rather actively contribute to the welfare of the community. Regarding the church the task of the bishops is emphasized to guarantee in community with the Pope the unity of the world church in a spiritual way. At present the unity in the church of China was threatened by internal tensions and disputes in which it was about the co-operation with state authorities and the official acknowledgment of church institutions and persons on the part of the state.

The independence of the church is clearly emphasized and the attempts of groups outside the church to place themselves over the bishops and to give instructions in church questions are condemned. With great firmness it is stated that the "principles of independence and autonomy, of self-government and democratic administration of the church", held by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in its statutes, are incompatible with the church doctrine. The footnote with the evidence for this statement is the only place where the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is mentioned by name.

In the treatment of the delicate question of the official acknowledgment of religious institutions and activities by the state authorities the Pope shows great intuitive feeling: The conditions linked with state recognition often forced the Catholics to assume attitudes and to take on obligations that burdened their conscience. The Holy See put the decision in this difficult question, which is strongly determined by local conditions, into the hand of the respective local bishop. With differences of opinion within the church everything was to be done to avoid mutual accusations and condemnations. Here an exhortation is urgently given to all Catholics and particularly to church leaders in China to strive for reconciliation and internal unity.

The clear statements about the canonical status of bishops whose consecration took place without the Pope's approval are very helpful; they had been expected for a long time already. It is generally said that their consecration is "illegal" but valid. It is welcomed that the large majority of those bishops had in the meantime striven for the legitimating of their consecration and for unity with the Pope. Those bishops are cautiously admonished to inform accordingly their faithful and the public about their authorisation by the Pope.

Expressly it is permitted to have liturgical community with those bishops who have returned to the unity of the church. With the few bishops who are still without papal acknowledgment attention had to be paid to whether they questioned fundamental doctrines of the church or not, in order to decide on dealings with them in particular cases. With regard to the Chinese Bishops' Conference, which at present consists exclusively of bishops officially recognized by the state, it is said that - as long as the underground bishops too were not members and some statutes that contradict the church doctrine were not changed -, it could not be recognized by the Holy See.


The Previous Special Powers Are Abolished

The following pastoral guidelines contain statements about the responsibility of the bishops and try to strengthen the position of the bishops by calling to mind as guideline the principle "nothing without the bishop". To eliminate existing uncertainties it is clearly said that nothing any longer stands in the way of a sacramental community between bishops and priests from the official and the underground church, and consequently the laymen could receive the sacraments in all churches.

In the conclusions the abolition of all (past) previous special powers and pastoral instructions is of greatest importance. With the documents meant here it is for example about the from the then prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization Agnelo Rossi, in 1981 issued special power for consecrations of bishops and the "Eight Points" published in 1988 by the then prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, and in which the sacramental community with priests of the official church was forbidden.

The abolition of those guidelines and special powers was to contribute to overcome the existing splits and strengthen the internal unity of the Catholics in China. To bring the concerns of the Catholics of China more strongly into the interest of the whole church, the Pope at the end of the letter recommends a world-wide special prayer day for the church in China, which is to be held annually on 24 May, the anniversary of "Our Lady - Help of the Christians", who is venerated in the shrine Sheshan near Shanghai.

The first official reaction of the Chinese State Department after the appearance of the letter was terse. It was welcomed that on the part of the Vatican the desire for dialogue and establishing diplomatic relations was voiced. The speaker of the Ministry, Qin Gang, expressed the hope that the Vatican would take concrete measures and not establish new barriers. But then nevertheless only the somewhat helpless seeming repetition followed of the stereotyped always the same two demands, which one must already regard as a kind of "Mantra": namely breaking-off of the diplomatic relations with Taiwan and no interference into China's internal affairs.



Immediately after the publication of the Pope's letter the deputy chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, declared that his organization would not take on the spreading of the letter. After all, those interested could download the text from the Internet. But the state supervisory authorities seem to want to prevent just that, for they instructed the operators of Catholic websites to remove the text from their websites. Also the Vatican's website could no longer be contacted in the People's Republic of China.

After the first reading of the letter Liu Bainian then carefully gave his positive view on the tenor of the letter, which made clear that the Pope showed love and respect for the church in China and so substantially differed from other texts that had come from Rome in the past. In a later interview with UCAN, the Union of Catholic Asian News in Asia, however Liu Bainian adopts clearly sharper and rejecting tones. Provocatively stubbornly he declares that the practice "to elect and consecrate bishops" would be continued also in future until it had come to an agreement between the Vatican and Beijing.


The Future Role of the Patriotic Association

It became clear that this announcement was not an empty threat when on 16 July 2007 by a meeting of 50 priests, 20 nuns and 30 laymen the priest Joseph Li Shan was elected bishop of Beijing as successor of bishop Fu Tieshan. The election must still be approved by the Chinese Bishops' Conference, but this is only a formality. It will be of greater importance how that challenge so shortly after the Pope's letter is weighted by the Vatican.

With regard to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), whose principles of a "independent, autonomous and democratically administered church" were expressly rejected in the Pope's letter as "incompatible with the Catholic Church", Liu Bainian holds on to it that the Patriotic Association had not yet fulfilled its historical task. It did by no means place itself above the bishops, since the administering of sacraments remained the exclusive task of bishops and priests. It was the only task of the Patriotic Association to work as mediator between church and state. In this way it contributed that the government could better understand the Catholic Church.

This declaration on the task of the Patriotic Association is not compatible with the role that was and is actually played by it in the Catholic Church of China. After all its representatives, not least Liu Bainian himself, put time and again pressure on the bishops to consecrate against their will certain candidates bishops, and also otherwise intervened in a directing way in church tasks. For the Patriotic Association the publication of the Pope's letter comes at the worst time imaginable, for it is in the middle of the preparation for its fiftieth anniversary.

The clear condemnation of its basic principles of an "independent, autonomous church with self-government and democratic administration" questions the conception of itself of this organization in principle. At the latest now it must be clear for the people responsible in the Patriotic Association that with a possible under-standing between Rome and Beijing there can be no place for them in future.

The post of the chairman of the Chinese Bishops' Conference has been vacant for a long time, which up to his death Bishop Fu Tieshan of Beijing held as a deputy, apart from his function as president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. It is unfortunate that at present the Catholic Church in China so has no prominent bishops in leading positions. Within a year it lost by death three important bishops. On 20 April 2007 Michael Fu Tieshan died at the age of 76 years, who on 21 December 1979 as first bishop after the end of the Culture Revolution (1966-1976) without the Pope's approval had been consecrated bishop of Beijing.

He was often criticized because of his political functions as deputy chairmen of the Permanent Committee of the Congress of People of the Chinese Parliament and the Chinese Association for International Communication. After his death Bishop Fu was honoured by a state funeral, in which the highest personalities of the state, beginning with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jibao took part and acknowledged him as patriotic religious leader and close friend of China's communist party.

Fu Tieshan was no strong personality and for long periods a willing tool in the hand of the rulers who manipulated him to hold positions and to deliver declarations which were completely on the party line. His contribution for the building of the diocese Beijing with main focus on the training of priests remains on the credit side.

Bishop Li Duan of Xian, who died on 25 May 2006, was of a different sort. Because of his clear profession to the unity with the Pope and his steadfastness in standing up for Catholic principles the authorities saw him as a troublesome personality. In 1987 he was consecrated bishop of the diocese Xian. His main objective was the training of priests for whom he built a major and a minor seminary, the training of sisters, and very purposefully also the training of laymen in different disciplines. Thus he sent many students to Germany who with scholarships of the Katholischen Akademischen Ausländerdienstes (KAAD) (Catholic Academic Foreigner Service) here got their training.

By founding a Social Centre Bishop Li Duan skilfully managed to initiate in his diocese projects of Catholic social work, such as small hospitals and out-patient departments. Li Duan belonged to the four bishops who in September 2005 were invited by the Pope to the Bishops' Synod in Rome.



In Wuhan on 12 May 2007 Bishop Bernardin Dong Guanggjing died at the age of 90 years. He was one of the two first priests who in 1958 had been consecrated bishops - against the express will of the then Pope Pius XII. The co-operation with the state authorities for religion did not protect bishop Dong from persecution during the Culture Revolution. He was sentenced to forced labour for ten years. With the beginning of the reform politics under Deng Xiaoping bishop Dong could return to his diocese Wuhan. In 1984 he was again admitted to the full church community by John Paul II.

First voices from the Underground Church welcomed the Pope's letter. Some of them also gave positive views on the abolishment of all previous special instructions and orders, because with it clarity and the possibility of a new start was given. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong spoke of an "admirable balance between clarity in principles and politeness of expression" distinguishing the Pope's letter. Jeroom Heyndrickx, director of many years' standing of the Verbiest Donation in Löwen, calls the Pope's letter a "historical document" that crucially contributed to clarify the inner-church situation of China's Catholic Church and gave important stimuli for a normalization of the relations to the Chinese government.

The Pope's letter to the Chinese Catholics has a completely special nature and can without exaggeration be named a historical document for the Catholic Church in China. Different to previous statements from Rome the Pope avoids every accusation against the communist party or the government of China. On the contrary, the Pope recognizes that in the last years the situation regarding the freedom of religion had improved. The clarity of the analysis of the existing church conditions found in this letter remains moulded by a spirit of dialogue, despite the pointing out of the negative and with regard to the traditional doctrine of the church unacceptable points.

The abolition of all previous instructions regarding the acknowledgment of illegal bishops' consecrations and the sacraments- and church community establishes clear conditions. Only time will tell how the bishops, priests and faithful of the "Underground Church" will react. At any rate, the now given clear instruction is a hard nut to crack for them, since the great majority of them in the past avoided for theological and canonical reasons any liturgical community with state recognized bishops and priests. The instructions given now by the Pope should contribute to strengthen the inner unity among the Catholics in China. In all clarity the Pope sticks to it that there is only one Catholic Church in China and that only all bishops, no matter whether they are officially recognized by the state or not, can form the Chinese Bishops' Conference.


    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In this capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.


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