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The Chinese Letter

The Catholics in the People's Republic
and Vatican's Attempts of Dialogue with Peking


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 28/2007, P. 230
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


In his for months announced, now published letter to the Chinese Catholics Pope Benedict XVI has called to overcome the politically caused splitting of the there church by persistent dialogue and communication. About half of the approximately thirteen million Catholics of the People's Republic - of 1.3 billion inhabitants - numbers to the so-called official church that is steered by Peking via the "Patriotic Association of the Chinese Catholic Church" and rejects supervision by the Pope. Besides there is the non-official, often shortly called "underground church", the members of which recognize the Pope's entire, also legal authority. Many faithful, priests, bishops experienced grave persecution by the communist atheist cadres and authorities - but not only in this "underground"-branch of the despite everything one church. Besides the boundaries" are time and again absolutely fluid. There are for example many state appointed bishops of the official church, who were subsequently also recognized by the Pope. And there are faithful who feel at home here and there.

Pope Benedict XVI writes now: "As highest pastor of the universal church I would like to show sincerest thanks to the Lord for the testimony of loyalty given by the Catholic community in China in suffering under really difficult circumstances. At the same time I feel as my inner and indispensable duty and as expression of my fatherly love the urgency to encourage the Chinese Catholics in their faith and to promote their unity with the church's means of its own."

The Pope appreciates in the fifty eight-page document the culture of the Chinese people, "for which I cherish high esteem and feel friendship". He praises the "splendour of its millennium-old culture with all its wisdom and philosophical, scientific and artistic experience".

The letter has two parts. In the first one Benedict XVI deals understandingly with the difficult situation of the Chinese Christians. He criticizes the state control of church affairs, demands "genuine freedom of religion", and talks about the persecutions of Christians. In the way of Biblical-theological argumentation he at the same time mentions the disputed question of the consecration of bishops arranged by the co-operation of the state authority for religious affairs and "Patriotic Association" but not authorized by the Vatican. They contradicted the principle of church unity.


Rites Controversy once and Cleansing of Memory today

The Pope affirms several times that the church community and the unity with the Vatican are "substantial and integral elements" of the Catholic understanding of faith. That was why the suggestion of a church working "independently" of the papal authority was "in the religious sphere incompatible with the Catholic doctrine". The Pope's admonition is also directed to the inside: bishops, priests and faithful as unity are the expression of Jesus Christ's mystical body. In view of the inner-church conflicts between "official" and "underground church" Benedict XVI reminds of his predecessor John Paul II: Genuine community was not possible without "toilsome struggle for reconciliation". He indirectly also touched the so-called Rites Controversy lasting from 1610 to 1744. It was an inner-church conflict about the question whether the Chinese (and Indians) who converted to Christianity were allowed to keep up their rites and ceremonies of the handed down religions, in particular the veneration of the ancestors; in this question Rome asserted itself against the Jesuits' open attitude. The Pope reminds of the Church's confession of guilt in the year 2000 and emphasizes that forgiveness is the precondition for "cleansing one's memory".

In the second part the Pope deals in detail with "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care", and goes into administering of the sacraments, training of priests, bishops' conference, leading of adults to the faith. In the end Benedict XVI expresses the desire to find in the context of a respectful and open dialogue between bishops and Vatican on the one side and state authorities on the other side ways of a "beneficial agreement", which "is of use" to the church and the social living together. The letter is also meant as offer to prepare the way for a compromise between government and Vatican.

Already before the publication of the Pope's letter the political leadership of the People's Republic of China had co-ordinated its reaction. As the press agency "Asia News" reports, the bishops organized in the "Patriotic Association" were called up to discuss "counter measures". "Asia News" compared the strategy with the procedure during the sanctification of 120 Chinese martyrs by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000. At that time the political leadership had forced this group of bishops to a public protest. This makes clear that the Chinese leadership, the party, still rejects the Vatican's claim to be head of the universal church, and interference - as the party sees it - into internal affairs and Chinese self-determination. Principal reasons for the unfavourable attitude of the People's Republic are the Vatican embassy in Taiwan - which however Rome would be ready to move to Peking -, and the appointment of bishops by the Pope. This is a urgent problem for the church, because sixty of the approximately hundred bishops are meanwhile over eighty years old.


New Chances for Diplomacy?

Government spokesman Qin Gang repeated the refusal. At the same time he avoided in his choice of words an exaggerated sharpness. A hidden diplomatic signal? Anyway he said: China was still ready to improve and normalize its relationship with the Vatican. This time the "Patriotic Association", which otherwise is not sparing with sharp criticism of the Vatican, in a first statement reacted in an amazingly benevolent manner. The deputy chairman Liu Bainian even expressly welcomed the letter. It made clear the Pope's positive attitude to the church of China and pleasantly differed from the Vatican's previous attitude. On the other hand the state authorities seem to have prevented the spreading of the letter in the Chinese Internet. The homepage of the Vatican could no longer be contacted in China. People who run Catholic Websites in China and had placed the letter on their homepage were visited by representatives of the authorities and immediately deleted the respective references.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong called the letter "historically important". He hopes that Peking will now better understand the "unchangeable nature of the Catholic Church", and that China's bishops and priests can - with the help of this document - find a common point of view for the dialogue with the state.

Bishop Julius Jia Zhi-guo of Zhengding, who belongs to the "Underground Church" and was up to 22 June of this year in detention, is rather sceptical. He fears that the authorities will still use tactics to provoke splittings of the church. These attempts had existed since the fifties of the last century. Also with regard to the approximation to the bishops of the "official" church Jia remained reserved. The "Patriotic Association" is an "instrument of the government". Some "official" bishops were afraid of contacting the bishops faithful to Rome. They lacked the courage, because they too were constantly under surveillance.

Archabbott Jeremias Schröder of the Benedictine abbey Sankt Ottilien, which for years has cultivated good contacts to China, reports that many Chinese Christians had expected the letter with anxiety: "Is our life perhaps from afar been made still more difficult?", people wondered. The positive basic tone lets hope that China's government will grasp the Pope's stretched out hand.

The Steyl missionary Anton Weber and specialist of the respected China Centre in Sankt Augustin thinks very highly of the Pope's letter. It became clear: what matters for the church is the well-being of the faithful. But time would have to tell whether the letter could overcome the Red-Chinese authorities' "fear" of all the signs of a religious awakening in the country.


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