12/10/2012, 00.00
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Five years on, the Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics still relevant

by Angelo S. Lazzarotto
The line proposed by Benedict XVI in his letter, laying down the tracks for reconciliation of the official and underground communities and a friendly and frank dialogue with the government. The appointment of bishops and space for freedom of witness for the Church in society are the basic requirements for true religious freedom. The leadership’s embarrassment, often dominated by the more radical elements. The analysis of a missionary expert on China.

Milan (AsiaNews) -Five years have passed since Pope Benedict XVI addressed a special Letter "to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China". Looking at the Chinese local Church today, one may be tempted to emphasize the many problems she seems to be confronted with, forgetting the positive sides of her growth. Yet, a closer look at the changes that occurred since Pentecost 2007 can help us to better appreciate the lasting value of this papal document[1].

Even the fact that the Catholic communities in China appear today to have become a special target of the official structures can be read as a sign that some ambiguities are finally being exposed, calling for a basic riassessment. Benedict XVI's main concern is the Church: speaking "the truth with the language of love" has made clear that within the Catholic community there is a need for a true conversion: "the purification of memory, the pardoning of wrongdoers, the forgetting of injustices suffered...are urgent steps that must be taken". He then also underlined in a gentle and yet clear way that the current situation of "religious tolerance" is far from the "religious freedom" that is expected of a modern State.

This in the hope that some understanding may be reached, allowing the Catholic minority to contribute peacefully to the common good of the nation.  Having revoked long-standing Vatican directives that made sharp distinctions allowing  barriers to be set up between the so called 'underground' Catholics and those  who adhere to the government sponsored Catholic Patriotic Association, the Pope showed the sincerity of his asking for "a respectful and open dialogue" with the civil authorities. He thus stressed his conviction  that the solution of the outstanding questions would favour the growth of the desirable "harmonious society" in China.

Warm reception by Chinese Catholics

As is well known, the Catholic communities in mainland China welcomed this most authoritative encouragement as a ray of light and hope, with some reservation from unofficial groups. And initial statements from public authorities were somehow cautious; the Letter was not explicitly condemned, but initiatives to study and distribute it were soon restricted.

Reports coming from mainland China highlighted remarkably different situations in the various provinces.  From Qiqihar (Heilongjiang), young unofficial bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi, 48, soon after receiving this "milestone in the development of the Church in China" was able to comment upon it in a special pastoral letter, asking some 30 priests in his communities to see with their faithful how to apply the Pope's directives. As he stated a couple of months later, even the Qiqihar authority in charge of religious affairs, to whom he presented copy of the papal document, expressed appreciation for it.   But he also admitted that some of his own "clandestine" priests did not approve of his collaboration with the authorities.

In the North-Western Feng Xiang diocese (Shaanxi), Bishop Lucas Li Jingfeng, 87, distribuited copies of the original Chinese translation of the papal Letter to his priests and offered it also to the local government office.   His diocese even in the past did not experience harsh control from the Patriotic Association. He himself, having been ordained as a bishop in 1980 (wthout government approval), was recognized by the authorities in 2004 without having to join the Association. Yet he thinks that, should the government not accept the positions expressed by the Pope, things could worsen: "we know how difficult it may be to reach a compromise". Also in Xi'an, where there are  practically no underground communities, bishop Anthony Dang Mingyan espressed satisfaction over the positive fruits of the papal Letter, which  was  making contacts and dialogue easier.

In the sensitive Hebei province, Petrus Feng Xinmao, 44, coadiutor bishop approved by both the Holy See and the authorities,   said that in his Hengshui diocese the papal Letter could circulate freely.  In Xuanhua diocese (also Hebei), at a solemn Mass attended by one thousand Catholics for the Feast of the Assumption (August 15), the papal Letter was presented at the Offertory, and an appeal for unity was stressed.  In the same Hebei province, unofficial bishop (well known to the Public Security forces) Jiulius Jia Zhiguo, 75,  soon after the publication of the Letter underlined the important issue of unity inside the Church, pointing to the pressure exercized by the State as the real problem. Only the government could limit the power of the Patriotic Association. But I am afraid - he added - that we cannot expect much with regard to the State-Church relations, as practically nothing has changed in the Chinese political field since Mao's times. 

According to a young priest from an "underground" community in Northern China who studied abroad, the Letter will have "a decisive impact on the future development of the Church in China", and he agrees that "the most urgent mission of the Church in China is now reconciliation". He laments the fact that the Pope, as pastor of the Universal Church, does not mention the bishops and priests still suffering in prison.  Priests in the official Church structure have welcomed the Letter with caution, though appreciating it.  It is generally believed that most Chinese priests, sisters and lay Catholics have read the Pope's Letter and got a copy.

Muddled public reactions

The Beijing government was not caught unprepared, as the Holy See had sent them copy of the Letter ten days before publication. With the document about to appear, the United Front took the initiative of calling a meeting of the "official bishops",   warning them to keep a "calm attitude".  Just in those days, the 50th anniversary of founding the Catholic Patriotic Association was celebrated with a symposium, and then (June 27-28) with a bigger gathering of 500 participants, including 37 bishops. This was addressed by Ye Xiaowen, Liu Bainian, Jia Qinglin (president of the CPPCC), vice-premier Hui Liangyu and the head of the United Front Department, Liu Yandong.

At local level, as mentioned, the first reaction of the authorities was not  uniform. But soon, the Pope's Letter disappeared from the Catholic web-sites; some operators that had carried it were "persuaded" by a visit of government officials to withdraw it.  In fact, the Hebei Public Security Bureau is known to have prepared in August 2007 an elaborate document in the form of  Study Material.  Besides blaming the Pope  for having "unilaterally  issued his pastoral letter disregarding China's objections", it  went on repeating old accusations: "The Roman Curia places all the blame on the Chinese side. The Letter interferes in China's internal affairs in the name of freedom of religion".

Then, in October the United Front Department with  SARA issued stringent guidelines, describing  the Pope's  Letter as a Vatican infiltration  attempt and a challenge to China's sovereignty. Distribution of the Letter was to be stopped,  web-sites blocked, its publication forbidden and private copies seized.  The clergy should be intimidated with sessions of brainwashing.  The organization of control  should be activated and intensified at all levels, with the participation of all interested parties: United Front,  Offices of Religious Affairs, Public Security, State Security, Department of Propaganda. The collection of information  should be intensified to know more about local situations, both at home and abroad.  Senior officials, however, should  remain silent, not to embarrass the Central Authority.  In the same month of October  news from Guangxi auhonomous province confirmed that in Nanning  a campaign was  launched against the  Vatican "penetration" in the life of the Church. In the nearby district of Qingxiu,  copies of a parish bulletin that carried parts of the Letter were seized and destroyed. The Religious Affairs office set up even an emergency group comprising over 12 government agencies, to combat the spread of the Letter, labelled  "(Vatican) instrument that damages the country and the people". Many obligatory political sessions were organized all over China for Catholic priests, and about a dozen of them were known to have been arrested. 

On the other hand, with the Olympic Games due to start in the Summer 2008, the State apparatus obviously wanted to avoid any controversy at the international level. This probably contributed  to keep the central  government reaction low profile, though critical. Another circumstance  to bear in mind is the fact that the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was just about to be convened. When it  was held in October (15-20), for the first time a  resolution was approved to incorporate guidelines  into the Party's charter,  assuring implementation of the policy  of religious freedom and promotion of an active role for religious circles in advancing social and economic development.  Yet, obviously also the order to stop the papal Letter  was issued by Beijing authorities. The director of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARA) Ye Xiaowen appeared particularly bitter. He made an unusually strong attack against  the Catholic Church  and Pope Benedict's Letter in an interview  with the Nanfang Weekend newspaper  (published on 13 March 2008).

After two  years of apparent lull, a sudden  clash

The following time till the end of 2010  seemed not to give particular cause  for  concern.  Several dioceses felt encouraged to renew or multiply their  evangelization efforts and pastoral formation programs. Also on the critical issue of choosing new bishops, where the Catholic  community  proved  sufficiently determined and united,  even with the "democratic election" system it was possible to  reach a practical agreement on candidates acceptable both  to Rome and Beijing. So, in  the months following the publication of the papal Letter,  five young bishops were ordained (including those in important cities like Beijing and Guangzhou), approved by both the Holy See and the government. Then, in  the years 2008 and 2009 no new bishop was ordained (was  the difficult  issue being debated at high level ?), while up to  the middle of November in 2010 ten new episcopal ordinations were agreed upon by both government side and  Holy See.

The situation dramatically changed, as  is well known, on 20 November 2010, when father Joseph  Guo Jincai who had not received the approval of the Holy Father was  forcefully ordained bishop of Chengde (Hebei). The Holy See, very disturbed by the news, expressed with a Communiqué the "deep regret" of the  Holy Father, reaffirming however the willingness "to engage in a respectful  and constructive dialogue with the Authorities of the P.R.C...".  Unfortunately, when the VIII Assembly of Catholic Representatives  was  convened in Beijing  (7-9 December 2010) with massive support of police, it became all too clear that a serious confrontation policy had been decided.

As is also known, the situation further deteriorated in  2011. In fact, although four new bishops were also ordained with the approval of both the  Holy See and the  Chinese authorities, there were two more episcopal ordinations imposed without  papal approval, in  Leshan - Sichuan  (29 June) and Shantou - Guangdong (14 July). These were carried out with the usual  support of the security forces, who pressured  bishops in  good standing to go and perform these illicit ordinations. Consequently, both cases were met with official statements by the Holy See, declaring that a serious  canonical sanction (excommunication) was incurred in the norm of Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law. Immediate and very strong was the official Beijing reaction.

After a SARA evaluation meeting held in Haikou, Hainan, the determination  was confirmed (on 24 January, 2011) to "guide the 'one Association and one Conference' of the Catholic Church to fully implement the spirit of the 8th National Assembly of Catholic Representatives, strengthen the efforts in education for administering the Church autonomously and independently as well as education in its democratic management, and  also deepen the formation of more that 1,000 members of the clergy through organizing  six training courses for them".

A leading article published in the People's Daily Online (June 8, 2011) explained "Why the Chinese Communist Party can unite religious believers".  The author was Ye Xiaowen, who since 2009 had left the SARA direction to become  Party Secretary of the Central Institute of Socialism; obviously his influence on the official religious policy continues.  His successor as director of the Religious Affairs Office, Wang Zuo'an, at a press conference held in Washington (September 28, 2011) stated that "China wants to conduct a sincere dialogue with the Vatican",  based on the usual "Two Principles"[2].   A few weeks earlier (on July 4, 2011), SARA had announced  new  "Norms for the appointment of Parish Priests of the Catholic Church in China", with immediate effect. It is difficult not  to see here an interference  of  the State in a matter traditionally regulated  by the Code of Canon Law and clearly considered all over the world  as pertaining  to the internal life of the Church.

There were also new reports of persecution of priests in the "underground," especially in North Hebei, with  the authorities taking them away and trying to force them to join the Patriotic Association. On the other hand, privileges and generous contributions  were made available to induce priests and bishops to accept the official religious policy as more profitable for the Church growth, besides assuring substantial personal benefits to  them and their families. This double pressure was supported also by numerous  seminars,  study sessions  and written contributions published on the official magazine Catholic Church in China, trying to justify theologically the policy of "the self election and self-consecration of bishops"[3].

In such climate, it cannot be excluded that some bishops may  begin to feel that it might be better to take the side of the Chinese government, which keeps assuring  that the Catholic Church in China would continue to  expand  even without  Rome. As a matter of fact, often such bishops found  themselves isolated by their priests, sisters, and faithful, thus practically ineffectual in their pastoral endeavour.

In 2012:  the horizon is still covered by heavy clouds

The year started with the State Administration for Religious Affairs reporting  progress in the record filing of clerics and in achieving financial supervision over places of worship (January 9, 2012)[4].  In April 2012, two new ordinations were performed, approved both by the Holy See and the Chinese official organizations:   Joseph Chen Gongao, 47, was made bishop of Nanchong (Sichuan), and Methodius Qu Ailin, 51, bishop of Changsha (Hunan). But also at their consecration the presence of bishops in seriously irregular situation was imposed.  At the end of the month, the Patriotic Association and the official Bishops' Conference hosted (at the National Seminary in Beijing, June 27-28) a confer­ence on the Second Vatican Council, which was claimed, by Zhou Yongzhi Vice-Secretary General of the PACC, to be the basis for the  independent, self-governed Chinese Church. Another Vice-Secretary General of the PA, Wang Huaimao, declared at the conference that China, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, was a decade ahead of its times in introducing the reforms of the 1950s [i.e., the creation of the Patriotic Association in 1957 and the first episcopal consecration without Papal mandate in 1958]: according to him, those Chinese initiatives served as a practical demonstration and as stepping stones for the progressive spirit of the Council ( !!).

A new serious clash developed on Friday 6 July, when  father Joseph Yue Fusheng was ordained a bishop in Harbin (Heilongjiang) without pontifical mandate and hence illicitly. A Note of the Congregation for  the Evangelization  had warned a couple of days earlier that such action "planned in a unilateral way would produce divisions, wounds and tensions in the Catholic Community in China". Quoting from Benedict XVI's Letter (n. 9), the Note added: "It is understandable that governmental authorities are attentive to the choice of those who will carry out the important role of leading and shepherding the local Catholic communities, given the social implications which - in China as in the rest of the world - this function has in the civil sphere as well as the spiritual". But it should be recalled that "the appointment of Bishops touches the very heart of the life of the Church, inasmuch as the appointment of Bishops by the Pope is the guarantee of the unity of the Church and of hierarchical communion"[5]. The Note insisted that appointing Bishops is a religious  question, not a political one: " The appointment of Bishops for a particular religious community is understood, also in international documents, as a constitutive element of the full exercise of the right to religious freedom". Less than 24 hours later, on July 4, the Chinese authorities responded sharply with a SARA statement, that dismissed the Vatican warning as "extremely outrageous and shocking". And, as the ordination of Yue Fusheng went ahead as planned, the Holy See had no alternative but declaring that he had automatically incurred the sanctions laid down by canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law, and was lacking the authority to govern the priests and the Catholic community in the Province of Heilongjiang. Yet, the official  statement concluded : "The Apostolic See, trusting in the concrete willingness of the Government Authorities of China to dialogue with the Holy See, hopes that the said authorities will not encourage gestures contrary to such dialogue".

Soon after, on July 7  in the Shanghai Cathedral, at Xujiahui, also a new auxiliary bishop for that diocese was ordained, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, 45. Although his appointment was approved by both parties,  the  tension that developed with regard to this ceremony is proving  potentially loaded with heavy  consequences. Bishop Ma Daqin was taken away by the authorities immediately after his ordination and is still confined at the Sheshan Regional Seminary, forbidden to  perform his duties and to meet people. 


What to expect now?

Five years after Benedict XVI  addressed  his long paternal Letter to the Church in China, its positive impact on the life of the Catholic communities is confirmed by the many initiatives responding to the Pope's guidelines both in the pastoral field and in evangelization programs. During the current "Year of Faith",  this effort is expected to give priority to the formation of lay faithful, as well as the ongoing formation of priests, seminarians, and religious sisters. 

The present essay is paying more attention to the challenges posed by the "guidance" of political powers over the Chinese Church. It is obvious that, if the government insists to impose more illegitimate episcopal ordinations, the Catholic Church in China could become "a State Church" guided by the government, thus changing her very nature. Besides, the sudden and unexpected crisis in the Shanghai diocese has burst a long standing equivocation of the official religious policy. In fact,  to trigger the government's wrath in Shanghai  has been  just the publicly declared decision of  bishop Ma Daqin to resign from the Patriotic Association (which he had never voluntarily joined) in order to concentrate  on his pastoral duties. Over the years a situation had  tacitly developed making it obvious that, to be accepted as a bishop or a qualified member of the officially approved Church,  one would need to be a member of the Patriotic Association. And this is a particularly  serious problem. The Shanghai  official bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, already  97 years old, when expressing publicly his appreciation for the Pope's Letter five years ago, could add that in his almost two decades long episcopal experience in Shanghai,  "the Patriotic Association never stepped over me". Yet now,  Bishop Ma's confinement confirms how the Patriotic Association is "stepping over" the bishops also in Shanghai.

In recent decades such ambiguous policy favored the growth of many "clandestine" communities, anxious to safeguard the integrity of their faith. The Holy Father, besides stating that "the clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church's life",  adds 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" (7.8).  On the other hand, due to the variety of local situations, the Pope did not offer specific instructions on the matter, living it to the discretionary judgement of the various bishops. The  extreme difficulty to find workable solutions became clear in the case of Baoding diocese (Hebei); when underground coadjutor bishop Francis An Shuxin "surfaced" after 10 years in police custody, he was under strong pressure by SARA  to join  the Patriotic Association, and his subsequent acceptance to become the official diocesan  bishop caused a  further  split in  the local community. As Pope Benedict denounced in his Letter: "Still today, 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..."(7.1).  This is a serious matter, as the declared purpose of the PACC, to implement "the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church", is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine, which from the time of the ancient Creeds professes the Church" (7.6).

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who last year  became the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in an  recent interview (30 Giorni, May 2012)  suggested that Party or govern­ment officials should be open to accept the  criteria proper to the Church for the selection  of bishops: "This is not an order of the Pope", he explained, because the bishops as successors of the apostles are expected to be faithful to the Church's doc­trine. Naturally, as citizens, they need also to be loyal to their homeland, "giving to Caesar what is Caesar's": but not at the expense of what is due to God. 

Such principle of separation between Church and State may not be easily accepted in China, with a tradition of imperial absolute power and a Communist ideology not recognizing to "gods" any special right. Besides, daily experience shows how easily national pride and defense of sovereignty can be made use of for political reasons or personal interest. According to some observers, certain decisions of the last couple of years affecting negatively the Church and claiming to contrast hostile foreign intrusions were inspired by ultra-leftist factions. The media, both in China and abroad, have given recently ample evidence of a dangerous revival of Maoist revolutionary methods, inducing some people to consider ideology an unsurmountable wall in China.  In the words of Roman Malek, a scholar with great experience, we can't change the Communist system,  but the system will change.

In the running up to the XVIII Party Congress due to convene in Beijing on 8 November, the prevailing climate appears to be hopefully moving away from such "leftist" orientation. There is sincere expectation that the new generation of leaders called to govern this great nation for the coming decades will privilege programs of harmonious growth based on social justice, respectful also of the identity of minority religious groups.

A light for a difficult road

The latest stimulating reflection written by Cardinal Filoni for our magazine[6] deserves great attention. On reviewing the present situation five years after the pastoral Letter addressed to the Catholics in the China by Pope Benedict XVI, His Eminence underlines the clear orientation it provided to the life of the Church and to the evangelization ministry, showing the pressing need to achieve unity within the communities. The Cardinal dwells amply also on the present difficulties with the Chinese authorities, drawing from his rich experience as head of the Vatican Study Mission in Hong Kong. He does not hide his admiration for the economic development of China which he could witness directly during some visits to Beijing. But he treasures also the quality of the Catholics he has known: "How often have my Chinese friends shared with me their pride in belonging to their own country. Yet, they feel humiliated as Catholics in their own house, while being greatly esteemed and appreciated elsewhere!". He explains: "One time an elderly Chinese priest told me: "We Catholics in China are only given the freedom of a bird in a cage!"

Cardinal Filoni is convinced that the Chinese Authorities can no more be deaf to the cry of so many of their own citizens, and augurs a reconciliation between Rome and Beijing that  could benefit both  China and the Holy See: "Has not the time arrived for thinking about a new way for dialogue, a dialogue that is even more open and carried out on a more equitable basis, where it would no longer be possible for particular interests to undermine good will, trust and mutual esteem?". The fact that the Holy Father himself  publicly declared (in this Letter) the readiness of the Holy See "to negotiations, so necessary if the difficulties of the present time  are to be overcome...",  is a most authoritative  and clear statement that can be expected: "Let China rest assured that the Catholic Church sincerely proposes to offer, once again, humble and disinterested service in the areas of her competence, for the good of Chinese Catholics and for the good of all the inhabitants of the country" (n. 4).

The formula suggested by Cardinal  Filoni to resume the interrupted dialogue is the setting up of a bilateral "high level" Commission  qualified to deal with "questions of mutual interest". The existence of  ideological differences  should  not be an absolute obstacle to dialogue when the parties are seeking the real good of the people, as is shown by two cases mentioned by the Cardinal: "For example. The Holy See and Vietnam have found a modus operandi et progrediendi.[7] Even Beijing and Taipei have stable commissions at the highest level to deal with questions of mutual interest. Is it not possible to hope for a suitable and sincere dialogue with China?"

Such hope is evident in Cardinal Filoni's conclusion: "The Pope's Letter to the Chinese clergy and faithful remains valid. ...It can be a point of departure for a dialogue within the Church in China. It can also stimulate dialogue between the Holy See and the Government in Beijing".

To us believers, this is also a matter for prayer. Let us address the Mother of Jesus, venerated at Sheshan near Shanghai, with the words suggested by Pope Benedict XVI on 24 May 2008[8]: "Mother of hope, in the darkness of Holy Saturday you journeyed with unfailing trust towards the dawn of Easter. Grant that your children may discern at all times, even those that are darkest, the signs of God's loving presence".

 Angelo S. Lazzarotto


[1] This reflection was written in English for the quarterly magazine TRIPOD Hong Kong (No. 167, Winter 2012).

[2] They were usually so expressed: 1) the Vatican must sever its diplomatic relations with Taiwan; and 2) the Vatican must not in­terfere in China's internal affairs under the pretext of religious affairs.

[3] See on this delicate question Tripod n. 165, in which some of these spurious studies were refuted.

[4] According to the report, practically all religious office holders have been officially recognized and filed in ten province level administration units, including Beijing, while in other units, including Shanghai and Guangzhou, process was under way. Most of the national religious organizations had also issued "ID cards for religious office holders" to the majority of those filed.  Then, on June 5, SARA released (for trial implementation) a new document touching directly on the life of the Church: " Measures for Reporting Bishops of the Chinese Catholic Church for the Record". Its content and implication are not yet clear, but it gives to the Patriotic Association and to the official Bishops' Conference the leading role in the man­datory filing of applications for the record with the State authorities.

[5] The Note went on quoting from the Pope's Letter also the juridical consequences: "For this reason the Code of Canon Law (cf. c. 1382) lays down grave sanctions both for the Bishop who freely confers episcopal ordination without an apostolic mandate and for the one who receives it: such an ordination in fact inflicts a painful wound upon ecclesial communion and constitutes a grave violation of canonical discipline". In fact, "when the Pope  issues the apostolic mandate for the ordination of a Bishop, exercises his supreme spiritual authority: this authority and this intervention remain within the strictly religious sphere. It is not, therefore, a question of a political authority, unduly asserting itself in the internal affairs of a State and offending against its sovereignty".

[6] The article written for TRIPOD was made public in Rome by Fides news service and AsiaNews  on  25 October last. See: Card Filoni: Pope's Letter to the Church in China still waiting for an answer

[7] It is worth noting that just five years ago (Sept. 28, 2007) Vietnamese Cardinal Phan Minh Man, bishop of Ho Chi Minh City, who was leading a five- member delegation to China, stated in Beijing: "From my meetings with Chinese officials, I got the impression that they  hope the Church in Vietnam can help China and the vatican under stand each other's point of view". Ref. AsiaNews 13/11/2012 Vietnam-Holy See relations, a model for China-Vatican talks

[8] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/prayers/documents/hf_ben-xvi_20080515_prayer-sheshan_en.html  Link to Holy Father's Prayer for the Church in China


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