Rome (AsiaNews) – The Chinese government is embarrassed and unhappy about the Pope’s letter to Chinese Catholics. Among the faithful in both the official and underground Church the letter caused a great deal of enthusiasm. Official bishops have not yet made any comment however.
In China reactions among Catholics and non Catholics to Benedict XVI’s letter to the clergy and the faithful have varied but were more or less as expected. There was much enthusiasm and a renewed sense of fidelity to the Holy See among official and underground Catholics. But official bishops have been careful because of the tight controls under which they operate.
A few hours after the publication of the Pope’s letter about “truth and love,” Church unity and the need for religious freedom protection, the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Beijing released a terse communiqué that, without taking into account what is for many one of the most beautiful letters ever sent by a Pope to the faithful in China, expressed hope that the letter would not create any more obstacles in the Sino-Vatican dialogue. The statement reiterated China’s two pre-conditions to the restoration of diplomatic relations, namely the “Vatican must sever its so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China,” and promise that it will “never interfere in China's internal affairs, including in the name of religion.”
This in itself for some experts is a sign of modest progress. In the past Chinese reactions to Vatican initiatives were much harsher.
The canonisation in 2000 of Chinese martyrs is one example. At that time Beijing launched a violent campaign against the Vatican, including personal attacks against the Pope, arrests of underground bishops and forcing official bishops to toe the line.
The subdued albeit predictable response (the two pre-conditions have been repeated for the past 20 years) shows at least a certain government embarrassment vis-à-vis the Pontiff’s inalienable demands on Episcopal appointments and real religious freedom.
As a token of courtesy, the Holy See provided the Chinese government with a copy of the letter ten days before its publication.
For some observers a subdued reaction is evidence that the country’s leadership is divided between those who want to modernise it and those who want to maintain a Stalinist hold, including over the Church. In fact, China’s Foreign Affairs and Religious Affairs Ministries have already expressed different points of view in the past.
Whilst the government responded last Thursday and Friday to the publication of the papal letter in mild tones, the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China met most official bishops in Huairou, near Beijing, instructing them to keep calm about what the letter said.
Ye Xiaowen, director of the state Council's State Administration for Religious Affairs, was there. He supposedly addressed the participants telling them that “[w]e have served you with maotai, the best liquor in China. After drinking it, you no longer need foreign wine,” which is one way of reasserting the plan to set up an independent Chinese Catholic Church, something that the Pope cannot countenance since it is contrary to Catholic doctrine.
By contrast, there is a lot of rejoicing among believers in both the official and underground Church.
“They don’t want us to show our enthusiasm and our unity with the Pope,” a Beijing catholic told AsiaNews, but “we are happy about the letter and the Pope’s condemnation of the Patriotic association.”
Formally known as the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), this entity was created by Mao with the explicit goal of controlling China’s Catholic community. Many of its officials are not even Catholic.
Among the faithful issues like the family are important. Removing special prerogatives from (underground) bishops and priests is another and so is the suggestion to all bishops that they set up all the necessary diocesan structures that are typical of the Catholic Church like diocesan administrations and pastoral councils, etc.
Conversely, Liu Bainian, CPCA deputy chairman, said that his organisation would not distribute the letter. This would make it difficult for the Church to do it on its own because religious publications need government authorisation. Liu noted that Catholics can download the text from internet but in recent days the Vatican website has not been easily accessible in China.
So far official bishops have not made any public comments about the letter, fearful perhaps of what the Pope’s categorical refusal to accept CPCA’s control of the Church might do.