Pastoral directives of Pope Benedict XVI for China

An analysis by Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who has served as an informal Vatican emissary to the Chinese Church since the early 1980s

The pastoral letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholic Church in China, published in June 2007 is remarkable and historic for its content as well as for its style. The pope speaks like a father to Chinese Catholics, with respect to Chinese authorities and to both he puts forward clear principles. In carefully chosen words he expresses his understanding for the sufferings of the “underground community” which refuses to cooperate with the government but also for the “official community” and for their decision to cooperate. He expresses some fundamental theological principles and asks both communities to reconcile while calling on civil authorities to enter into dialogue to cross beyond misunderstandings of the past.

The letter is remarkable for its content because it gives a clear answer to the burning pastoral questions which have divided the Chinese Church internally since twenty years and which, after all the confusing discussions in the past, only Rome is able to clarify. The answer of Pope Benedict XVI comes down to the following: There is only one Chinese Catholic Church and it is faithful to the Holy See. Bishops and priests of both communities may concelebrate, though I encourage them to first express among them their unity by a profession of faith. For the Church to live underground is not a normal situation. There is no reason to continue to keep an underground Church community going in China. I therefore revoke all privileges which in the past were conferred to the underground community in China. Chinese faithful may participate in the Eucharist also of priests of the official Church community.

The pope expresses these pastoral guidelines after he, in a first part of the 26 page letter, exposed at length some basic theological principles on communion of particular Churches with the universal Church, on reconciliation, on the need of dialogue and cooperation in charity and truth between Church and State while giving to God and to Cesar respectively what belongs to each.

Already in January 2007 the pope had promised that he would write a letter to the Catholic Church in China. Ever since then they awaited this letter impatiently; and so did civil authorities. There was even some tension. All planned ordinations and other important Church activities were postponed till after the letter of the pope; even though this was not expressed in these words. The causes of this uncertainty in China were the calls for confrontation with Chinese authorities which had been encouraged by Church authorities outside the mainland and also the illicit Episcopal ordinations that happened in China in 2006 and when Chinese bishops, recognized by Rome, were forced to participate in the ordination. Everybody wondered: will the pope in his letter threaten to apply canonical sanctions for illicit ordinations that might happen in the future? Or will the letter be rather a friendly though urgent call for unity and dialogue?

These questions were not the main worry of the large majority of Chinese Catholics who live in remote places in the country side. For them the vital question has been since decades: may we yes or no participate in the Eucharistic celebration of the “open” (official) Church communities? Do we commit mortal sin if we do, as we were taught? So much confusion has been caused by what was said, preached and written about these questions that only the highest Church authority could give a clear answer. This happened in the pastoral letter. The pope says: there is only one Catholic Church in China. Chinese Catholics should peacefully celebrate  the Eucharist together.

But there is more in the letter. The pope admonishes the official bishops who have been appointed by the Holy See, to make their appointment public. Apparently they did not make that sufficiently clear in the past. He does not speak a warning language to those bishops who did not obtain an appointment of the pope but he asks them to clarify now their relation to Peter. Underground bishops are encouraged to apply for recognition by civil authorities. An underground Church “is not a normal and lasting situation” for the Catholic Church, says the pope. All bishops should now unite so that Rome can finally recognize officially the already existing Chinese Bishops Conference. Till now this cannot be done because the underground bishops are not members while some other members of the conference are not appointed by Rome.

The pastoral letter touches here upon an extremely delicate point related to the Church-State relation. The letter suggests that the present statutes of the Chinese Bishops Conference still need to be amended. In the present situation one “entity desired by the State” – apparently referring to the Patriotic Association – stands above the bishops and makes important pastoral decisions, some even related to the appointment of bishops. It directs in fact the Church. This situation takes the pastoral authority away from the bishops, which is against Catholic teaching: “Only a legitimate Episcopal Conference can formulate pastoral guidelines, valid for the entire Catholic community of the country concerned.”

The pastoral letter contains more concrete pastoral guidelines than many of us may have anticipated; but they are all important, useful guidelines urgently needed in the Chinese local Church. Priests are reminded that they should be incardinated in one clearly defined diocese. Dioceses with a limited number of priests and which experience difficulty in finding a candidate-bishop are encouraged to call on the help of neighboring bishops to find alternative candidates. Bishops are reminded to put up in their dioceses the required structures that promote cooperation and dialogue in pastoral work, such as: the diocesan curia, the presbyteral council, the college of consultors, the diocesan pastoral council, financial commission. The letter even refers to the importance of registering Church properties on the name of the Church and not on the name of individual persons. It all shows how well the Holy See is informed about the concrete needs of the Church in China.

The pope pleads for the principle of separation between Church and State, a relation in charity and truth, which must be realized through open dialogue. However he introduces some points which, from the side of the Church are not discussable.  The proposal to establish a Church independent from the Holy See is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. The principle that bishops must be appointed by the successor of Peter is crucial for the Church, since only appointments by the pope assure the unity of the Church and the apostolic succession of bishops. These appointments have no political character at all.  The pope refers to internationally accepted documents which state that the appointment of Catholic bishops by the pope is part of true freedom of religion.

For some readers the letter may create the impression of being “too clear” and “too explicit”, leaving nothing to be discussed and clarified during the dialogue with diplomats. This is the opinion of some friends in China who stress that in China one has to leave a few things to be cleared up by private bargaining. But here too the problem is that years of discussions have created confusion around matters of principle which are crucial for the Church. Just as pastoral guidelines were urgently needed for the Chinese Church, so too there is a need to make clear what is and what is not discussable with regard to relations of the Church with the State. Leaving these matters unclear would have caused others to criticize. But the pope expresses repeatedly his hope and trust that, through dialogue, all these questions can be clarified and agreed upon. As a concrete example the pope cites the new divisions of dioceses which was introduced by civil authorities over the past fifty years but has previously never been agreed upon with Rome. The pope says that this can be discussed whenever opportune and helpful.

Together with the letter in which Pope John Paul II offered excuses for what happened in the 19th century, this pastoral letter is undoubtedly the most important and historical document ever written by Rome to the Chinese Church. The key words are: reconciliation, unity and dialogue. Nowhere does the pope call for confrontation. The letter of the pope augurs the beginning of a new phase of Church life in China marked by reconciliation. It also calls on civil authorities to enter into dialogue on a basis of equality and mutual respect.