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.