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Thursday, July 12, 2007

China's 'patriotic' church

HONG KONG — The Vatican, through a pastoral letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the 12 million Catholics in China, has called for reconciliation between the so-called patriotic church, which operates independently from the Holy See, and the underground church, which recognizes the supremacy of the pontiff. Much of the lengthy letter was devoted to the consecration of bishops, which is the biggest obstacle to diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican.

The Chinese government stipulates two conditions for the Vatican to abide by before diplomatic relations can be possible. They are that the Vatican must first sever relations with Taiwan and promise not to interfere in the affairs of the church in China.

The first condition is not a problem for the Vatican, which has made clear its willingness to abrogate ties with Taiwan. The primary obstacle is Beijing's insistence that the Holy See not "interfere" in the consecration of bishops in China. The Chinese government's position is that the church in China is independent and does not owe allegiance to Rome.

The Vatican does not agree that the appointment of bishops would be interference in China's internal affairs.

The lengthy papal letter, which is addressed not to the Chinese government but to Catholics in the country, clarifies the Vatican's position on this issue.

Pope Benedict explained that, in the Vatican's view, the consecration of bishops is a religious rather than a political act. "The pope, when he 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," he wrote. "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."

"The Holy See would desire to be completely free to appoint bishops," the pope said. However, he indicated that there was room for discussion and "considering the recent particular developments of the Church in China, I trust that an accord can be reached with the Government so as to resolve certain questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate."

He expressed the hope that "concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China may soon be established."

In a dramatic gesture to the Chinese government, the pope revoked directives promulgated by his predecessor, John Paul II, which gave bishops and priests in China the power to operate secretly and independently to avoid persecution. Revocation of these directives, the pope said, was a result of "some positive developments of the situation of the church in China."

Clearly wishing to end the situation in which millions of Catholics worship in secret, the pope said: "The clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church's life, and history shows that pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith and to resist interference from state agencies in matters pertaining to the church's life."

Cognizant of Communist worries, the pope gave assurances that the church would not become a base for subversion against the state. "The Catholic Church in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the state," he wrote. "Rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Savior of the world."

There was little official Chinese reaction to the papal letter. The pro-Communist newspaper Wen Wei Po in Hong Kong said the pope's letter had created new barriers to further dialogue between China and the Vatican. However, the official Foreign Ministry spokesman merely said the Chinese position remained unchanged.

Interestingly, however, the "patriotic" church appeared to welcome the papal initiative. Liu Bainian, deputy head of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, was reported to have said: "The pope, through his papal letter, has expressed his love and concern for China's believers. This is different from earlier papal letters." Previously, he said, the Vatican had wanted to punish members of the "patriotic" church.

If the pope succeeds in winning over the sympathy and support of the hierarchy of the "patriotic" church, he would have made significant progress. In the end, what is needed is agreement on the part of the Vatican, the Chinese government and the church in China. Support of the church in China — all components of it — will greatly strengthen the Vatican's hand in any future negotiations with Beijing.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com

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