Researcher Remarks 

A Commentary on the Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of China

     by Fr. Peter Barry, M.M.


     On June 30, 2007, the Vatican released the long awaited letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the clergy and Catholics of China. Such a letter from the Holy Father had been expected since a meeting of Vatican officials and Church-in-China experts, held in Rome in mid-January 2007.

      In English, the letter is 26 pages in length, divided into two parts and a conclusion, with 20 numbered paragraphs.

      In the letter, Pope Benedict turns the eye of a dogmatic theologian on the situation of the Church in China. As the reader may know, the curriculum of a Catholic seminary is generally divided into Dogmatic Theology, Moral Theology, Scripture and Church History. Other subjects come under these four main categories. For instance, Liturgy and the Sacraments are part of Dogmatic Theology, whereas Canon, or Church, Law comes under Moral Theology. All priestly candidates study such a curriculum.

      Pope Benedict writes as a trained dogmatic theologian. The 50 some footnotes scattered throughout the letter refer to texts from Scripture, the documents of Vatican Council II, encyclicals of previous Popes, the Code of Canon Law, and even civil documents, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The reader sees immediately that the Holy Father knows his sources, and uses them well.

      Very warmly, the Holy Father speaks directly to the Catholics of China. He addresses them as “Brother Bishops, dear priests, consecrated persons and all the faithful of the Catholic Church of China.” He then quotes St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:3-5, 9-11): “We always thank God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints…” Pope Benedict then writes that these words of St. Paul express the sentiments that he, as Successor of Peter and universal Pastor of the Church, feels for the Chinese Catholics.

      The Holy Father then sets out the purpose of his letter. He writes that some important aspects of ecclesial life in China give cause for concern. He wishes to address some of these matters, and to offer some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China.

      After expressing heartfelt gratitude to the Lord for the faithful witness of the Chinese Catholic community, Pope Benedict moves on to express his sincere admiration and sentiments of friendship for the entire Chinese People. Citing his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict also expresses the hope “for the opening of some form of dialogue with the authorities of the People's Republic of China.” He writes that the Holy See “always remains open to negotiations.” In relations with the civil authorities, the Church teaches the faithful to be good citizens of their country. At the same time, she asks the authorities not to unduly interfere “in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church.” The Church asks the State to guarantee authentic religious freedom, so that its Catholic citizens can exercise their faith to the full.

      The Holy Father then takes up specific problems in the Church in China. The first matter he deals with is “communion between particular Churches in the universal Church.” He states: “It is therefore indispensable, for the unity of the Church in individual nations, that every Bishop should be in communion with the other Bishops, and that all should be in visible and concrete communion with the Pope.” In the context of communion, Pope Benedict then addresses the tensions and divisions that exist in the Church. He urges that a pardoning of wrong-doings and a forgetting of injustices suffered in the past come about through a reconciliation accomplished through Jesus, Our Lord.

      Then under the title, “Ecclesial communities and State agencies,” the Holy Father deals with the various causes of division in the Church community. He bluntly points out the role played by agencies, external to the Church, which have been imposed on the Catholic community. Recognition from these agencies is the criterion for declaring a community, a person, or a religious place legal and “official.” This gives rise to divisions, suspicions and denunciations within the Christian community.

      Since the Church is apostolic, that is, “built on the foundation of the Apostles,” whose successors the bishops are, it is the bishops who, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the right to teach and rule the Church. Therefore, Pope Benedict writes, “It is clear that the claim of some agencies, desired by the State and extraneous to the structure of the Church, to place themselves above the Bishops and to guide the life of the ecclesial community, does not correspond to Catholic doctrine, according to which the Church is ‘apostolic.’” He goes on to say: “Likewise, the declared purpose of the afore-mentioned agencies to implement ‘the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church’ (from the Statutes of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, 2004, art. 3) is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, which from the time of the ancient Creeds professes the Church to be‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic.’” Therefore, the Holy Father points out, the preaching of the Gospel, and liturgical and charitable activities, as well as pastoral choices to be made, belong uniquely to the competence of the Bishops, and cannot be subject to any external interference.

      Here the Holy Father addresses a concrete problem: does recognition by the civil authorities compromise communion with the universal Church? Pope Benedict answers in a straightforward manner. He posits that the safeguarding of the deposit of faith and of sacramental and hierarchical communion is not in itself opposed to dialogue with the authorities on those matters in the ecclesial community that fall within the civil sphere. He continues: “There would not seem to 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. In not a few particular instances, however, indeed almost always, in the procedure of recognition the intervention of agencies obliges the people involved to adopt attitudes, make gestures and undertake commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their consciences as Catholics.” In such circumstances of external pressure, the Christian community is urged to refrain from judgment and condemnation of another person's actions. Rather every case must be pondered individually, taking into account the circumstances.

      Next the Holy Father takes up questions having to do with the Chinese episcopate. Here Pope Benedict addresses his Brother Bishops directly: “In recent years, you have encountered difficulties, since persons who are not ‘ordained,’ and sometimes not even baptized, control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of Bishops, in the name of various State agencies…We have witnessed a disdain for the Petrine and Episcopal ministries by virtue of a vision of the Church according to which the Supreme Pontiff, the Bishops and the priests risk becoming de facto persons without office and without power.” Yet the Petrine and Episcopal ministries are essential and integral elements of Catholic doctrine on the sacramental structure of the Church. A Church that is “independent” of the Holy See, in the religious sphere, is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, the Holy Father writes.

      Next, Pope Benedict treats of different choices made by the episcopal candidates. He starts off by saying that all the Bishops of the Catholic Church of China are sons of the Chinese People. Moreover, the Holy Father states, the Catholic Church of China has never been deprived of legitimate Pastors, who have preserved the apostolic succession intact. These bishops have received ordination in conformity with Catholic tradition, that is, in communion with the Bishop of Rome and at the hands of validly and legitimately ordained bishops. Some, however, in order to maintain total fidelity to the Successor of Peter and to Catholic doctrine, have opted for clandestine consecration. They have done this to maintain the integrity of the faith and to resist interference by State agencies in matters pertaining intimately to the Church's life. The Holy Father hopes that these bishops can be recognized by the civil authorities.

      Other Pastors have consented to receive episcopal ordination without the papal mandate. But they have later asked to be received into communion with the Successor of Peter. The Holy Father, taking into account their sincerity and the complexity of the situation, as well as obtaining the opinion of neighboring bishops, has granted them full and legitimate exercise of episcopal jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the Holy Father points out, priests and faithful have not been fully informed that their Bishop has been legitimized. Therefore, Pope Benedict urges those Bishops who have been legitimized to clearly make known that they are in full communion with the Successor of Peter. Finally, there are a small number of Bishops who have been ordained without the Papal mandate, who have not asked for the necessary legitimization. For these reasons, Pope Benedict points out, the Holy See cannot recognize the present Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference. The “clandestine” bishops are not part of it, it includes prelates who are still illegitimate, and it is governed by statutes incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

      Finally, Pope Benedict takes up the question of the appointment of bishops. This touches the very heart of the life of the Church, he points out, for it is a guarantee of the unity of the Church and of hierarchical communion. When the Pope issues an apostolic mandate for the ordination of a bishop, he is exercising his supreme spiritual authority. The exercise of this authority remains strictly within the religious sphere. It does not interfere in the internal affairs of the State, nor violate its sovereignty. International documents (which Pope Benedict cites in the footnote) also consider the appointment of Church leaders as a constitutive element of the exercise of religious freedom. The Holy Father hopes that an accord can be reached with the Government to resolve certain questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate.

      The whole second part of the letter is taken up with Guidelines for Pastoral Life.

      It is licit to concelebrate with Bishops and priests in communion with the Pope, even if these Bishops and priests are also recognized by the government. The faithful may also receive the sacraments from them. Such is not the case for bishops who are still illegitimate, though they may be validly ordained. The faithful must look for Bishops who are in communion with the Pope. But where this results in grave inconvenience, they may turn to prelates not in communion with the Pope.

      Regarding ecclesiastical provinces, the Holy See is prepared to enter into open and constructive dialogue with both the Chinese episcopate and with governmental authorities. Further pastoral matters covered are those concerning priests, religious formation, the laity and the family, the Christian initiation of adults, and the missionary vocation. In the conclusion, Pope Benedict writes: “I hereby revoke all the faculties previously granted in order to address particular necessities that emerged in truly difficult times.”

      Pope Benedict's letter was signed on Pentecost Sunday (May 27 this year), when the Church recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit descends on the Church in China so that she may freely and fully exercise her Catholic faith, and that she may have free and full contact with her Holy Father in Rome.

      The letter was published on June 30, after a period of translating it into at least 5 different languages. It is interesting to note that the Gospels for the liturgies on the day before and after the issuance of the letter are very apropos for its contents. On June 29, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Gospel read at Mass was from Matthew, Chapter 16, where Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter, and says the words: “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” On the day following the issuance of the letter, Sunday, July 1, which was the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Gospel read at Mass was from St. Luke, Chapter 9, where Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. When the apostles James and John saw that Jesus was not welcomed in a certain Samaritan village, they asked Jesus: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turns and rebukes them.

      The passage from Matthew emphasizes the Church's faith and doctrine regarding the Petrine office, while the second reading from Luke emphasizes Jesus' compassion and rejection of the use of violence to solve problems. Both elements are present in Pope Benedict's letter to the Catholics of China. He is warm and compassionate, and yet at the same time, he is not shy about spelling out the Church's doctrine, and how this doctrine is being tampered with in contemporary China. Actually, in his letter the Holy Father does nothing more than reiterate traditional Catholic doctrine, which has been in existence for centuries.

      This writer found the Holy Father's letter quite balanced. His warm concern for the clergy and Catholics of the Church in China comes across very well. At the same time, he takes up practical problems in a clear and straightforward manner. From his thorough theological background, he shines the light of Scripture and the Church's Tradition on the situation of the Church in China. Hopefully, the clergy and Catholics there will bask in the warmth and light of their spiritual Father's words, and that the concerned authorities will take note. 

For the Holy Father's Letter, click on to :

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