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from issue no. 06/07 - 2007

What changes after the Letter

«For a calm and tranquil life»

by Gianni Valente

Those who have described it as the most important document sent by the Apostolic See to the Chinese Church are not exaggerating. The Letter of Benedict XVI to the Catholics of the People’s Republic of China, signed on Whit Sunday and made known on 30 June last, is a key passage full of good auspices for the singular adventure experienced by the Catholics in modern China. The twenty paragraphs of the text offer the means to close an epoch of misapprehensions and controversies that has lasted almost thirty years. Clear and concrete answers are given to burning pastoral problems that only the Holy See could resolve, given that previous Vatican instructions had contributed to creating them.

Marian procession  in the shrine of Sheshan

Marian procession in the shrine of Sheshan

Change of step
«Despite many and serious difficulties» – the Pope recognizes at paragraph 8 – «the Catholic Church in China, by a particular grace of the Holy Spirit, has never been deprived of the ministry of legitimate Pastors who have preserved the apostolic succession intact». The phantasmal “Patriotic Church” compliant with the government instead of Rome, about which slack journalists have fabulated for decades, never existed in reality. There have been only two divergent attitudes towards the religious policy of the government. Some of the bishops, «not wishing to be subjected to undue control exercised over the life of the Church, and eager to maintain total fidelity to the Successor of Peter and to Catholic doctrine, have felt themselves constrained to opt for clandestine consecration […] Other Pastors, however, under the pressure of particular circumstances, have consented to receive episcopal ordination without the pontifical mandate, but have subsequently asked to be received into communion with the Successor of Peter and with their other brothers in the episcopate». The prevailing distinction between “official” and “clandestine” bishops only indicates the existence or not of State recognition, given by the bodies «that have been imposed as the principal determinants of the life of the Catholic community» (par. 7). But the Pope makes clear that this distinction does not per se entail consequences for the bond of communion with the Apostolic See: «There would not 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».
That wasn’t always the way of it. In 1988 the Congregation of Propaganda Fide leaked the so-called “eight points” in which among other things it was asked to avoid sacramental communion with bishops and priests belonging to the Patriotic Association (the structure set up by the government to administer the Church of China).
As for the so-called “underground”, the letter signed by Benedict XVI states that «the clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church’s life», and hopes that also «these legitimate Pastors may be recognized as such by governmental authorities for civil effects too – insofar as these are necessary – and that all the faithful may be able to express their faith freely in the social context in which they live». Also on this point one sees the discernment engaged in over recent years by the Holy See as regards the situation of the Chinese Church. In 1981 John Paul II authorized the granting of “very special faculties” to the Chinese bishops still in communion with the Pope, including the faculty to choose and secretly ordain other bishops without the permission of the Patriotic Association and without the obligation of informing the Holy See beforehand (cf. 30Days, n. 1, January 2007, pp. 16-23). Also on the basis of these Vatican dispositions, from the early ’eighties a network of communities and ecclesial situations had developed all over China led by secretly ordained bishops (eighty or so from 1980 to 1993) that were “underground” in the eyes of the State. But this dynamic in the long run caused the most objectively destructive effects experienced by Chinese Catholicism in the last 25 years. After the terrible times of the Cultural Revolution, just as the parishes were reopening and the faithful coming back to benefit more easily from the sacraments, different sectors of the underground community appealed to the Vatican dispositions to dissuade people from attending the “open” churches, often accusing the bishops and priests registered with the Patriotic Association of schism and sacrilege. Suspicions that found some credence even in the Vatican up to the mid ’nineties.
Now, the papal letter makes explicit at paragraph 18 the revocation of «all the faculties previously granted in order to address particular pastoral necessities that emerged in truly difficult times» and also «all directives of a pastoral nature, past and recent» are replaced by those contained in the new text. Referring back to the traditional doctrine, it repeats that the few bishops ordained without pontifical consent and who for particular reasons still have not asked for or obtained canonical integration, «although not in communion with the Pope, they exercise their ministry validly in the administration of the sacraments, even if they do so illegitimately».
The Letter also corrects in details widespread attitudes that created controversies. The bishops who have received a posteriori canonical legitimization from the Apostolic See are exhorted to make it public soon, making «unequivocal and increasing signs of full communion with the Successor of Peter». The reminder of the canonical norm according to which «only for good reasons may a cleric exercise his ministry in another diocese, but always with the prior agreement of the two diocesan Bishops» appears instead addressed to the many roaming clerics of the underground community who decided to exert their own pastoral jurisdiction throughout China, feeling that they represented the only “faithful Church”.

With the government
In the years when the break-up of communism in Eastern Europe was being attributed to the Polish Pope, in China the clandestine communities were being ill-treated and repressed with the accusation of representing an enemy anti-state entity. Now the new papal Letter is strewn with passages aimed at defusing the suspicions of the Chinese authorities about the presumed vocation of the Church for “subverting” the civic power. Vatican Council II is quoted in order to make clear that the Church «is not identified with any political community nor is she tied to any political system». In the wake of Matteo Ricci, it repeats that «the Catholic Church seeks no privilege from China and its leaders», and that also «the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ» who «recognized civil authority and its rights when he ordered tribute to be paid to Caesar, but he gave clear warning that the greater rights of God must be respected». Also on the controversial question of nominations of the bishops, the fact is insisted on that what the successors of the apostles have is a «spiritual authority» that remains «in the strictly religious sphere. 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». Understanding is shown of the fact «that governmental authorities are attentive to the choice of those who will carry out the important role of leading and shepherding the local Catholic communities». The hope is even expressed that «an accord can be reached with the Government so as to resolve certain questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate» and for matching the ecclesiastical areas and provinces to the new subdivisions of the civic administration. One single point is set out as unrenounceable: that the pastoral guidance of the Church be exercised by the bishops. The Letter specifies that «the preaching of the Gospel, catechesis and charitable activity, liturgical and cultic action, as well as all pastoral choices, are uniquely the competence of the Bishops together with their priests». Without naming the Patriotic Association directly (mention of which appears only in a note citing its statutes) the letter limits itself to the reminder that «the claim of some entities, 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». What is incompatible with the Catholic faith are «the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church» that the Patriotic Association encourages by statutory mandate. But the papal letter neither asks nor suggests the break-up of the Patriotic Association, leaving open the possibility of its “reconversion” through a revision of its statutes to transform it into a channel of contact between Church and government.

To Sheshan, in May
In the pages of the Letter of Benedict XVI to the Chinese Catholics one breathed the wisdom of the perennial Church. The Church that a century ago gave out the Maximum illud, the apostolic epistle of Benedict XV devoted to the missions. The merit also goes to the team of collaborators, discreet and free of the itch to take center stage that in recent years has gone along with the handling of the China dossier in the Vatican palaces. All sharing a realistic and flexible line that has the good of souls as its criterion even in relations with the world. And, like Saint Paul, entrusts to the edgeless weapon of prayer also «for all men, for the kings and for those who are in power» the expectations and hopes for the Christians of the former Celestial Empire, so that they may «spend a calm and tranquil life». In the final part of his long message the Pope writes: «The date 24 May could in the future become an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China. This day is dedicated to the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians, who is venerated with great devotion at the Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai».

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