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from issue no. 10 - 2003

Unity and the (old) rules

In September a Convention organized in Louvain by the Verbiest Foundation confronted the controversial divisions that still lacerate the Chinese Church. Opening some questions also about Vatican directives of the ’eighties…

by Gianni Valente

Chinese faithful at prayer in a church in Shanghai

Chinese faithful at prayer in a church in Shanghai

The Chinese Catholic Church has various friends scattered throughout the world. Members of institutes and missionary congregations historically related to the Christian message in the former Celestial Empire, scholars and those responsible for foundations and study centers, priests and lay people who for the most diverse reasons and in the most diverse ways follow the controversial happenings of the Catholic community in China. To this squad of “sinologists” are linked a great deal of the concrete initiatives that the local churches of the whole world carry forward to assist the pastoral needs of the brothers in the Peoples’ China, and the persisting anomaly of their condition, with a government that claims to nominate bishops and control all ecclesial structures through the “patriotic” organizations. A qualified representation of adherents and of “friends” of the Chinese Church met for the first four days of September in Louvain, on the occasion of the European Catholic China Colloquium organized by the Verbiest Foundation, the institute of studies linked to the Catholic University of Louvain and presided over by the Belgian Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Scheut missionary. Among the over hundred participants from 18 different countries, 47 were Chinese: 27 coming from the People’s China (in large part priests and nuns who are finishing their training in Catholic institutes in the West), the others from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Macao.
A good part of the more technical reports dealt with the problems of the “training of ministers for the Chinese Church in the age of globalization”. Between one session and another the convention provided the occasion for those present to meet each other and to coordinate programs of support for the hundreds, at least, of Chinese religious and priests who study in the Catholic universities throughout the world. But the convention, which had as its motto “Confirm each other in the faith”, had the special merit of unimpededly facing the thorny and often badly presented question of the sometimes rending divisions in the Chinese community, between those who accept being registered with the patriotic Association, tolerating its manipulation, and those who resist state control, ending up in many cases as the target of the police forces.
Faithful  in prayer on the slope to the church of She Shan during the pilgrimage of May 24

Faithful in prayer on the slope to the church of She Shan during the pilgrimage of May 24

The division in the heart of the Catholic community is a legacy from the first decades of the Maoist regime. A “past that does not want to pass”, not least because in many local situations doctrinal and theological differences have become involved with personal and clan difficulties or with rivalry between “officials” and “clandestines” to benefit from the flow of aid, economic as well, sent beyond the Great Wall by international Catholic organizations and by local Churches in the richer countries. In this sense, the letter from 39 year old Bishop Joseph Han Zhi-hai to his Chinese brethren, published in the West at the opening of the Louvain Colloquium, and which 30Days reprints in its entirety, is a document of exceptional interest. For the first time a “non-official” bishop, that is one not recognized by the government, publicly affirms his own full unity of faith with the bishops who, even though moving within the procedures and organizations imposed by the government, profess their communion with the Pope and have obtained through confidential channels confirmation from the Holy See of their episcopal nomination. Monsignor Han does not impose conditions on the public manifestation of full sacramental unity with the bishops who are willing to deal with the civil authorities nor does he urge them to break off their collaboration, even though he does lament the ambiguity of the “patriotic” organizations which condition the life of the Church.
The appeal of the Bishop of Lanzhou to go beyond the more destructive effects of the division, such as the separation between official and clandestine communities in eucharistic celebration, also calls into question the Holy See. The young pastor of the non-registered community recognizes that «our faithful would feel guilty at participating in the Eucharist in an official community. Some official documents of the Church – the “13 points” and the “8 Points” of the Church – have confirmed the Catholics of the non-registered communities in this attitude». The reference is to the so called “eight Tomko points”, from the name of the then Prefect of the Vatican Congregation of Propaganda Fide, which in September 1988 sent the confidential document entitled Directives of the Holy See on some problems of the Church in contintental China to all the bishops of the world. In it, even though admitting the possibility for Chinese Catholics to receive the sacraments from priests involved in the “patriotic” structures, it was suggested that «occasions of scandal and prejudice about the exact notion of faith» be avoided in this regard. Still today, the “eight points” are brought up instrumentally in the controversies between the “official”clergy and non-registered priests. In particular some of the exponents of the clandestine communities appeal to a maximalist interpretation of the Vatican dispositions of fifteen years ago to dissuade the faithful from approaching the “open” churches. The more intransigent still deny the value of the masses and sacraments celebrated in the parishes registered with the patriotic Association.
In his letter the Bishop recalls the pressing appeals of the Pope for reconciliation between the two “areas” of the Chinese Church, interpreting them as an implicit confirmation that in the eyes of the Apostolic See also «the preceding documents of the Church which dissuaded joint eucharistic celebrations between Catholics of the official and non-official areas are no longer valid for our faithful». But between the lines a polite appeal can be read for the Holy See to send in some way an explicit signal that the cautionary norms issued fifteen years ago are not to be considered definitive and permanent by anyone and that in the face of the new situation they cannot be used as a pretext for fomenting grave divisions which compromise the most precious good given to the Church, that of sacramental grace. In effect, the need to “pass beyond” the Vatican dispositions of the ’eighties was underlined many times during the Louvain Colloquium. It was touched on by Cardinal Godfried Danneels in his final speech (see interview). And explicit reference was also made to it by Professor Yang Huilin, director of the Institute for Christian culture at the Peoples University of Peking. An authoritative exponent of those academic sectors of Christian interest which for years have functioned also as “ambassadors” in the intermittent dialogue between the Catholic Church and Chinese rulers, Professor Yang cited the controversial interpretation of the Vatican instructions as one among the obstacles to «the reconciliation and the establishment of official relations» (between Peking and the Holy See, ed.). And he announced that next year the Institute of Studies directed by him, in collaboration with Andrew’s University (connected to the church of the Seventh Day Adventists), will organize a convention on the subject of the relations between Church and ecclesial institutions.

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