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The Pope's challenge to China's Patriotic Association July 03, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI takes direct aim at the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association in his June 30 message to the Catholic Church in China.

The Holy Father never mentions the Patriotic Association by name in his extraordinary message, but the thrust of his argument is unmistakable when he writes of the "entities that have been imposed"-- or, still more plainly, of the entities "desired by the state and extraneous to the structure of the Church."

Pope Benedict recognizes that the Church faces unusual problems in China, where the faithful have long been torn between the "underground" Church loyal to Rome and the "official" Church recognized by the Beijing government. But the Pontiff insists that there is no serious doctrinal problem involved in this conflict. The problem, he repeats emphatically, comes from forces outside the Church.

For years the Patriotic Association has sought to assert full control over the affairs of the Catholic Church. By all accounts it has been unsuccessful; the Catholic laity-- numbering between 8 and 12 million, according to Vatican figures-- and the vast majority of Chinese clerics prefer to identify with the Vatican. So the pressure on the Church is political pressure, reflecting a lack of respect for religious liberty.

Near the beginning of his message Pope Benedict reflects that in the Book of Revelations, "Perhaps John's weeping before the mystery of a history so obscure expresses the Asian churches' dismay at God's silence in the face of the persecutions to which they were exposed at the time." The themes of persecution and religious freedom, of suffering and of fidelity, persist throughout the Pope's letter.

Summarizing the trials that Chinese Catholics have endured especially during the past several decades, Pope Benedict concludes that faithful have been tested by suffering, and their brave endurance has built up enormous reserves of grace on which a growing Church can now draw. Saluting the bishops who have led the Church through times of crisis-- and recognizing that many of the current bishops are elderly men who have suffered a great deal-- the Pope expresses his hope that their fidelity can meet the new challenges of an era that promises-- but has not yet truly delivered-- freedom for believers.

While the Pope's message is addressed to the Catholics of China, he issues a clear invitation and a challenge to the Beijing government as well, saying that the Holy See is "always remains open to negotiations, so necessary if the difficulties of the present time are to be overcome."

To overcome those difficulties, the Pope continues, will require a resolution of "misunderstandings and incomprehension" that serve "the interests of neither the Chinese authorities nor the Catholic Church in China." This is an unmistakable diplomatic overture, giving the Chinese government an opportunity to join in active talks without any admission of guilt. The talks can be explained as an effort to clear up "misunderstandings" rather than a determined effort to stop Chinese abuses of religious liberty.

As a guideline for any such negotiations, the Pope establishes certain "unrenounceable principles" on which the Vatican will not compromise. The Church is prepared to recognize the legitimate authority of the state, he says, as long as the state does not "interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church."

This, of course, is where existence of the Patriotic Association comes into play. It is the Patriotic Association that has claimed prerogatives that the Vatican can never accept. If Beijing is willing to withdraw support from the Patriotic Association, the Pope is indicating, the road to diplomatic relations could be cleared. That is an offer that Chinese government officials will have to take seriously.

Meanwhile Pope Benedict has another important message to deliver to the Catholics of China: a message of unity. There are inevitably tensions between those courageous Catholics who have suffered with the "underground" Church and those who have taken the easier route of association with the government-approved bishops. Pope Benedict asks them now to draw together in true Christian unity, recognizing that this may require "the purification of memory, the pardoning of wrong-doers, the forgetting of injustices suffered and the loving restoration to serenity of troubled hearts, all to be accomplished in the name of Jesus crucified and risen."

The Pope asks bishops to reconcile with priests who have made compromises-- even unacceptable compromises-- in the past; he even suggests that the Chrism Mass, on Holy Thursday, might be an ideal time for an act of reconciliation. He leaves it to the Chinese bishops to judge what requirements, if any, will be placed on those who seek re-admission to full communion with the Church. The Pope reasons that the bishops on the scene in China will have the best understanding of the circumstances, just as local bishops have been best able to understand persecution in previous centuries.

Pope Benedict also sends a caution to the loyal Catholics of the "underground" Church, reminding them that the bishops of the "official" Church are real successors to the apostles, even if their ordinations were illicit. The "official" Church is a part of the Catholic Church, he states clearly; the sacraments administered by the government-approved parishes are valid sacraments.

Bishops ordained without a mandate from Rome are ordinarily subject to excommunication. But Pope Benedict does not press the issue in the complicated cases that have arisen in China; he does say that the faithful are under no obligation to accept the authority of those bishops who have been illicitly ordained. Nor, he adds, can the Vatican accept the authenticity of the Chinese episcopal conference as long as it includes some bishops who are not in communion with the Holy See, and excludes others-- the underground bishops-- who are.

In general, the Pope pushes for reconciliation and a full restoration of unity among Catholic believers. Evidently he has confidence that if the faithful are united among themselves, the power of the government-- and/or of the Patriotic Association-- will not be enough to divide them. Thus he pleads with the faithful of the "underground" Church not to hold themselves aloof from the legitimate bishops recognized by the government. He remarks: "The lay faithful too, who are animated by a sincere love for Christ and for the Church, must not hesitate to participate in the Eucharist celebrated by bishops and by priests who are in full communion with the Successor of Peter and are recognized by the civil authorities."

There must only be one Church in China, united in witness and in faith, the Pope insists. That is his exhortation to the Catholics of China-- and, by implication, his challenge to the government.