The Letter – First Impressions

I’ve just given the Pope’s letter a careful first read, and I must admit – my head is reeling. Not just because the text is such a fundamental realignment, but also because it is one dense read.

I’ll post more on this topic after I have a chance to sleep on it. For now, though, I’m going to trace out the four points that jumped out at me.

1. There was absolutely no mention of an “underground” or “patriotic” church in the text. This stylistic choice had been rumored for weeks, but it didn’t quite prepare me for the rhetorical force of the absence of the terms. After all, for twenty-five years, no discussion of Chinese Catholicism was complete without them, and more often than not, they only served to confuse the situation (especially the ill-advised use of “Patriotic” [full disclosure: I used the term myself in an article for Far Eastern Economic Review in 2004]).

2 . However, in the key section related to bishops, the letter does, in fact, recognize a division of sorts. It is this: bishops who were appointed with the pontifical mandate (those formerly known as “underground” bishops (… I can’t escape the term!); those who received episcopal ordination without the pontifical mandate, but who later asked to be received into communion with the Pope, and were received; and that “small number” of bishops who received ordination without a mandate and have not been received into communion with the Pope.

The last group, it is important to note, are explicitly recognized as valid bishops who exercise their ministry validly but illegitimately with regard to the sacraments.

That’s a pretty accurate – though radical – re-engineering of past understandings of China’s bishops as a group divided between the “underground” and “Patriotic.”

3. In the short paragraph describing the status of the bishops formerly known as “underground,” the Pope writes:

” … the Holy See hopes that 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.”

I am not sure that I fully understand what this means, but I think that the implication is that the Pope is asking that the government recognize these bishops as legitimate by the laws of China. The term “civil effects,” though, is what gets me. What are civil effects? Whatever they are, I presume this means that the bishop will have to acknowledge his “civil” status – perhaps by ministering in a Church licensed by the Religious Affairs Bureau – to get those civil effects.

Whatever it means – and again, I’m really unclear about this point – I suspect that this sentence will cause the greatest consternation for the Church formerly known as underground and its supporters.

4. Perhaps the most dramatic section of the letter is the total revokation of “all the faculties previously granted in order to address particular pastoral necessities that emerged in truly difficult times.” Specifically, these include the notorious 8 Points of Cardinal Tomko, issued in 1988 (and updated in 2004) which prohibited, among other acts, sharing of liturgical celebrations with “Patriotic” bishops and priests. This revokation had been long sought by China’s open Catholics, and it was widely expected in the letter.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the letter’s consequences; there are people far more qualified to do that, and they will. For now, I’d just like to point out that – in a small way – the letter serves as a near total and complete repudiation of the rhetoric and methods of the Cardinal Kung Foundation. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Kung Foundation is an American non-profit whose stated goal is support of China’s underground Catholics; in reality, the foundation and its leader Joseph Kung have spent the better part of the last two decades agitating for more division among China’s Catholics (a stance which the Pope’s letter implicitly recognizes as contrary to his and the late John Paul II’s intentions). I outline some of this in my recent profile of Jin Luxian in the July/August issue of the Atlantic.

The Pope’s letter has only been available for a few hours, and so it’s a bit unreasonable to expect the Foundation to have already pulled its references to the Eight Points as “China Guidelines from the Vatican.” Still, it will be interesting to see when and if it does. More important, however, is whether the Foundation will stop referring – incorrectly – to the Catholic Patriotic Association as China’s official “Patriotic Church.” Joseph Kung surely knows the difference, but in the past he has refused to use accurate language. For example, consider this passage, taken just a few moments ago from the Foundation’s website:

“China therefore has two Churches that call themselves Catholic. One Church is founded by Christ approximately 2005 years ago. The other Church is established by atheist communists 48 years ago. One Church has been under severe persecution for the last 56 years since 1949. The other one is under the protection of the Chinese communist government and has not been persecuted. One Church is in full communion with the Pope and with the universal Church. The other one is not in communion with the Pope. One Church, of course, is the underground Roman Catholic Church. The other one is the official Patriotic church. Regardless the differences that I listed above, there are many bishops, cardinals, and other church hierarchies claim that they are the same church. Do not let anyone mislead you, even if he is a bishop or a Cardinal, into thinking that these two churches are the same church. They are not the same Church.”

One sincerely hopes that the tone will soon change.


Yesterday afternoon Slate ran my short essay on Maryknoll’s wonderful Chinese Seminary Teachers & Formators Project. This is something that I will be examining at greater length in the not too distant future. For now, I hope that the Slate piece gives readers a sense of the great depth of cultural interaction that has taken place between China’s Church and the rest of Catholicism over the last 15 years or so.

June 30, 10:00 AM GMT

According to the Vatican, that’s when the long-awaited “Letter to Catholics in China” will be released. I haven’t been able to find the statement on the Vatican’s website, but the AP is reporting the news, and there’s no reason to disbelieve it (as noted here yesterday, rumors pegged the 30th earlier in the week).

I will be blogging some of my initial impressions of the letter late tomorrow afternoon or early evening (depending upon when I can download it!), and hopefully I’ll be able to lend some historical context. Then again, at a promised 25+ pages, the letter sounds rather comprehensive, and my two cents might not amount to much. We’ll see.

In the meantime, those who are interested in developing a better understanding of the unusual circumstances that have brought China’s Catholics to this most interesting point in history might look at Jean-Paul Wiest‘s 2002 paper, “Understanding the Roman Catholic Church in China.” It’s a relatively quick read (as academic papers go), but it’s by far the best introduction to the issues that will presumably be covered in the Pope’s letter.

[UPDATE: Just found the Vatican media advisory here. The Vatican press corps gets a look three hours earlier, so maybe the text will leak.]

Yi Jianlian – Walking, Talking Trade Dispute

The NBA draft is over, and the Milwaukee Bucks have placed themselves in the unenviable position of having drafted China’s Yi Jianlian at No. 7. Unenviable, because prior to the draft Yi and his handlers notified the Bucks and several other interested teams that he was only interested in playing in a city with a sizable Chinese population – like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. And just to prove the point, they refused to do the traditional pre-draft workouts for teams which didn’t interest Yi.

Now, I will be the first to praise Yi’s game. He’s a wonderful talent: a seven footer who runs like a deer and moves with a point guard’s agility. But let’s not forget that he’s been playing in the Chinese Basketball Association, where competition isn’t exactly stiff, and even generous scouts – like ESPN’s – suggest that he’s not going to be much better than Toni Kukoc, the fragile Croatian forward who never looked better than when he was playing alongside Michael Jordan during the second Chicago three-peat of the late 90s. After that, Kukoc faded into being a utility player – in Milwaukee.

Maybe Yi will be better. Maybe not. But what’s not in dispute is that there were several far superior players in this draft, and none of them refused to workout or be drafted by teams that didn’t meet their demographic criteria. As an elite Chinese athlete, Yi has long been coddled by the Chinese athletic authorities and – quite likely – authorities who have no interest beyond watching him on television. If he expects the NBA to treat him similarly, he’s in for a tough run. Commissioner David Stern is a consistent enforcer of the NBA’s rules, and he is not likely to take kindly to an upstart international star with designs on re-engineering the NBA draft.

A second factor in all of this that Yi and his handlers might want to consider before they do any more bad-mouthing of Milwaukee: Herb Kohl, the sole owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, also happens to be a four-term US Senator. Obviously, this situation isn’t going to become an international incident. But, then again, how eager is Yi to be in the position of bad-mouthing a senior US Senator’s hometown? How eager are Yi’s government handlers in China to see him do it?

Or, put another way: imagine how the Chinese government would react if a US basketball player publicly refused to play for a Chinese franchise in a city with a small number of expatriates. Now, imagine if that team were owned by a member of the Chinese Politburo.

Coach Class

A plug for Pico Iyer’s wonderful essay on airfare class divisions:

How much would you pay to enjoy six hours away from your fellow humans, in a chair that reclines? $1,500 an hour – or even more? And if someone invited you to spend $9,000 to pass a long afternoon in a fairly cramped lounge, munching peanuts and reading airline magazines, would you accept? How desperate are you to have access to 15 movies you never would pay to see in a theater, instead of 11?

These are such obvious and wise questions that I wonder why I’ve never seen them posed before.

The rest of Iyer’s essay is equally insightful, including an apt observation that the coach seats on many Asian airlines often have more amenities than the business class seats on US airlines (are you listening, Northwest Airlines?). But, in the end, his basic point is a simple and economic one:

The individual details are less important, though, than the economic assumptions behind the scam. Better seats should cost maybe 20 percent more, or (for movie stars) 50 percent more. But 1,900 percent?

You don’t have to be a philanthropist to realize that by enduring slightly more human company for six hours, you could build nine homes in Burundi, each big enough to house 10 people with the money left over. And if you want to keep the savings, with $9,000 you could take five weeklong, all-inclusive tours to Southeast Asia, for the price of just an afternoon’s greater comfort en route to London.

The Imminent Letter

Several interesting developments suggesting that the Pope’s “Letter to Catholics in China” will be released in the next few days:

1. The ever-watchful Jennifer Ambrose pointed out to me that the Pope has named Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli to be the new President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Two weeks ago I wrote a lengthy post concerning Celli and his little-known but long-standing role in Vatican-Chinese relations. As I explained, Celli was Pope John Paul II’s hand-selected “point man” on China, and so it was interesting to see a Vatican source close to the letter suggest that the letter would be introduced by Celli at a press conference. According to press reports, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications is responsible for articulating Vatican policy with the media – a task for which Celli is ideally suited when the letter is released.

2. UCAN is reporting that China’s open Church bishops have been called to Beijing for a meeting to last June 28-29. In the UCAN report, an official with the Catholic Patriotic Association denies that the meeting has anything to do with the Pope’s letter, and is merely a planning session for celebrations relating to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the CPA on July 15, 1957. However, several bishops contacted for the UCAN story indicate that the real purpose of the meeting is a discussion of the letter and how it should be received in China’s parishes. If so, it would seem likely that – as promised – Rome has sent a copy of the letter to the Chinese government, and the CPA has prepared a response. And that leads me to believe that the content of the letter might begin to leak over the next day or so.

3. Cardinal Ivan Dias, Prefect for the Congregation of the Evangelisation of Peoples (formerly Propaganda Fide), and Father Ciro Biondi, Secretary of the Pontifical Missionary Union, have called upon 610 female monasteries to devote a week of prayer “so that the Letter of the Holy Father is well received, China opens up to the Gospels and give unrestricted religious freedom to all believers.” AsiaNews seems to have run this story first, on June 25. The story gave no indication on when the week of prayer should start, but I’m guessing that the timing of this week should coincide with the letter’s release.

[Late Thursday night update. AsiaNews is reporting that the meeting of the open church bishops is actually in Huairou, just outside of Beijing, and the topic is in fact the Pope’s letter and how to respond to it. The tone of the report is quite pessimistic, with some speculation as to what the designated response will be. In either case, we’ll all know that response soon enough: A handful of blogs and other news sources are beginning to report the rumor that the letter will be published Saturday. It’s a rumor that I heard earlier in the week, and I believe to be correct.]

Scare Quote, Chap. 2

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about China Daily’s use of scare quotes and lower case letters with the event that the rest of the world prefers to call the Cultural Revolution. In that post I failed to mention that “cultural revolution” was not just a mandate for China Daily; I should have added that other English-language publications closely monitored and reviewed by China’s censors are also required to use it.

Or were required to use it.

Last week the censors informed at least one of China’s English-language publications that they could remove the scare quotes and should now refer to the Cultural Revolution as the lower-case-c, lower-case-r cultural revolution (my information comes from someone connected to the publication in question). By myself, and with some others, I’ve been mulling over whether “cultural revolution” is better (meaning, more accurate) than cultural revolution. One friend suggests that cultural revolution is actually worse because it renders the event as something commonplace and regular, befitting no special notice. But another friend felt that the removal of the quotes was actually an improvement in that it took away any sense of irony or deprecation that the quotes might ordinarily endow.