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.