The letter has been out a week, and the more reflective responses are beginning to appear (… I’ll just pretend that I didn’t blog on the text within hours of the release …). Before I get to those, though, I’d like to point out a passage – actually, a sentence – that I only noticed yesterday, while going through the letter for a different essay. At the beginning of the ninth paragraph of the section entitled (in English) “The Chinese Episcopate,” it reads:
Currently all the Bishops of the Catholic Church in China are sons of the Chinese People.
This is a statement of profound importance in the history of the Chinese Church, as it acknowledges, in effect, that for most of China’s Catholic history, the bishops were not sons of the Chinese People. As late as 1949, roughly 80% of Chinese dioceses were in the hands of Europeans, a situation which many Chinese Church experts look back upon with no small amount of regret. At a minimum, the large number of foreign bishops lent credence to Communist accusations that the Chinese Church used religion as a cover for imperial and colonial politics. At worse, it prevented the Chinese clergy from developing their own indigenous leadership, and that had a seriously negative impact on the development of the Church after 1978.
Thus, this sentence strikes me as an acknowledgment of this difficult history, as well as another assurance that the Church has no political (read: imperial) ambitions in China (thus acknowledging China’s greatest fear of the Church). That’s all that I have to say about that for now, though I do think it’s worth noting that the sentence seems out of place in its context, almost a non-sequiter bordered by two sentences that seem to be having a different conversation.
Next, I’m pleased to note that UCAN has published Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx’s commentary on the letter. I mentioned this commentary last week, (it had been sent to me privately).
UCAN has also published a very important and illuminating interview with Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong. Lam is one of the world’s great experts on the Chinese Church, and his books are absolutely essential for anyone who wants to understand it (they are available through the Study Centre). Anyway, his UCAN interview reflects upon the Pope’s revocation of special faculties and privileges for the underground Church – some of which were being exercised right up to the letter’s release.
Two additional UCAN articles offer early hints that the underground Church is less than thrilled with the Pope’s letter. The ever-loquacious Cardinal Zen says that the letter “certainly does not encourage” the underground bishops to surface. This is a curious statement, especially in light of Zen’s obvious efforts to distance himself from the letter and the fact that the official English-language translation of the Pope’s letter reads as follows:
Underground bishops are encouraged to apply for recognition by civil authorities.
[CORRECTION 7/10/07: When writing this post, I had intended to compare Cardinal Zen’s statement with the text of the Pope’s letter and the commentary published by Jeroom Heyndrickx (to which Zen seems to be reacting). In my haste to post, however, I left out the relevant text from the Pope’s letter while managing to suggest that Heyndrickx’s quote is from the letter itself. It is not. Please note that the above quote is from Jeroom Heyndrickx, and not the Pope’s letter. The correct quote from the Pope’s letter is:
“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.”
This quote suggests, I believe, the reason that Rome will need to clarify the “civil effects” issue at some point. It is also worth noting that Rick Garnett, a thoughtful scholar of law and church-state relations at Notre Dame, also notes this passage. I imagine that he will have something interesting to say about it, and soon. ]
If I had to guess which passage of the letter will be clarified first, it would be that one.
Finally, UCAN publishes a letter from an underground priest with some very pointed criticisms and a request:
Church history tells us that those who give their lives and blood for their faith in any country subsequently have no important position at the negotiation table … However, the fact that the pope, as pastor of the Universal Church, does not even mention those still suffering in his letter is frustrating and shocking … We only want assurance that the Universal Church has not totally abandoned these people who are suffering, in silence.
More than any other document that I’ve yet read, these passages indicate just how fundamentally the letter has altered the dynamic within China’s Catholic Church. A mere two weeks ago such a statement from the underground – which has always emphasized its singular loyalty and obediance to the Pope – would have been unthinkable.