The Pope’s Letter – More Reflections and Some Links [Special UCAN Edition!]

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.



  1. Thanks for useful analysis and especially UCAN links. You provide a valuable window into the Chinese Church.

  2. Adam —

    Thanks for this post, and the help it (like your other posts) provides in understanding the new letter. I have to admit, I have not yet had anything of substance to say about the matter at “Mirror of Justice” in part because I’m still trying to figure out — via re-reading — what exactly the letter’s content and implications are. But, it does seem to me that “official” recognition is not regarded as necessarily inconsistent with the freedom of the Church, even though “principles of faith and ecclesiastical communion” do constrain the conditions to which the Church submit as part of the process of official recognition. But how, precisely?

  3. Rick –

    I think you’re quite right, and your question – How, precisely, do principles of faith and ecclesiastical communion constrain the ability of Church leaders to seek recognition from the civil authorities? – gets right to the heart of what the bishops in communion with the Holy See are struggling with. Several people have suggested to me that the example of Vietnam – the gov’t religious authorities have an agreement with the Holy See allowing them some role in bishop selection – provides a guideline. I admit, I don’t know much about that agreement, but it seems to me that bishop selection is only a small part of the overall problem here. Ultimately, I think the letter is a pragmatic document, in that it strikes me as implicitly suggesting that there are already Church leaders who have figured out ways to seek recognition without violating fundamental principles. Unfortunately (and fortunately) political circumstances tend to vary greatly between provinces, dioceses, and even parishes here – so what might seem a reasonable accommodation in, say, Shanghai, might not be so reasonable in Inner Mongolia.

    At least in the early stage, the most striking implication of the letter is the revocation of past faculties for the underground. That is, there is no longer a legal basis for the underground (by Church law, that is). That’s a significant concession by the Holy See, it seems to me, and I am curious to see how it is received by the Chinese government – a group always hyper-sensitive to the mere notion of foreign powers operating within its borders.

    Anthony Lam, who I mentioned in the above post, predicted how much of this would play out in his 1994 book, “The Catholic Church in Present Day China – Through Darkness and Light.” Especially in Part IV. It has some really useful primary sources in it, too, and I’d bet that there’s a copy in Notre Dame’s library system. If not, it’s available from Maryknoll in NY.

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