The Pope’s Letter – Upon Further Reflection

Media and blog reactions to the Pope’s letter to China’s Catholics have been diverse and unpredictable, but I’ve noticed that most tend to emphasize the Pope’s call for a more public declaration of unity with Rome from open Church bishops who have reconciled with the Holy See. It will be interesting to see how that provision is handled. In some dioceses, the standing of the open Church bishop is an open secret, widely known but rarely spoken. In Shanghai and other dioceses where ordinations of auxiliaries have taken place with the apostolic mandate (a fact leaked, made known by the presence of Vatican intermediaries, or – as happened in Shenyang -declared from the altar), the bishop’s status is known by the fact that he is the consecrating bishop at the ordination. Whatever the means, the situation tends to be a discrete one.

In either case, I think the letter’s most remarkable passages are related to underground bishops. These passages have barely been noted online, or in blogs, but among close China Church watchers, they are of intense interest. Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx, CICM, a Belgian priest who figures prominently in my profile of Shanghai’s Bishop Jin Luxian in the current issue of the Atlantic, has sent to me his commentary on the Pope’s letter. It is a lengthy document, with many passages of interest, but for now I’d like to just quote him on the Pope’s commentary in regard to the underground Church:

Underground bishops are encouraged to apply for recognition by civil authorities. An underground Church “is not a normal and lasting situation” for the Catholic Church, says the pope. All bishops should now unite so that Rome can finally recognize officially the already existing Chinese Bishops Conference. Till now this cannot be done because the underground bishops are not members while some other members of the conference are not appointed by Rome.

In a post immediately following the letter’s release, I expressed some confusion about the letter’s line expressing hope that underground bishops “may be recognized as such by governmental authorities for civil effects,” but Heyndrickx clarifies that point well: the underground bishops need to legitimize themselves with the relevant government authorities.

This may come as a shock to some who still cling to the notion that China’s Church is divided between “Patriotic” Catholics, and those loyal to the Pope. But the truth is, the line blurred years ago. In 2006, three bishops were ordained with both the Papal mandate and government approval (the negotiation process was complicated) in the dioceses of Suzhou, Shenyang, and Shanghai. At least in Shanghai, the goal was to unify the underground and open Churches in a public manner (and most underground Catholics – around 85% – accepted the appointments). At the same time, China’s Church hasn’t had an underground ordination in more than a decade, and the Pope’s letter explicitly revokes the authority of the underground bishops to make such appointments (Pope John Paul II granted the authority).

So, the Pope’s request that the underground reconcile itself with local authorities is not such a stretch, and really just an extension of the letter’s repeated statement that Caeser should be given his due. At the same time, in its own way, the letter makes clear that both sets of bishops need to move closer to each other on recognizing – publicly – spiritual and civil authorities.


  1. Catholicism can’t last in China. Look at younger people opting to practice Christianity: Virtually all (at least 95%) are Protestants … although most don’t know they’re Protestants or what it really means to be from a Protestant faith tradition.

    Since you seem to have a lot of interest in this subject, my point is that it doesn’t really matter. And you know the truth, i.e., that what is official and what isn’t is often a matter of concealment. I could say more, but won’t, but my experiences are first hand. Don’t fret about this stuff; go ahead and practice your faith.

    The real issue, perhaps, is that we can’t legally “witness” to Chinese nationals or worship with them except in an official, registered Chinese church. I’ll say more about this is a forthcoming AlwaysOn Network and Sand Hill Group “Letter from China” column. BTW, I split my time between BJ and QD.

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