The Pope’s Letter – More Reflections and Some Links [Heyndrickx v. Zen Edition!]

Recently I’ve received inquiries from individuals wondering why there hasn’t been a more pronounced reaction to the Pope’s June 30 letter to China’s Catholics. This is understandable: the letter is the most significant attempt to reconcile the Vatican with Beijing in over fifty years, and it’s only natural to expect a deeper or more dramatic reaction on the part of the Chinese government. On the other hand, the issues that divide Rome and Beijing are of such long-standing (arguably, dating back 400 years) that six weeks is really not such a long time at all.

Let me state from the outset that I have no specific knowledge of the diplomacy currently underway. However, as someone with some knowledge of the events leading to the letter, I feel comfortable stating that – diplomatic track, aside – China’s Catholics are actively grappling with how to respond to and obey the Pope’s letter and its call for reconciliation between adherents of the open and underground churches. Alas much of that grappling is out of sight of the media. Yet there are public hints as to what’s happening, and perhaps the best ones have been dropped in a terse public exchange between a Belgian priest and a Hong Kong cardinal, both of whom have long-standing ties to China’s Catholic Church, but neither of whom can be said to belong to it.

The Belgian priest, Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, is a distinguished scholar of China at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he also directs the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute. He has been an important adviser to the Vatican on China since the 1970s, and has served as an informal intermediary to Chinese Catholic leaders for many years. In both capacities, he has long been an advocate for reconciliation between the underground and open churches and, in pursuit of that, he has advocated for dialogue with civil authorities such as the Catholic Patriotic Association. Shortly after the publication of the Pope’s letter, Heyndrickx published a lengthy commentary that emphasized the letter’s call for reconciliation. When I blogged about Heyndrickx’s commentary, I specifically pointed to this passage:

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.

Not long after Heyndrickx published his commentary, Joseph Wei Jingyi, the underground bishop of Qiqihar, issued a pastoral letter very much in-line with it, even going so far as to declare that registration of churches with civil authorities conforms to the Pope’s guidance. Heyndrickx has subsequently cited Bishop Wei’s example in other writings encouraging the underground to “emerge.”

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, the Archbishop appointed Cardinal in hope that he could serve as a bridge between Rome and China, seemed to go out of his way to place distance between himself and the Pope’s letter. At the same time, he and several important figures in the Hong Kong diocese’s distinguished Holy Spirit Study Centre undertook a new Chinese translation of the letter (needed, as it happens). Significantly, Zen acknowledged that the Vatican had ignored his request to proof the original translation before its release.

But for shear drama, all of that pales compared to the UCAN commentary that Zen published on July 18 in direct opposition to Heyndrickx’s commentary. In it, he prefaces his remarks with an attack on Heyndrickx’s character, even going so far as to claim that Heyndrickx takes his orders from the Catholic Patriotic Association! On a more substantive level, he objects to Heyndrickx’s suggestion that the letter requests that the underground bishops seek recognition from civil authorities:

The underground bishops are not encouraged to apply for registration; they are only given the faculty or, rather, the heavy responsibility to make a “very difficult decision” for their individual dioceses as to whether they should seek recognition.

Actually, what precedes in the letter seems rather to discourage them from seeking recognition because, as the letter says: “In not a few particular instances, indeed almost always, in the procedure of recognition, the intervention of agencies obliges the people involved to adopt attitudes (accept an independent Church), make gestures (concelebrate with illegitimate bishops), and undertake commitments (join the Patriotic Association) that are contrary to the dictates of their consciences as Catholics.”

It’s worth noting, first, that the three parentheticals in the above passage – though left as quotes – are not in the text of the Pope’s letter. They were added by Zen; they are his interpretation of the text; they are not the text. And members and supporters of the open church – including Heyndrickx – might very well disagree with them. That said, Zen’s thoughts and tone were very much in line with active and tacit supporters of the underground and, I think, it’s important to point out that they get to the question that seems to be at the heart of the letter. Rick Garnett, a distinguished law professor at the University of Notre Dame who focuses on religious freedom issues, among other interests, puts it this way:

… 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?

Thus, the argument between Heyndrickx and Zen: How, precisely?

Heyndrickx’s response to Zen was issued within forty-eight hours. Its title – “In Obediance to the Pope, and Not to Any Partner in Dialogue” – answers the character attack while providing a concise summary of Heyndrickx’s preferred approach to handling Beijing. Furthermore, Heyndrickx’s approach is very much the one held by the vast majority of open church bishops, most of whom have reconciled with Rome:

I have learned that it does not take much courage to use the media to prove one’s own views and criticize the others while it takes a lot of guts to sit down with those who disagree with you and have long personal dialogues to overcome differences and seek the common ground. Dialogue is not equal to weakness. Yet dialogue is the spirit of the pope’s letter, which we all should follow.

Zen didn’t respond to Heyndrickx’s response. But in a recent interview with First Things (given hours after a private audience with the Pope) he went out of his way to deny that he is an advocate for the underground church while, at the same time, emphasizing his close relationships within the open church (I comment on an aspect of this interview, here). It is a level, temperate interview, and it suggests that Zen is more open to reconciliation and recognition than his initial responses suggested:

… I have so many friends in the open church! And I think that I contributed to the betterment of the Holy See’s understanding of the open church during those years [ca. 1989–1996], when I went to teach in the seminaries of China. While living there and having many contacts, I wrote so many reports and I think I changed the mind of the Holy See. We all used to have very rigid categories: “the good ones” and “the bad ones.” But actually this was wrong. They are all good with very few exceptions. So I am sure that the people in the open church are my friends. There is no doubt about this.

Jeroom Heyndrickx, too, has friends in the open church, and he, too, has taught in the seminaries of China. In fact, in 1984, at the invitation of Father Jin Luxian of Shanghai (now bishop) he became the very first foreigner to teach in a Chinese Seminary since the 1950s (Zen followed Heyndrickx to Shanghai’s seminary five years later). Heyndrickx remains an advocate for ending the rift between the underground and open churches, particularly as a necessary pre-requisite for re-establishing relations between Rome and Beijing. In this spirit, late last week he released his longest and most carefully reasoned commentary on the Pope’s letter to his mailing list, which I am on [once it is published by UCAN, I will link to it].

Entitled “Toward a Faithful Implementation of the Spirit and Intent of Pope Benedict XVI’s Letter to Chinese Catholics,” the commentary includes a detailed and necessary examination of how the rift between the underground and open churches developed and widened (including a detailed examination of the role of Cardinal Tomko’s “Eight Points” in the rift), but it is at its most interesting when suggesting the consequences of not heeding the letter’s call for reconciliation. For now, I will offer one lengthy paragraph. A couple of quick notes, though. First, the “Eight Points” were issued by Propaganda Fide in 1988, and included provisions that restricted [correction: a reader points out that the Eight points were not focused explicitly on the underground] underground Catholics from having any kind of pastoral contact with open church Catholics (the eight points were widely ignored by Chinese and foreign Catholics, alike). Second, I cannot help but think that Heyndrickx is again responding to Zen’s defense of the underground’s right to remain independent of China’s civil structures:

The hesitation of some underground Catholics [to reconcile with the open church] is humanly speaking quite understandable. But it is not wise that some Church authorities confirm them in their attitude of avoiding to respond to the call for unity of the Pope. This pastoral guideline of justifying a refusal to unite takes the edge off the Pope’s letter and will reintroduce the “8 Point Document” which the Pope’s letter precisely intended to undo. It will confirm the Chinese Church in its internal division into two communities as it has been during the past 25 years. The situation will be even worse than before because then no higher authority can call any more to remake unity because the Pope has in his present letter already done so … Those who confirm the hesitations of the underground create confusion in the Chinese Church. They take a heavy, historical responsibility by weakening the message of the Pope’s letter and give an unclear signal for the faithful.

I end this lengthy post by noting that I have no idea who is favored in Rome, Zen or Heyndrickx. My guess is that both parties remain respected and valued advisers on China’s Church, and, like the underground and open churches – Zen and Heyndrickx have been urged to reconcile. Finally, as I began, I stress that the relative dearth of news on the reception of the Pope’s letter should not be taken as a lack of news. The reaction in China is taking place out of the media’s view – which is precisely why Heyndrickx and Zen, two foreigners, represent it best.


  1. Cardinal Zen’s reactions, and particularly his decision to authorize an alternate translation of the Pope’s letter, has baffled me. I mean, if in the US we had someone like Cardinal Mahoney declare that a particular Papal document was lacking or mistaken in its English form, and then Cardinal Mahoney published his own English translation, wouldn’t there be an uproar over what his agenda might be?

  2. Considering the accurace of some of the English translations of recent Vatican documents I would not surprise me to find significant mistakes in the Chinese translations of the Letter to China. When “should” is translated as “may” and “must” translated as “could” significant meaning is changed. It’s been seen to happen.

Comments are closed.