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Building a new Church on old foundations

Pope's successor is likely to continue Vatican's China policy

Building a new Church on old foundations
Lucia Cheung, Hong Kong

February 22, 2013

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Since news of Pope Benedict’s resignation broke, the international media has been analyzing what it considers are the failures and successes of his papacy.

While some secular media believe this pope has failed in terms of China-Vatican relations, I think Chinese Catholics would give the German pontiff substantial credit for what he has done for the Church in China.

During his eight-year pontificate, Pope Benedict erected two Hong Kong bishops — Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and John Tong Hon — as cardinals.

He also made Cardinal Fernando Filoni and Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai prefect and secretary-general of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which is responsible for missions around the world, including China.

These four figures have in-depth knowledge of the China Church gained through teaching experience in mainland seminaries and research on Church life in the Communist country.

Additionally, in 2007, Pope Benedict established a commission, comprising experts and missionaries, to deal with important issues concerning the China Church.

In June that same year, Pope Benedict wrote a pastoral letter to Chinese Catholics. It was the only letter he addressed to Catholics of a specific country. In it, he created a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China.

The theologian pope’s letter was his response to long-standing demand of Chinese Catholics for unambiguous instructions on a number of key issues related to their faith life.

He did not avoid mentioning tensions between the “open” and “unregistered” Catholic communities but pointed out their problems, as well as the position the Church holds on dialogue with the Communist government.

In a footnote, the papal document also rejected the constitution of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, stating that it is incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

This government-sanctioned entity, which advocates an independent Church principle as well as governmental interference regarding bishops’ appointments, are the main sources of conflict between the two communities and with the civil authorities.

The pope's letter gives clear direction and the prayer day provides spiritual strength for Catholics to rely on. Meanwhile, the pool of experts he drew together and the commission he set up is trying to ensure long term consistency in maintaining his direction to help normalize the faith life of Chinese Catholics. All this fully reflects his care and concern for the China Church.

The Vatican under his leadership is bravely saying “no” to the world’s largest Communist regime. When China decided to ordain unsuitable candidates as bishops once again, after its previous attempts in 2006, the Holy See first persuaded the candidates to rethink. After these efforts failed, it declared publicly for the first time in 2011 that a clergyman receiving episcopal ordination without papal mandate would incur automatic excommunication.

So far, three illicit bishops have been excommunicated and the Holy See seems quite ready to resort to the Church canon again if it needs to.

Pope Benedict's efforts to lead the China Church back into the fold of the Universal Church are obvious. From this viewpoint, I think his thoughts are crystal clear.

Left with the choice of maintaining the integrity of the Catholic faith and the China Church and trying to achieve a breakthrough through compromise, Benedict had to choose the former instead of diplomatic ties.

Though some critics may look upon his adherence to Church principles as “conservative,” we need to recognize that the nature of the Vatican's diplomacy is different from other states. It must comply with principles of faith because its ultimate goal is pastoral.

So if ties are built at the expense of our faith, such a relationship is an empty shell that is not beneficial to both sides.

The guessing game on who will be the next pope has begun. As calls grow for dialogue, Chinese Catholics are naturally concerned Benedict’s successor will reverse his China policy and bow to the regime again.

The 85-year-old pope has indicated he will not try to influence his successor. But since his policies are founded on the principles of the Catholic faith, I believe whoever becomes the new pope cannot ignore or easily reverse them, but will have to continue along Benedict’s path.

Pope Benedict XVI may have lost marks on his diplomatic relations with the communist regime. Yet his contribution to maintaining the integrity of the faith of the China Church is substantial enough to give him a place in Church history.

Lucia Cheung is the China bureau chief for based in Hong Kong

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