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The politics of faith in the China Church

The pope's 2007 letter brought turmoil but also inspired hope

  • Fr Huabei, Beijing
  • China
  • June 5, 2012
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I do not want to admit that Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007 started a war. It was actually more tragic than that.

Rumors had spread across China for months before the papal letter was released on June 30 of that year. During these months, fear and worry filled the minds of those who held power in their hands but had no God in their hearts.

The letter was blocked just hours after it was made available on the internet. In the following months, it was spoken of only in whispers.

Since the majority of Chinese Catholics were not online then, they could not read the letter immediately. The blockage further limited its circulation.

The tension that the letter brought to the China Church was no less than what was produced by the canonization of 120 Chinese martyr-saints on October 1, 2000, China’s National Day, after which China-Vatican relations turned sour.

Government officials often came to priests with a pile of papers and asked: “Have you read the pope’s letter?” When they were sure we had not read it, they scanned the paper and recited a paragraph to us to “proclaim” how successful their control was.

Some courageous priests publicized the letter in their parishes. They copied and posted it whenever the copies were peeled off walls. Amid this climate of fear and intimidation, these clergymen who promoted the letter did not receive any warning or punishment.

But the tense atmosphere scared most of the other bishops and priests, who adopted a passive attitude to the letter to avoid incurring unnecessary trouble. Such mentality greatly reduced the impact of the document.

I did not see many Catholics study the letter in an organized, careful and systematic manner, except for a few individuals who posted their study notes online.

I was also not aware of any bishop who genuinely carried out the letter’s spirit among his clergy. A few prelates wrote pastoral letters but few of these documents taught the gist of the pope’s letter. Other bishops were either struggling to manage Church affairs amid difficulties or continuing to feel helpless.

Only two types of people really concerned themselves with the letter: the “underground” Catholics, as the pope revoked all faculties that were granted to address pastoral necessities in difficult times in the past decades; and personnel from the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), as the pope declared its purpose of promoting an independent Church was incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

The letter threatened the legitimacy of their existence.

As Catholic blogger “Shanyulai” said: “The official community is overshadowed by the fact that the CPA ‘is incompatible with Catholic doctrine’ while the underground community has the nightmare of being sacrificed for the diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican.”

Therefore, approaching the letter with a distorted mentality induced ill effects, and a number of underground Catholics thought it spelled their doom.

On the contrary, the CPA is very smart and knows it must press gang more bishops and priests to work in it to maintain its survival.

It achieved “great events” cautiously in recent years. It celebrated the 50th anniversaries of its founding and of “self-election and self-ordination” of bishops in 2007 and 2008 respectively. It organized 10 decent episcopal ordinations in 2010 but ended the year with an illicit one and convened the National Congress of Catholic Representatives. In 2011, another two illicit ordinations took place.

After utilizing the bishops, it played with the slogan of “evangelization” to safeguard its status, further increasing the “worries” that Pope Benedict mentioned in his letter.

While politics continues to harass our faith, I would like to reiterate that the pope has no thought of waging war, playing games or hatching plots, but merely his benevolence and God’s love.

The Catholic faith only cares about justice, peace, repentance and the renewal of humanity. The government should abandon the colonial thinking that everyone is bullying China. We should not deny that foreign missionaries spread their charity and sacrificed their lives in China.

Today we must re-read the pope’s letter and understand that its purpose is not to “deal with every detail of the complex matters” but “to offer some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China.”

We must reject any voice that attempts to confuse or blur this purpose.

Fr Huabei is the pseudonym of a priest in northern China

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