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CHINA-ANALYSIS Jul-2-2007 (710 words) With photos. xxxi

Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics points toward path to unity

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With his long-awaited letter on China, Pope Benedict XVI has opened new prospects for reconciliation among the country's divided Catholic communities.

How and when these divisions can be overcome is now primarily up to Chinese Catholics. But the pope has underlined the urgency of unity, inviting bishops and the Catholic faithful to move beyond "suspicions, mutual accusations and recriminations" within the church.

Certainly, the pope's letter was aimed in part at the Chinese policies that have engendered such tensions. The government requires registration of bishops and church communities and uses this as a tool for control; some Catholics view registration as a serious compromise and prefer to exercise the faith in a semi-clandestine manner.

In language that was pointed but not polemical, the pope rejected state interference in church affairs and explained why the church's structure and activities do not threaten the civil order.

He also offered to dialogue with the government on the chronic conflicts over bishops' appointments, church jurisdictions and diplomatic relations.

The pope knows there is not a lot he can do about the policies adopted by the Chinese government. On the other hand, he has a much greater opportunity to help resolve internal church problems. That's where the focus of this letter lies.

In effect, the pope was telling Chinese Catholics that the split between clandestine and officially registered churches may be understandable, but it compromises the church's pastoral effectiveness.

A divided church, he said at the beginning of his 55-page letter, cannot evangelize effectively because it cannot be a witness of love and unity.

The pope then gave several practical guidelines aimed at bridging the gap between China's Catholic communities. On perhaps the most crucial question -- whether local churches should register with the government -- he outlined a margin of flexibility that went far beyond previous Vatican statements, in effect leaving it up to the judgment of the local bishop.

He also answered a question that surfaces at the grass-roots level of the church in China, when he encouraged lay faithful to participate in Masses and sacraments carried out by government-registered bishops and priests, as long as they are in communion with Rome.

One of the most important accomplishments of the papal letter was that it finally brought into the open some of the sensitive issues that have been discussed behind closed doors for decades. Indeed, the pope seemed convinced that openness, even if it brings some risks, is the best strategic path for the church in China at the moment.

For example, in discussing the status of Chinese bishops, he candidly stated that many of the bishops ordained without papal approval have later sought and obtained reconciliation with the pope.

The problem, he added, is that most of these bishops have never told their own priests or faithful that they have reconciled with Rome. It is indispensable for them to bring this fact into the public domain as soon as possible, he said.

A theme running through the papal letter is that the Catholic Church in China is one, not two. The terminology of the letter avoids emphasizing a dichotomy between so-called "underground church" and "official church," which itself is significant.

The pope did emphasize some basic principles about ecclesiology, most notably that church communion requires unity among the bishops and with the pope. The pope does not have an external role but a ministry intrinsic to each particular church, he said.

He also rejected efforts to create an autonomous national church and took aim at "entities desired by the state and extraneous to the structure of the church" that claim to place themselves above the bishops.

The pope clearly had in mind the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which was mentioned in a footnote in the same section.

But the thrust of the papal letter was to encourage Catholics to work around these kinds of obstacles, rather than allow them to divide the church community.

The pope knows that the healing process among Catholics in China will not happen overnight and may, in fact, take many years. But, meanwhile, he has sketched out the direction and tried to clear the path to unity.


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