Commentary on the Papal Letter to the Church in the People's Republic of China

Author: Cardinal Paul Kuo-hsi, S.J.

Commentary on the Papal Letter to the Church in the People's Republic of China

Cardinal Paul Kuo-hsi, S.J.
Bishop emeritus of Kaohsiung, Taiwan

An affectionate witness for the Church in China

On the second day after Pope Benedict XVI was elected as Successor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, when he accepted congratulations from every single Cardinal, he told me: "My heart cherishes very closely the Church in China".

Because of his concern and love to the Church in China, the Pope, since his installation, is in continuous commitment to look for a solution on how to solve the many difficulties of the Church in China.

In January 2007 he convoked a conference, calling the important Prelates of the Holy See, representatives of Chinese Bishops, experts on theology and canon law, etc., to concern themselves about the Church in China.

The Pope was present at the closing session and he announced his intention to write a "Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China" (called "Pope's Letter" in this text). This Letter was signed on 27 May 2007 (Pentecost Sunday) and officially published on 30 June. Now I would like to share my impressions after reading it.

Explanation, insistence on truth

The first impression I had from this Letter is the Pope's clear "explanation and insistence on truth". The Pope explained very clearly the truth of the Catholic faith in the nature, mission and structure... of the Church, declared by the universal Church. Along the 2,000 years, the universal Church, both clergy and faithful in all the particular Churches, believes that the Church was instituted as a community by Jesus: she is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic" (cf. "Creed of Apostles": "Pope's Letter", n. 5).

In this Letter the Pope emphasizes especially the "oneness" and the transmission of the hierarchy "from the apostles". More details on this are as follows.

The Pope explained the Catholic Church is "one" Church: the roots of the "unity" of the Church are "not only in the same faith and in a common Baptism, but above all in the Eucharist and in the episcopate" ("Pope's Letter", n. 5; cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, n. 26), and "the unity of the episcopate, of which 'the Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation'" (ibid., n. 23).

Due to this reason, the Pope cited the words of Lumen Gentium of Vatican II to underline that "the Bishop is the visible source and foundation of unity in the particular Church entrusted to his pastoral ministry. But in every particular Church, in order that she may be fully Church, there must be present the supreme authority of the Church, that is to say, the Episcopal College together with its Head, the Roman Pontiff, and never apart from him. Therefore, the ministry of the Successor of Peter belongs to the essence of every particular Church 'from within'" ("Pope's Letter", n. 5).

The Holy Father explained the common faith of the above-mentioned universal and of every particular Church: it is the faith transmitted by the Apostles. Denying this faith or lacking an clement of this faith, such as the communion, unity, authority of the Bishop, Supreme Pontiff and his universal ministry in the Church, etc., then it cannot be called the real Catholic Church.

From this we can see clearly that the structure and organization of the Church added forcefully from outside, especially the structure and organization above the hierarchy, are in opposition to the basic belief of the Catholic Church.

Forgiveness, communion, unity

The Pope understands well the history of the Church in China, especially the trials in the recent almost half a century, where many Bishops, priests, consecrated persons and faithful, in order to maintain the proper religious faith, have suffered a severe persecution, up to even the shedding of blood, martyred; they are admirable.

But members of the Church are human beings with human weakness: there are, of course, those who insisted on their faith and were martyred heroically with the grace of God, but there are also those who yielded to human weakness because "in the events of the world but also in the weaknesses of the Church, there is always a risk of losing faith" (ibid., n. 6).

These "lapsed" from the faith exist during persecutions of all times. When persecution becomes less serious or when there is no more persecution, the faithful Christians inside of the particular Churches would face a question: how have we to treat them?

Naturally, tension would be created among the "loyal faithful" and the "lapsed": they would suspect, despise, recriminate and divide among themselves (cf. ibid., 6); humanly speaking, these difficulties are very hard to overcome.

The persecuted Church of Rome in early times had given very good example to all the other particular Churches: besides removing the harsh attitude of Novatians and Donatists, they encouraged the "loyal faithful" to have a Christian heart of forgiveness, to pardon and accept those repentant "lapsed" who wished to go back to the merciful mother Church.

The Holy Father knows that "forgiveness and acceptance" are the prior conditions of communion: "communion is not expressed without arduous efforts at reconciliation" (ibid., 6).

For this reason, Benedict XVI encourages the "loyal faithful" of the Mainland, emphasizing that "the purification of memory, the pardoning of wrongdoers, the forgetting of injustices suffered and the loving restoration to serenity of troubled hearts, all to be accomplished in the Name of Jesus Crucified and Risen, can require moving beyond personal positions or viewpoints born of painful or difficult experiences" (ibid., n. 6).

Those who desire to destroy the Church purposely, use the strategy of the ancient Roman Empire "divide et impera" in all times and places. What they wish to see is tension, conflict, disharmony, division, treating one another as the enemy from within the Church.

Now is the time that everyone should remove the past right and wrong, live at the present moment, cooperate harmoniously to ride the boat of the Church by putting out into the deep sea and letting down the nets for a catch (cf. Lk 5:4).

"Now the fields are already white for harvest" (Jn .4:35). We should harvest hand in hand: many Dioceses in the Mainland cooperate very well in evangelization and pastoral care, so they have borne many fruits in recent years. It is good news for the Pope and for the whole universal Church.

Reciprocal respect, sincere consultation

What both the Church and Government wish to serve are the people: the existence of these two entities is also for the welfare of the people.

The serving scope of the Church is about the religious, ethical, moral, etc., affairs of the people; the one of the Government concerns social order, security, living and medical care, etc., of the people.

The Pope respects the rights of a Government of State; at the same time, he protects the rights of God and his Church by citing the words of Jesus: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22:21).

Most of the democratic countries in the world and the big religions accept the "policy of separation between politics and religion". Although the rights and duties of both parties are very clear, nevertheless, there are areas which overlap and are not clear.

Regarding the overlapped and unclear issues, the two parties should consult each other sincerely, like in the question of dividing some provinces or dioceses according to the administrative areas.

But there are some questions concerning the nature of the Church, such as "the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church" (Statutes of the Chinese Patriotic Association, Art. 3), that destroy evidently the nature of the Church which is "one" and "communion". The Holy Father said: it is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine" ("Pope's Letter'', n. 7).

Concerning the well-known question of nomination of Bishops in China, n. 9 of the "Pope's Letter" explains precisely: "The Pope, when he issues the apostolic mandate for the ordination of a Bishop, exercises his supreme spiritual authority: this authority and this intervention remain within the strictly religious sphere. It is not, therefore, a question of a political authority, unduly asserting itself in the internal affairs of a State and offending against its sovereignty".

The Pope recalled that "the appointment of Bishops for a particular religious community is understood, also in international documents, as a constitutive element of the full exercise of the right to religious freedom. The Holy See would love to be completely free to appoint Bishops".

The Holy Father also expressed a wish: "I trust that an Accord can be reached with the Government so as to resolve certain questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate, the publication of the appointment of Bishops and the recognition — concerning civil effects where necessary — of the new Bishops on the part of the civil Authorities".

The Holy See, under the principle of reciprocal respect, wishes to consult with the Government about some practical problems without destroying the fullness of doctrine of the Catholic faith.

Wish and blessing

In this Letter, Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his great admiration and gratitude to those "loyal" to the Church "without ceding to compromises, sometimes at the price of grave sufferings"; at the same tune, he saw in them a brilliant hope of the Church in China (ibid., note 1).

Benedict XVI understands quite well and is very sympathetic with these "loyal faithful" on some thoughts and attitudes formed under a long time of persecution.

But things have passed. He makes a request of them: "The purification of memory, the pardoning of wrongdoers, the forgetting of injustices suffered and the loving restoration to serenity of troubled hearts, all to be accomplished in the Name of Jesus Crucified and Risen, can require moving beyond personal positions or viewpoints born of painful or difficult experiences. These are urgent steps that must be taken if the bonds of communion between the faithful and the Pastors of the Church in China are to grow and be made visible" (ibid, n. 6).

Please note that the Pope used "we" especially in this Letter: it pointed out the identification and great love between the Pope and the persecuted "loyal faithful".

As for the "lapsed" during the persecution, the Pope also loves them with the heart of a father and wishes them to return back to the merciful mother Church; and he hopes that the "loyal faithful" help them to come back soon, forgive and accept them, in order to be "one flock and one shepherd" (Jn 10:16).

"Other Pastors, however, under the pressure of particular circumstances, have consented to receive episcopal ordination without the Pontifical mandate, but have subsequently asked if they can be received into communion with the Successor of Peter and with their other brothers in the episcopate. The [late] Pope, considering the sincerity of their sentiments and the complexity of the situation..., has granted them the full and legitimate exercise of episcopal jurisdiction" ("Pope's Letter'', n. 8).

The Holy Father has pointed out sincerely in this Letter: it is a pity that some Bishops, who are already legitimized by the Pope, dare not to declare officially their legitimate identity to the priests and to the consecrated persons; it created a serious question of conscience in the Dioceses: they do not trust one another, and division was created among them.

In this Letter the Pope encouraged these Bishops to declare and reveal their identity legitimized by the Holy See to their own clerics and faithful, and hoped that their clerics and faithful accept and obey them (cf. ibid., n. 8).

In this Letter, Benedict XVI has expressed very much his concern, love, encouragement, consolation, worry, expectation and hope on the Church — that is, Bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful — in the Mainland. The Pope has also granted cordially and sincerely his Apostolic Blessing to the Church in China.


This Letter of the Pope is purely a Pastoral Letter. Benedict XVI, not only with identity and authority as a great theologian but also as Supreme Pastor of the universal Church, explained the nature, structure, mission, etc., that is, the important "dogma of ecclesiology" of the Church, believed and professed by her along 2,000 years.

I hope this Letter could clarify many misunderstandings, and let the people know that the Church cannot absolutely compromise in religious beliefs and doctrines; but the Church and some of her members or other persons concerned can discuss the technical aspects which do not concern the doctrines.

The purpose of this Letter is mainly to provide some directive principles on the faith and pastoral, evangelical and spiritual aspects of the Church in China. I hope the readers could read this Letter of the universal Church's Pastor with good will, sincerity and prayerful hearts, meditate on it carefully and put it into practice.

At the conclusion of this Letter, the Pope gave a beautiful gift to the Church in China: the date 24 May, Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, was declared a day for all Catholics of the whole world to be united in, prayer for the Church in China.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 February 2008, page 8

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