Here are some rapid notes after a first reading. This should post appear after the embargo is lifted, after 1200h in Rome.
The Letter to Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China.
The text is now ready in all the major languages, including Chinese in both simplified and traditional characters.
The text is not available in Latin. It is dated to Pentecost Sunday.
It is divided in two parts, a theological examination of the Church in China and guidelines for Pastoral Life
A recurring theme in the first part of the letter is suffering. Benedict expresses his unity with the people, a great people with a long tradition, who are suffering. At the same time as he looks at the particular situation of the Chinese people, he also underscores the Catholic tradition and the meaning of what it is to be a Church.
As in everything this Pope writes and says, he is concerned to speak to the Church herself, considered as the Church (ad intra) and also how the Church interacts with the word and fits in a particular social context (ad extra).
The Church has had a painful experience in China for the last fifty years. There were persecutions in the 1950’s and expulsions of foreigners. Chinese Catholics became isolated and an official Church was established by the government to control religious activity. Consecration of bishops without papal mandate in 1958 wounded the unity of the Church. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was a time of great trial. The 1980’s saw some openings and tolerance. Faith had remained alive. Some Catholic pastors were determined not to be too influenced by the government and opted to function in a clandestine way. Others opted to work with the government Church some seeking also union with the Successor of Peter. There remain those who believe the official Church is independent, which is not reconciable with Catholic doctrine. In the climate of doubt, many Catholic priests and bishops have sought from Rome some counsel on how to proceed. With this letter the Pope offers some guidelines for the life of the Church and the task of evangelization. (No. 2).
He recognizes their suffering, and the value of that suffering. He knows that reconciliation cannot be accomplished overnight. (no. 6).
Benedict repeats the words of Jesus in Luke 5:4, "Duc in altum… cast out into the deep". In a way, this suggests to me that if missionaries cannot arrive in China, perhaps we need to make better use of tools of social communication in evangelization and promoting unity. These words were also used by John Paul II in his letter about using the internet. However, in this Letter, Benedict says, "Duc in altum" invites "us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence". (No. 3) Again, in this phrase we see Benedict’s desire to establish continuity with the past, for the sake of a healthy present and future.
On practical matters, Benedict gives guidelines about the recognition of ecclesiastics by government authorities and about the appointment of bishops.
Again, Benedict stresses, as he has been doing in Italy, that the Church cannot replace the State. The State and Church have different missions. However, the Church must not be silenced. She has a mission to fulfill, to proclaim Christ. It is not the Church’s primary task to to build a the most just earthly society. However, she cannot be sidelined either. (cf. Deus caritas est). As a result, she does not wish for ongoing conflict with civil authorities, but she will not yield her rights when there is undue interference in "matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church."
In language that seems to be proposed as a bridge, Benedict writes: "No one in the Church is a foreigner, but all are citizens of the same People, members of the same Mystical Body of Christ. The bond of sacramental communion is the Eucharist, guaranteed by the ministry of Bishops and priests." The government is often concerned about "foreign" influence in China.
The Pope dwells on the need for reconciliation for the purpose of authentic communion, moving beyong the pain and personal positions and difficult experiences. Force cannot be the model. While charity must rule the God given ecclesial and hierarchical structure of the Church cannot be compromised. The ministry of the Apostles is a sine qua non. The State cannot place itself above the Church’s own authority to guide the ecclesial life of the faithful.
Does collaboration with or recognition from civil authorities compromise communion with the universal Church? Benedict responds that
"courageous safeguarding of the deposit of faith and of sacramental and hierarchical communion is not of itself opposed to dialogue with the authorities concerning those aspects of the life of the ecclesial community that fall within the civil sphere. There would not be any particular difficulties with acceptance of the recognition granted by civil authorities on condition that this does not entail the denial of unrenounceable principles of faith and of ecclesiastical communion." (No. 7).
Benedict applies a principle of subsidiarity, leaving it to the local bishop to determine in the precise local context how to balance these aims. He stresses that the faithful must remain in union with the bishop.
Addressing the issue of bishops, Benedict speaks to a number of topics, including their formation. The role of bishops is vital and no lay person can become the de facto head of a community. Also, given the nature of the Petrine Ministry and the Apostolic succession and its ministry, "the proposal for a Church that is ‘‘independent” of the Holy See, in the religious sphere, is incompatible with Catholic doctrine."
Even when bishops are consecrated without pontifical mandate, their consecration is valid. In the case of bishops who have not sought unity with the Holy See, their sacramental ministry is valid, but illegitimate.
The Letter does not state that these bishops are excommunicated for being consecrated without papal mandate. This seems to be a recognition of the need to consider the social context and difficult conditions of the Church in China.
The Letter reminds bishops that no bishop or groups of bishops in Episcopal Conferences can be subjected to civil authorities when teaching about faith and moral and the Church’s sacramental life. (no. 8).
However, the present official "College of Catholic Bishops of China cannot be recognized as an Episcopal Conference by the Apostolic See: the ‘‘clandestine” Bishops, those not recognized by the Government but in communion with the Pope, are not part of it; it includes Bishops who are still illegitimate, and it is governed by statutes that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine."
When the Pope approves the appointment of bishops, he exercises spiritual authority, strictly within the religious sphere, not political authority. When appointing a bishop the Pope does not interfer with the internal affairs of a State. Benedict hopes that some agreement can be reached so that the Holy See can be free to appoint bishops. He is willing to work with the government to resolve questions regarding certain candidates and the publication of their appointments.
The section on practical guidelines, I will look at later.
At the end the Pope proposes that 24 May could be a future day of prayer for Catholics around the world in unity with the Church in China, with special reference to Our Lady, Help of Christians, venerated at the Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.