Card. Zen reviews Pope’s Letter to China: translation errors, misunderstanding

UPDATE: I received from a reader a full translation of Cardinal Zen’s letter.  There is also the whole Chinese text.

Many thanks to "Dor Dor".

Click HERE.



The gentlemanly Sandro Magister has a piece about the problems stemming from mistranslations of the Holy Father’s Letter to the Chinese Church.

Here are big section, but go and read the whole thing as his place.

My emphases and comments.

The Pope Translated into Chinese. With Too Many Errors

The letter Benedict XVI wrote in 2007 to the Catholics of China has been gravely misunderstood, says Cardinal Zen. All to the advantage of the communist authorities, and their plan to subjugate the Church. To correct the problem, a new guide document has come from Rome

by Sandro Magister

ROME, July 21, 2009 – Two years after the letter addressed by Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics, Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has sketched an assessment of it, published in mid-July in Chinese and English on the website of his diocese.

The assessment is very mixed. Next to positive elements, the cardinal lists negative ones. He identifies the main negative element in the "false interpretation" made of some key passages of the pope’s 2007 letter. A false interpretation that in his judgment "has had disastrous consequences all over the Church in China."

In China, the Catholic Church is divided into two branches. And this division originated in the policy of the communist authorities.

The division sees on the one hand the communities that  the Chinese Catholics themselves call "dishang," literally "above ground," or "gongkai," open, meaning the ones with official recognition and registration on the part of the communist authorities, and on the other hand the "dixia" communities, literally "underground," that is clandestine and illegal, the ones that have never accepted registering and subjecting themselves to the control of the two bodies created ad hoc by the government: the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

The bishops, about a hundred of them in all, also reflect this division. There are the "above ground" ones and the "underground" ones.

The first of these are in turn divided into three categories. There are bishops recognized by the government but not by the Holy See, who therefore were consecrated and exercise their ministry in an illicit form: currently there are very few of these. There are bishops designated by the government and consecrated illicitly, who later – through private channels – were also approved by Rome: these are now in the majority. And finally there are bishops, young and recently nominated, who were designated by the government but asked for and obtained approval from Rome prior to their ordination.

As for the "underground" bishops, ordained clandestinely with the approval of Rome but never recognized by the Chinese authorities, they are the main targets of harassment. They operate illegally under constant threat, are often imprisoned, and many are under house arrest. The same is true for their clergy.

But the bishops with official recognition don’t have an easy time, either. In recent months, government supervision and pressure on them have become suffocating once again. The Chinese authorities are doing everything they can to obstruct reconciliation between the "above ground" and "underground" Catholic communities: that reconciliation which is precisely the primary objective of the letter written in 2007 by Benedict XVI to the Catholics of China.

One proof of this is what happened a few months ago when the official bishop of Shijiazhuang, Jang Taoran, generously offered to act as auxiliary for the clandestine bishop of his diocese, Julius Jia Zhiguo, for the purpose of consolidating the care of the faithful.  The communist authorities prevented the to bishops from contacting one another, and on March 30 arrested the latter of them, who is still in prison.


The "false interpretation" of the pope’s letter to the Catholics of China, decried by Cardinal Zen, has also been facilitated by the boycott of the letter itself implemented by the Chinese authorities.

The Patriotic Association has prohibited its distribution. A number of priests who distributed it have been arrested. The Chinese websites that posted it have had to remove it. The complete Mandarin language version of it on the Vatican website is still inaccessible in China.

It was also difficult and complicated to have a follow-up letter, from Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, delivered personally to every bishop in China. In some cases this took months. Nor did this letter – the contents of which were ambivalent, in Cardinal Zen’s view – help to bring clarity.

The most serious misunderstanding of the guidelines given by Benedict XVI concerned – again, in Cardinal Zen’s view – the question of official recognition on the part of the communist authorities. Many interpreted the pope’s letter as a binding order to the "underground" communities and bishops to come out of hiding and ask for government recognition.

Zen maintains instead that "such an interpretation not only does not represent the mind of the Holy Father, but also goes against the cruel reality of the facts."

And he continues:

"The fundamental reality is that the Government has kept its policy substantially unchanged, a policy that aims at enslaving the whole Church. That is why we have to witness such a painful spectacle: bishops and priests who, thinking they are obeying the Holy Father, make enormous efforts to come to terms with the Government; many of these, faced by the unacceptable conditions imposed by the Government, draw back, but in the process the clergy is no longer as united as before; others, thinking that to draw back would be to disobey the will of the Holy Father, have tried to remain in that situation of compromise, while striving hard to keep their peace of conscience, a contradictory state that makes deeply suffer not only the bishops directly involved, but also their priests who are no longer able to understand their bishop. The Government, on its part, has presented itself as an enthusiastic executor of the will of the Pope, declaring itself the promoter of [Church] unity, evidently a unity under the total control of the Government inside the iron-tight structure of an independent Church."

To head off this collapse, Cardinal Zen fought strenuously in recent months to have Rome issue a "Compendium" of clarifications on Benedict XVI’s letter. And he succeeded. The new guide document was published on May 23 and posted on the Vatican website in three versions: in ancient Chinese, in modern Chinese, and in English. It is in question-and-answer form, with a few footnotes and two appendices.

Cardinal Zen gives a positive assessment of the "Compendium" in his commentary. And he urges Chinese Catholics to pay special attention to answer no. 7, and footnotes 2 and 5.

Answer no. 7 demonstrates that the pope has not abandoned the Catholics of the "underground" communities. On the contrary, he "encourages them to persevere in their fidelity without compromise."

Footnote 2 distinguishes between "spiritual reconciliation" and a "structural merger." The pope "encourages the former which should be pursued with the almost commitment and urgency, while the realization of the latter may be beyond our unilateral good will."

Footnote 5 clarifies that Benedict XVI "neither excludes the possibility of accepting or seeking Government recognition, nor encourages doing so." It is right to want to operate freely and openly, "but unfortunately," Zen writes, echoing the pope’s words, "’almost always’ it is impossible to do so since conditions are imposed on us which are not compatible with our Catholic conscience."

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Jeff Pinyan says:

    How soon before we see a “Cardinal such-and-such review’s Second Vatican Council’s documents: translation errors, misunderstanding”? :)

    Mea culpa… mea delicia.

  2. Rob says:

    “The most serious misunderstanding of the guidelines given by Benedict XVI concerned – again, in Cardinal Zen’s view – the question of official recognition on the part of the communist authorities. Many interpreted the pope’s letter as a binding order to the “underground” communities and bishops to come out of hiding and ask for government recognition.”

    I hope that the priests and bishops there do not interpret the text in this way–if any of the communities come out of hiding because of this false interpretation, it would be disastrous.

  3. ssoldie says:

    Jeff Pinyan—-Amen.

  4. Chironomo says:

    Jeff and Ssoldie-

    That actually may not be as far off as we think. The idea of correcting past errors (New Translation, etc…) is in the air as it has never been before. Given the issues with the SSPX, I would not be surprised to see a “review” of the interpretation of Vatican II.

  5. pattif says:

    I think it was a couple of years ago that Cardinal Levada called for a fresh translation of the documents of the Council.

  6. Boko says:

    This is a big deal, even if I’m still not sure what actually went down with that letter. It seemed at first that the Vatican was doing a little ostpolitik / Cardinal Mindszenty on Cardinal Zen.

    Doesn’t the Patriotic Church accept abortion and China’s one-child policy, even if under duress? This is a much bigger mess than the initial reporting on this letter let on.

    And, it has ramifications vis a vis the SSPX. My understanding is that the canon law on which Ecclesia Dei was based was created to deal with the situation in China. I don’t understand the connections here, and maybe Pope Benedict isn’t thinking of them either, but I have a feeling that God sees the parallels and is keeping them in mind as He works.

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