What future of the Church in China?

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Fr Angelo Lazzarotto, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

On 30 June 2007 the Vatican Press Office published the contents of Benedict XVI's letter to Catholics in the People's Republic of China. I asked Fr Angelo Lazzarotto, an experienced missionary from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), to comment on the situation of the Catholic Church in the biggest communist country in the world, on the relationships between China and the Apostolic See and on the papal letter. For many years he conducted missions in Hong Kong, and recently, after China has opened itself to the world, he has visited it many times. He knows the present situation of the Church in the most populated country thanks to his numerous and close contacts with Chinese Catholics.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: - The authorities of the People's Republic of China saw John Paul II as an enemy of communism who greatly contributed to the fall of this atheistic system in Eastern Europe. How do the Chinese authorities see Benedict XVI and how have the Chinese-Vatican relationships changed throughout the last two years?

Fr Angelo Lazzarotto: - It is true that the authorities of China saw 'the Polish Pope' as a dangerous element for the communist system, which is dominant in this country. When I was travelling over China in the 1980s I often heard accusations made by the local leaders against John Paul II - the Pope was to 'cut the roots' of the communist system in Europe, and therefore, he was dangerous to China. John Paul II loved China and he addressed Chinese Catholics about 30 times. He also tried - without any success - to improve the relationships with the Chinese authorities. But one could see an interesting fact after John Paul II's death: the world paid homage to that great man, including the Chinese authorities that were interested in that event. It is known that a few days after the death of the Pope there were talks between the representatives of the Apostolic See and the Chinese Embassy in Italy concerning the participation of the Chinese delegation in the funeral. The ambassador of Taiwan announced his presence in the funeral and even the President of Taiwan was to come from Taipei [the communist authorities of China regard Taiwan as a rebellious province]. Because of that the Chinese party withdrew from the talks and the communist Chinese delegation did not participate in the funeral. Great expectations accompanied the election of Benedict XVI. The new Pope had to deal with various complicated problems that developed in the Church in China within the last 50 years (including periods of severe persecutions) when the Apostolic See could not maintain direct contacts with the Chinese Church.

- Why did Benedict XVI write a letter to Chinese Catholics at this very moment?

- For long the Pope received requests to explain the problems developed in the Chinese Church. They included urgent requests of the Catholics who collaborated with the authorities and those who regarded the communist party and authorities in China as enemies of religion and conducted their activities in the underground. Many bishops, priests and laymen asked for the papal opinion on the relationships between these two realities of the Church (these are very concrete problems, for example participation in the sacraments ministered by the priests who have collaborated with the authorities).
At the beginning of this year the Pope decided to deal with those problems. Therefore, he called a commission and a meeting of experts in the Vatican on 19-20 January, his aim being to examine the situation in China from the point of view of the Church and from the political aspect of the issue (many heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, representatives of the State Secretariat and high-ranking officials of the Apostolic See took part in the meeting).

- How do you evaluate the reaction of the Chinese authorities to the letter of the Holy Father? One should stress that the availability of the text of the letter to the Chinese authorities 10 days before its official publication was a great gesture of the Apostolic See.

- So far there has been no official reply. However, there were some trite commentaries, for example the comment of the press spokesman of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs who only repeated two demands directed to the Apostolic See: to break off the relationships with Taiwan and not to interfere in the home affairs of China. This testifies to some embarrassment of the government in Beijing. I would like to say an interesting thing. Before the feast of Saints Apostles Peter and Paul, when the papal letter was to be published, the State Religious Affairs Bureau headed by some Ye Xiaowen (with rank of minister) suddenly called the bishops recognised by the government to come to Beijing. The official aim of the meeting was preparation before the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, but actually the officials issued instructions concerning the papal letter, which was in focus of the government. The fact that the Pope clearly emphasized the Catholic doctrine concerning the unity of the Church and the relationships of the Apostolic See with other countries testifies to his great courage. On the other hand, one should stress that Benedict XVI makes that with fatherly care, peace and openness to dialogue.

- In his letter Benedict XVI quotes the conciliar document 'Gaudium et spes': 'The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other.' Can a totalitarian country like the communist China recognise this principle?

- These principles are difficult to be accepted by the communist rulers who do not know the Catholic doctrine. So far they have seen the Pope as a leader of a small country and not as the head of the Church. The Chinese leaders would be very pleased if an ambassador of the Vatican State was also in Beijing, but they cannot understand the mission of the Pope that goes beyond the character of the state. In a way the Pope goes out to meet them when he explains that a papal nomination of some bishop in a given country is not interference in the home affairs of the country but fulfilling the task of the head of the universal Church. He also explains that the condition to nominate a bishop is full religious freedom - other international documents state that as well. All countries that maintain diplomatic relationships with the Apostolic See, i.e. almost all countries, recognise this right. The letter of Benedict XVI proves that the Pope wants to carry a constructive dialogue with the authorities in Beijing.

- The Chinese authorities oppose distributing the papal letter among Catholics. Why?

- The Chinese authorities are afraid of distributing the contents of the letter because the Pope explains what Chinese Catholics must do to be recognised as true Catholics. The Pope does not do that because he wants to challenge the authorities - he only reminds them of what it means to be a Catholic. If the Chinese constitution recognises religious freedom and the right of every citizen to confess any religion why do the Chinese authorities want to force Catholics not to be true Catholics? This is the question that Benedict XVI poses to the authorities.

- Speaking about the situation in China we must mention the state organisation called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. It is not a secret that the activities of this organisation, which has controlled the official Church for 50 years, are the main obstacle to improve the relationships between China and the Apostolic See. Why do the authorities of the world power, China, let the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association have so much influence on the state?

- One should remember that in the early 1950s the government expelled over 5,000 foreign missionaries. Thus the Chinese bishops and priests were isolated from the world and submitted to various forms of pressure and violence. In July the authorities celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association - one of the organisations called into being by the government in the times of Mao to control the Church from inside (each of the five state religions has a patriotic association). Under the pretext of patriotic activities the officials of the association replaced the legal authorities of the Church. Today the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association controls everything and does not hide the fact that its statutory purpose is to organise 'autonomous', 'independent' and 'self-governed' Church in China. The Pope reminds them that Catholics cannot accept that.

- Last year, in the quiet atmosphere of one of the Roman embassies, the representatives of the Chinese authorities and of the Apostolic See discussed the participation of the Chinese bishops in the synod on the Eucharist and the possibility of the activities of the Missionary Sisters of Mother Theresa in China. In spite of the positive attitude of the Chinese authorities both projects were scuttled by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and they were not realised. I am speaking about these facts to emphasize once again how influential the Association is. I am asking again: how is this possible that China's President Hu Jintao whose will is to build a harmonious society, at the same time tolerates the aggressive and often criminal activities of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which destroy social harmony?

- The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association has run the Church and her finances on behalf of the government for 50 years. It has a capillary structure that begins in Beijing and embraces all provinces, cities and districts. Hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps even one million) live thanks to the activities of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The same concerns the governmental Religious Affairs Bureau, which is directly submitted to the State Council. Those people do everything to show that they are indispensable to protect the prestige and interests of the homeland. However, one should remember that China is as big as a continent, and the situation depends on a given province. From the political point of view China is not a monolith since the communist party embracing 60 million members is being changed. Although the statutes forbid its members to profess any religion it has been known for years that its members have attended Buddhist sanctuaries, become Christians or followers of other religions (the recent research has shown that over 30% of the party members are believers!). Moreover, some of them openly demand respecting the state constitution that guarantees religious freedom but there is also a left wing in the party and the Central Committee. So one must state that the ruling group has no single stand concerning their religious policy - beside more liberal officials like Hu Jintao (a technocrat) there are ideologist conservatives who do not accept any kind of permissivism.

- Does that mean that the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association only aims at preserving its social position and economic privileges of its activists?

- It is true that the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association has members who are faithful to its official ideology and who do their best to stop religious expansion. Anyway, each time it seemed that the Chinese government wanted to remove the obstacles to improve the relationships with the Holy See the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association laid traps to sabotage any agreement.

- The persecutions caused a division in the Chinese Church. What does Benedict XVI propose to eliminate the divisions and heal the hurts of the past?

- The Pope does not condemn anybody but he calls to confess one faith in the Crucified Jesus, Jesus the Saviour, Jesus who built one Church and made love a 'sign' to recognise his disciples. He asks all people to reflect and asks those who feel victims of the great injustice to forgive their brothers who have other political views. This great challenge needs prayers of the whole Church and that's why at the end of his letter the Pope establishes the date 24 May - the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians - a day of prayer for the Church in China.

"Niedziela" 32/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl