Interview With Religious Freedom Expert

ROME, JULY 2, 2007 ( The reception of Benedict XVI’s letter to Chinese Catholics will say as much about the status of the Church there as the letter itself, says an expert on China-Vatican relations.

In this interview with ZENIT, Raphaela Schmid spoke of the Pope’s letter, what it means for the Church in China and for the Chinese government.

Schmid, director of the Becket Institute for Religious Liberty, recently wrote and directed the TV documentary “God in China. The Struggle for Religious Freedom.”

Q: What prompted Benedict XVI to write the letter to China in the first place?

Schmid: The prime mover behind the letter was Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun: Since his elevation by Benedict XVI to the rank of cardinal, he has been a tireless advocate for Chinese Catholics before the Roman Curia.

When Beijing illegally ordained bishops in 2006, after a period of diplomatic rapprochement, the Vatican was caught off guard and Cardinal Zen felt that there had to be a reconsideration and clear restatement of China policy in order not to be wrong-footed again.

So this is why a meeting was held in January 2007 in Rome to discuss matters and out of this discussion the Pope’s letter came.

Q: What is the most important element of the letter?

Schmid: The most significant thing about this letter is that it exists at all — that there is a letter to Chinese Catholics from the Pope. And it will serve as a test case for the much-trumpeted new openness toward Rome of the official Church.

It is all very well for reconciled bishops — 90% of the illegitimately ordained bishops in China have subsequently reconciled with Rome — to encourage the faithful to pray for the Pope at Sunday Mass. But when the Holy Father writes an actual letter to them, what will they do?

Distribute it to the faithful and take it as a fundamental reference point for the future — or ignore it and carry on as if it had never been written?

To be sure, the reception of this letter will say as much as the text itself about the current situation of the Church in China.

Q: Is there any indication of how the letter been received so far?

Schmid: Already, before the letter had appeared, government officials had summoned Catholic open Church bishops to a meeting in order to coordinate the response — which appears to be: do nothing.

News reports today indicate that the letter was not mentioned at open Church Sunday Masses and the vice chairman of the Patriotic Association has indicated that there are no plans to distribute the letter.

He did, however, state that people were free to download it from the Internet if they wanted. And this seems to be happening: I’ve been in contact with underground Catholics who have already read it.

There is a strong grassroots movement in the open Church community in favor of communion with Rome, even to the extent that the open Church auxiliary bishop of Shanghai could admit: “Without mandate from Rome, the people will not accept a bishop.”

I imagine that independent of the directives of the Church hierarchy, they are going online too.

It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the Chinese government will try to restrict access: There have been some reports that Catholic Web sites based in China had originally been allowed to upload the letter but were subsequently forced to take it down.

Q: Does the Pope’s letter represent a dramatic change in Vatican policy? What exactly has the letter changed?

Schmid: There has been some confusion on this matter in the initial press reactions.

The letter revokes the special faculties granted in 1981 through a letter of Cardinal Agnelo Rossi, the then prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

At that time the Holy See found it impossible to directly provide legitimate bishops loyal to the Holy See and therefore granted the loyal bishops within China the “very special faculties” to ordain bishops without previously informing the Holy See, because of the danger incurred in communicating with Rome.

Clearly in an age of e-mail and cell phones, communication with Rome no longer presents an insurmountable problem, and so these special faculties are no longer necessary.

The revocation of these faculties is not the same as the revocation of the Tomko points of 1988, which have been superseded by this letter. As the letter explicitly says, the fundamental principles remain the same: Illegitimate ordination still incurs excommunication “latae sententiae” according to canon 1382.

Bishops appointed by, or reconciled with, Rome are still fully valid and legitimate.

Bishops appointed without papal mandate and not reconciled with Rome are still illegitimate: They administer the sacraments validly, but not legitimately.

As has always been the case, Catholics may receive sacraments from them where they have no other option, just as they can from valid yet illegitimate Greek Orthodox clergy.

Q: Does the letter criticize or condemn anyone?

Schmid: In the letter, Benedict XVI shows extraordinary sympathy and understanding for difficult situations of individual priests or bishops — and that the lack of religious freedom in China is a mitigating factor in the decision-making process. So there are no blanket condemnations or criticism.

But, at the same time, the Pope is tough on the specific institutions such as the bishops’ conference of the open Church which “cannot be recognized by the Holy See” because of its exclusion of underground bishops and inclusion of bishops not recognized by the Holy See, as well as the Catholic Patriotic Association whose statutes are “incompatible with Church doctrine.”

Q: What is the Catholic Patriotic Association?

Schmid: The Patriotic Association is not the same as the open or official Church, although there is a good deal of overlap between the two; the Pope refers to it as an “external entity” which sometimes “interferes” in the running of the official Church.

The Patriotic Association is a collective that was set up by the government in 1957, with the stated purpose of implementing “the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management, and democratic administration of the Church.”

These are the principles that the Pope’s letter unequivocally calls “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”

Q: Are Catholics in China required to join the Catholic Patriotic Association?

Schmid: In the past, priests and bishops were required to join this organization if they wished to practice their faith in the open and with government approval.

This is no longer the case everywhere: Bishop Lucas Li of Fenxiang, for example, has received government approval without being a member of the Patriotic Association.

But still enormous pressure is sometimes brought to bear on bishops and clerics to join the Patriotic Association: In 2001, Bishop Li and his secretary were arrested by the police and disappeared for about a month, while 12 priests of his diocese were detained and forced to attend re-education courses in order to force them to join the Patriotic Association.

The campaign was unsuccessful, but the episode shows the enduring power of the Patriotic Association.

One of the reasons for this power is money: The Religious Affairs Bureau and the Patriotic Association are in charge of confiscated Church properties and investments across the country.

According to Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, the total value of confiscated properties and goods amounts to at least 130 billion Yuan, that is about $17 billion. Only a fraction of the income of these properties is redirected to the government-approved official Church.

Q: The document does not speak of a “patriotic” or “official Church,” nor does it mention an “underground Church” — what is the significance of this?

Schmid: It is perfectly true that the document does this, and it is not a new departure. Rome has always avoided speaking of schism — of the “official” or “patriotic” Church in China having split off from the Roman Catholic Church.

The facts on the ground, however, had made it necessary to distinguish between two groups of Catholics — those whose collaboration with the government gained them the privilege of open exercise of their religion — though at the cost of accepting illegitimate bishops — and those whose refusal to compromise resulted in them being driven underground.

Ultimately, however, the future of this distinction depends on the Chinese government and the advancement of religious freedom in China.


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