Papal resignation sees Chinese Catholics torn between God and Caesar

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-2-27 19:08:01


Local worshippers in a church in Dongping, Shandong Province Photo: Li Hao/GT
Local worshippers in a church in Dongping, Shandong Province Photo: Li Hao/GT

Pope Benedict XVI, at age 85, resigns Thursday, the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to step down. His resignation has shocked the world, including followers in China, who have long been caught in the middle of the delicate relations between China and the Vatican. 

Over the past eight years, the pontiff has tried to address these complicated ties with a mixture of progress and friction. Though the impasse has not been broken, parishioners in China remain hopeful.

Many Catholic faithful were stunned at the Pope's resignation. Wang Chunlai, a 32-year-old who was attending a Sunday mass with some 500 people at Xuanwumen Church in Beijing, read the news about the Pope online.

He had just come back from his hometown in Hebei Province where most of the residents are Catholic.

"I saw the news and told the others at my church back home, and they were all surprised," he said.

The German-born Pope announced on February 11 his plan to resign, saying he is too weak to carry on.

Father Wang Heping of Beijing diocese said though the news took many by surprise, a lot of parishioners could also understand, respect and accept this important decision.

"Many believe that the Holy Father has made a responsible decision with great courage and wisdom," he said. "Some praise him and express gratitude for his contribution over the years while many remember his teachings and guidance and also pray for his health."

Father Wang said Pope Benedict XVI had shown great care and love for the Church in China during his papacy, most prominently reflected in his letter addressed to the Chinese Catholic community on May 20, 2007.

In the letter, the Pope expressed understanding about the complicated situation of the Church in China and offered guidelines for pastoral life.

He more than once expressed "willingness to engage in respectful and constructive dialogue" with China, while also emphasizing the doctrines and tradition of the Catholic Church must be defended.

At the end of the letter, the Pope also dedicated May 24 as a day of prayer for the Church in China, and personally wrote the ensuing prayer.

"These gestures were unprecedented and I believe it showed the pontiff's love for China," said Father Wang.

Between Church and State

Since the newly-founded People's Republic of China cut off ties with the Vatican in 1951, the two sides have had little contact for half a century.

There were signs of change at the turn of the century. In what was seen as the Vatican's effort to restore normal ties with China, the late pope John Paul II apologized to China on October 24, 2001, for the errors some envoys had made in the past, particularly when China was fighting off foreign invasions.

He delivered the message in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci's arrival in Beijing, who was vital in spreading Catholicism in China.

In 2005, Benedict XVI met with actors from the China Disabled People's Arts Troupe who were performing in Rome at the time. In 2007, he set up a special commission to consult on affairs related to the Church in China.

In 2008, the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus visited the Vatican and performed in front of the Pope, hailed as an ice-breaking trip.

Government accounts put the number of Catholics in China at around 6 million. However, the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong estimates there are about 12 million Catholics on the mainland, about half of whom belong to churches not sanctioned by Chinese authorities.

In 1957, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was founded in order to develop and run the Church independently from Rome.

The association and Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China, governed by the State Administration of Religious Affairs, jointly oversee the Church in China.

Since then, the two sides have constantly butted heads, mainly over the consecration of bishops. The authorities maintain that the autonomy of the Church in China has helped the development of religion in the country, while in fact it has remained one of the main sticking points between the two sides.

The Vatican criticized the Chinese government over the consecration of bishops without papal approval, which is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, and over the years some bishops have been excommunicated by Rome.

Addressing the Chinese Catholic community in 2007, the Pope said that the situation "has caused division both among the clergy and among the lay faithful."

"It is a situation primarily dependent on factors external to the Church, but it has seriously conditioned her progress, giving rise also to suspicions, mutual accusations and recriminations," he said.

In a most recent instance of friction, Ma Daqin, an auxiliary bishop in Shanghai approved by both sides, announced during his consecration last July that he was quitting the Patriotic Association. Ma was stripped of his titles in December.

But the problem is not wholly without hope. There are many bishops who were approved both by the Chinese authorities and the Vatican.

China insists that the Vatican should not interfere. In December 2010, the Patriotic Association and the Bishops' Conference organized the eighth plenary meeting to choose the leadership.

In response to criticism from the Vatican, a spokesperson from the State Administration of Religious Affairs said that the Church in China doesn't need approval from the Vatican to choose its leaders.

Which Church?

Caught in the rift between China and the Vatican, Catholics often feel torn. Shang Zhihua, 66, grew up in a Catholic family in Beijing. She recalled that when she was in school, she wanted to join the Youth League and the Communist Party of China like everybody else.

Then came the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which disrupted every aspect of daily life, including religious activities since they were condemned as superstition.

In 1976, Shang joined the Communist Party.

"There was no church, and nobody around me was Catholic, or they didn't openly admit to being religious," said Shang. "I stopped any religious practices, I stopped praying."

Shang picked up her faith again after she was admitted to college in 1983.

Fortune smiled on Shang afterwards, and Shang took it as a sign that God had not given up on her, and started praying and attending church again.

Her family used to belong to the so-called underground Church, which doesn't answer to the Patriotic Association. Now every Sunday she goes to mass at a government-sanctioned church in Beijing.

"I only attend the one delivered in Latin," explained Shang. "I hold no grudges or blame for the patriotic churches, but I also try to limit my contact with them."

"For us there's only one Church, which the Catholic doctrine holds to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic," said Shang.

Standing in line for confession at the Xuanwumen Church on Sunday, a 77-year-old man who declined to be named said it does not make much of a difference to him which church he goes to because it is the same God he prays to. But he believes that it is unnecessary to have an independent association that oversees the Church in China.

The Catholic Church in China has yet to give an official response to the Pope's resignation.

The future of China-Vatican relations seem to largely depend on the attitude of the Chinese government, as the Vatican is expected to continue its policy and attitude toward China, its close attention paid to the Church in China and its willingness for open dialogue with the government, said Wang Meixiu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has done extensive research on the subject.

China has been able to look past ideological differences and a painful history of foreign invasion and establish diplomatic ties with most countries, so there is no reason why the Vatican should be excluded, she explained.

"It boils down to how the government views and treats religious groups," she said.

After the Pope announced his plan to resign, Hong Lei, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reiterated China's position on February 18, saying that China is willing to develop its relations with the Holy See, provided the Vatican doesn't interfere with China's internal affairs and severs diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

All religions in China are in fact governed by the authorities, but the conflict becomes more prominent when it comes to the Catholic Church since it has a universal leader in the Vatican. But the Chinese government should realize that the Pope's influence is only spiritual, she added.

No changes are expected any time soon, observers and followers say, but many have high hopes and expectations for the new Pope, who will be elected by the conclave of cardinals next month.

Wang Chunlai said he hopes there will be more exchanges between China and the Vatican on all fronts, culminating in a visit to China by the Pope one day.

Shang, who runs a non-profit organization that helps disabled children, said she hopes for reconciliation and that the Church in China will be brought into unity and communion with the Vatican.


Interview with Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi

How would you describe the relations between China and the Holy See over the past eight years?

These eight years have been marked by some positive moments and other less felicitous ones. Pope Benedict XVI showed his attentiveness to China and his liking for it in various ways, and obviously through his prayer for China. His interest for China was concretized, among other things, by the creation of a special Commission, which has the task of helping the Holy See to understand and examine both doctrinal and pastoral questions of major importance, which concern the Catholic Church in China and its relations with civil society. The Holy See’s openness to the Chinese people was expressed in the most visible and representative way in the concert offered to Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican by the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra and by the Shanghai Opera House Chorus on 7 May 2008.

What is the most significant step His Holiness took and what is his legacy as far as China is concerned?

The most significant gesture was, perhaps, the publication on 27 May 2007 of the Letter to Bishops, priests, consecrated persons and the lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China. In this Letter, Benedict XVI provided some guidelines regarding the life of the Church and the work of evangelization in China.

Furthermore, he expressed great appreciation and sentiments of friendship towards all the Chinese people, while indicating his willingness to engage in respectful and constructive dialogue with the civil Authorities.

How can you break this impasse?

By good will and mutual trust. It is a question of making the most of the contribution of the Catholic Church, so that she may be able to contribute to the construction of a society based on solidarity and openness, for the benefit of the whole country.

What is to be expected of Sino-Vatican relations after the new Pope is elected?

The world is discovering more and more the great values which characterize the history and culture of the Chinese people. The Catholic Church, for her part, knows these for some time and promotes them through Chinese Catholics. She wishes to continue carrying out her own mission of service, by promoting the good of every person and the common good of the country.


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