Friday, August 22, 2008

What's Come of the Pope's Letter to China?

Theologians Assess Document After a Year


Two high-ranking theologians said Benedict XVI's letter to Chinese Catholics, more than a year after its release, has outlined key points for reconciliation in China.

With the world's focus on Beijing for the Olympic games, L'Osservatore Romano talked about the May 27, 2007, papal letter with Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, Pontifical Household theologian, and Salesian Father Savio Hon Tai-Fai, a member of the International Theological Commission.

Both priests highlighted the importance of the letter in pointing out possible and specific ways to encourage the reconciliation of the national and underground Church in China, though they agree that the process will take time.

In China, the government permits religious practice only with recognized personnel and in places registered with the Religious Affairs Office and under the control of the Patriotic Association.

This explains the difference affirmed between the "national" or "official" Church, and the faithful who oppose such control and who wish to obey the Pope directly. The latter constitute the non-official, or underground, Church.


For Polish Father Giertych, one of the essential points of the letter is the consideration on the morality of human acts when freedom is lacking.

"In his message to the Church in China, the Holy Father attempted to address both those who have heroically resisted the persecutions and continued their clandestine existence, absolutely excluding any contact with the Chinese civil authorities, as well as those who, despite having made too many compromises, have tried to take advantage of the meager space, measured out carefully, which the political authorities offered," Father Giertych said.

"It is difficult to assess from the outside the thin line that exists between a cowardly retreat from a prophetic stand and prudence to keep what can be saved in face of oppression," he added. "The Holy Father has invited both groups, without condemning anyone, to overcome their lack of mutual trust and build the unity of the Body of Christ on the basis of forgiveness, and reconciliation and unity with the universal Church."

In making this appeal, the theologian noted, the Pope "has carefully avoided launching quick accusations, and has abstained from passing a moral judgment of condemnation, emphasizing the fact that in moral assessments, it is necessary to take into account the true intentions of a person who makes difficult prudential decisions."

The Pontifical Household theologian insisted that this "personalist" focus is essential when it comes to judging decisions made under a totalitarian regime.

He explained: "The fundamental principle -- according to which in all moral acts, in addition to the objective light that comes from the moral law, both the personal consideration made by the agent's reason as well as the agent's interior intention are of decisive significance -- will be useful, we hope, when it comes to reading recent history and to overcoming the climate of suspicion and mistrust that life often engenders under totalitarian regimes.

"The assessment of thorny issues, considered in the context of external oppression, calls above all for respect, sympathy and a feeling of compassion toward those who were forced to act in the face of impossible dilemmas. Only in a climate of respect and understanding will the wounds caused by persecution, fear and suspicion come to be cured."

In this connection, the priest added, Benedict XVI's letter expresses "words of caution so that grave injustices will not be committed on the part of those who, living in a different social context, apply simplistic criteria in their easy condemnations."

Therefore, Father Giertych concluded, "it is necessary, as John Paul II said in his May 2006 address to priests in Warsaw cathedral, to sincerely practice penance for past infidelities, avoiding arrogant judgment of past generations who lived in another time and in other circumstances."

Unity in Peter

For his part, Salesian Father Savio Hon Tai-Fai said the Pope "is aware that reconciliation cannot be effected from one day to the next. Prayer and patience are needed."

"The Holy Father inspires hope and wishes to touch the hearts of people so that change can take place," he said. "No matter how serious the limitations to freedom are, people must choose. In fact, the fidelity of Catholics in China 'at the cost of great sufferings' is much praised in the letter.

"The Salesian said that conversations he's had with Chinese Catholics affirm the letter was written with clarity and charity: "a charity with which the Pope requests reconciliation and forgiveness, and a clarity with which he states that the Church in China must be built on the rock of Peter through the bishops' communion with the Pope."

The letter "touches the crucial point of the problem -- the original cause of the rupture of unity," Father Tai-Fai added. "In recent years, the Church has enjoyed greater religious freedom than in the past, but there still are great limitations, which are harmful for the Church and of no advantage for the state."

"Catholics in China have been told to ignore the letter, which has been removed from Web sites. Priests and assistants have been asked not to speak about it," he lamented. However, the Salesian affirmed, all the efforts to silence the Pope's voice were "precisely what was needed to stimulate people's appetite to look for it."

On the Net:Pope's letter to Chinese:

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