“Now with the mind of Christ set us on fire,
that unity may be our great desire…”
(John Raphael Peacey)
The Letter of the Holy Father to the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China is a remarkable document, which some commentators have seen as marking a new stage in the history of the Church in that country.
For some time, I have wondered whether we could see the situation in China in terms of “ecumenism”. After all, the problem did appear to be one of disunity between the Catholic Churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome and a rival episcopal church organisation which was not in communion.
But in his letter, the Holy Father chose to consider the divisions among Chinese Catholics as divisions WITHIN the one Catholic Church in China, not as divisions between a true and a rival Catholic Church.
Secondly, although most modern ecumenical divisions are based on doctrinal differences, historically and often still today, politics has played a large part in originating and perpetuating the divisions. So also in China, where the Patriotic Association–for political purposes–teaches a doctrinal error by asserting that the Chinese Church can be independant of the Church of Rome and yet remain Catholic.
In this the Chinese situation bears superficial resemblence at least to the situation in England under Henry VIII. Then, an otherwise orthodox Catholic King desired separation from Rome for political reasons, but found many “protestants” who were more than willing to encourage the King for their own doctrinal reasons.
In his letter, the Holy Father could have taken the same stand that his predecessors took four and half centuries ago in relation to the English situation. He could have called for a situation of active resistance, of confrontation, of denunciation. It could have been an “us and them” approach that hardened the lines separating the “official” and “underground” communities.
Instead, we can see what a difference four and a half centuries of experience of division among Christians has made. The pope recognises the many different real-life situations and difficulties which the Catholic Church in China is suffering, and implores each bishop, priest and lay person to reach out in love and charity toward those “on the other side of the barbed-wire fence”. We have also learnt something about Church-State relations, and know that it is possible to enter into “dialogue” with even the most anti-Christian civil authority, as long as that authority is as willing to engage in the dialogue as the Church is.
At the same time, Pope Benedict does not give an inch on the fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith, chief among which is the following (and read this carefully, because it pops up again in the recent “Clarification” from the CDF on the Doctrine of the Church):
The ministry of the Successor of Peter belongs to the essence of every particular Church “from within” . Moreover, the communion of all the particular Churches in the one Catholic Church, and hence the ordered hierarchical communion of all the Bishops, successors of the Apostles, with the Successor of Peter, are a guarantee of the unity of the faith and life of all Catholics. It is therefore indispensable, for the unity of the Church in individual nations, that every Bishop should be in communion with the other Bishops, and that all should be in visible and concrete communion with the Pope.
Without denying this essential requirement, Pope Benedict, in this letter, has done what he said the Church is obligated to do:
to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew.
As Father Jeroom Heyndrickx puts it well in a summary article:
The key words are: reconciliation, unity and dialogue. Nowhere in this letter does the pope call for confrontation. Marked by reconciliation and unity inside the Church and dialogue with civil authorities on the basis of equality and mutual respect, it initiates a new phase in Chinese Catholic Church history.