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The Pope, China and Church Unity

Interview With Religious Freedom Expert

ROME, JULY 3, 2007 (Zenit) - 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, 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 ...

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