Image: Pope Benedict XVI
Tony Gentile  /  Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI is greeted by bishops at the end of a special audience Saturday in Paul VI hall at the Vatican.
updated 6/30/2007 12:04:28 PM ET 2007-06-30T16:04:28

Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday invited all Roman Catholics in China to unite under his jurisdiction and urged Beijing to restore diplomatic ties and permit religious freedom.

He called China’s state-run Catholic Church “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine but nevertheless made unprecedented overtures toward it.

In an eagerly awaited letter to the faithful in China, Benedict insisted on his right to appoint bishops, but said he trusted that an agreement could be reached with the Beijing authorities on nominations.

China’s Foreign Ministry said it had “taken note” of the pope’s letter but did not directly respond to its contents.

Significantly, Benedict revoked previous Vatican-issued regulations on both underground and official priests and bishops, and recognized that some Chinese faithful have no choice but to attend officially recognized Masses.

The letter was the most significant effort to date by Benedict to balance his pastoral concerns for the up to 12 million Roman Catholics in China who are divided between an official church—the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association—and an underground church that is not registered with the authorities.

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in the government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops.

Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations that remain loyal to Rome.

The Vatican’s release of the letter was remarkable and showed it was eager for it to be widely read: It translated it into five languages—including Mandarin in both traditional and simplified characters—issued it with two documents highlighting key points, included a prepared statement by the Vatican spokesman and posted the letter in Chinese on the Vatican’s home page.

‘A frank, constructive dialogue’
The text of the letter was believed to have been sent to the Beijing government in recent days as a courtesy. However, the vice chairman of the Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, said Saturday after its release that he hadn’t seen the letter and that the church had no immediate plans to read it out to the faithful or otherwise distribute it.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China would “continue to have a frank, constructive dialogue with the Vatican in order to resolve differences between the two sides.”

The statement called on the Vatican to sever ties with rival Taiwan and not interfere in Beijing’s internal affairs in the name of religion.

The Vatican said in a note accompanying the letter that it was prepared “at any time” to move its diplomatic representation from Taiwan—which split from China in 1949 -- to Beijing, as soon as an agreement with the government was reached.

On several occasions, Benedict praised Catholics who resisted pressure to join the official church and paid a price for it “with the shedding of their blood.”

‘Moving beyond personal positions or viewpoints’
But he urged them to forgive and reconcile with others for the sake of unifying the church.

“Indeed, the purification of memory, the pardoning of wrongdoers, the forgetting of injustices suffered and the loving restoration to serenity of troubled hearts ... can require moving beyond personal positions or viewpoints, born of painful or difficult experiences,” he wrote.

Tellingly, Benedict referred repeatedly to the “Catholic Church in China,” without distinguishing between the divisions—an indication of his aim to see the two united and in communion with Rome.

On several occasions, Benedict also called the Patriotic Association “incompatible with Catholic doctrine” because it named its own bishops and sought to guide the life of the church.

At the same time, however, Benedict made an unprecedented gesture, revoking 1988 guidelines issued by the Vatican’s evangelization office that sought to limit contacts with the official church and declared that any bishop ordained by the official church would incur an automatic excommunication.

Benedict also revoked special Vatican-approved allowances made to underground bishops to ordain new priests and perform other duties without following traditional norms. They had been granted in the past because the normal ways of celebrating the rites could have resulted in retaliation by Chinese authorities.

‘Authentic religious freedom’
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the revocation of the norms was “significant” because it meant that the Catholic Church in China did not require special Vatican allowances.

In a message directed to the Beijing authorities, Benedict insisted that the church had no political aims in China. At the same time, however, he said the state cannot interfere “in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the church” and that the state should guarantee “authentic religious freedom.”

Benedict stressed that he alone must appoint bishops to ensure apostolic succession—the method by which bishops can trace their succession back to Christ’s original apostles. But he said he was willing to compromise.

The Vatican would like to have a formula similar to the one it has with Vietnam, another communist country, where the Vatican proposes a few names and the government selects one.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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