VATICAN CITY — A Vatican commission on China expressed deep concern over worsening relations with the Chinese government, and appealed to authorities there to avoid steps that would aggravate church-state problems.
Specifically, the commission urged Chinese authorities not to persist in imposing new government-backed bishops who do not have the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. Titled a “Message to Chinese Catholics,” the text was issued April 14 following a three-day annual meeting of the commission at the Vatican.
In one hopeful sign, the commission expressed joy at the news that the Diocese of Shanghai was launching the beatification cause of Paul Xu Guangqi, a Chinese scholar who worked closely with the famed Jesuit missionary, Father Matteo Ricci, in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Pope Benedict met with commission members at the end of their encounter, praising the desire for unity with Rome among Chinese Catholics and underlining the importance of spiritual formation in confronting present challenges.
The commission’s message began by noting the “general climate of disorientation and anxiety about the future” of the church in China, following recent setbacks in church-state relations. It said that given the numerous vacant dioceses in China, the selection of new bishops was an urgent necessity and at the same time “a source of deep concern.”
“The commission strongly hopes that there will not be new wounds to ecclesial communion,” it said. “We look with trepidation and fear to the future: we know that it is not entirely in our hands and we launch an appeal so that the problems do not grow and that the divisions are not deepened, at the expense of harmony and peace.”
The message said the ordination of a new bishop of Chengde last November — the first without papal approval in four years — was a “sad episode” that had inflicted a “painful wound” on church unity. It emphasized that the church considers the appointment of bishops a religious not a political matter, which rightly falls under the pope’s “supreme spiritual authority.”
The message said the Vatican, while it does not have reason to regard the ordination in Chengde invalid, does consider it “gravely illegitimate” because it was conferred without the papal mandate. As a result, it said, the bishop’s exercise of ministry is also illegitimate.
The message also addressed the fact that several other bishops, including some in communion with the pope, took part in the Chengde ordination. Because these bishops may have been forced to participate, excommunication was not automatically incurred, the Vatican commission said.
But it called on all bishops involved in the ordination to explain themselves to the Vatican and to their own priests and faithful, in order to help “repair the external scandal” caused by their participation.
The message also criticized the Chinese government-controlled National Congress of Catholic Representatives that was held in Beijing Dec. 7-9. Many bishops, priests, religious and laypeople were forced to take part in the assembly against their will.
The commission cited Pope Benedict’s letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, which said Catholic doctrine cannot accept that state-controlled organizations outside the structure of the church can guide the life of the Catholic community.
The commission’s message said the church was open to “sincere and respectful dialogue with the civil authorities” in order to overcome the present problems. Specifically, it said the Vatican was ready to sit down and consult with Chinese authorities on the question of the redrawing of diocesan boundaries in China.
The message asked the whole church to pray for Chinese Catholics, in particular on May 24, the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, which Pope Benedict has designated as a day of prayer for the church in China.