The Catholic Church has never been a model of candor or transparency. Compare it to the Chinese government, however, and the Vatican can start to look downright forthcoming. In what may be Rome's strongest public push to normalize relations with China, Pope Benedict XVI has sent a 55-page open letter to Chinese Catholics that essentially lays all the Vatican's diplomatic cards on the table. The initial response from Beijing, meanwhile, has been terse and predictably cryptic.
Benedict writes frankly about his continuing concern that the government in China can sometimes "suffocate" religious freedom, and makes clear that the Church ultimately cannot cede its authority in the standoff over who appoints Catholic bishops. Benedict says that the Pope's prerogative to choose his deputies "touches the very heart of the life of the Church the guarantee of the unity of the Church and of hierarchical communion." Still, the letter, which was released over the weekend, repeatedly extends olive branches to Beijing. Benedict acknowledges that progress has been made on religious freedom, and on the "delicate" issue of bishop selection, says that "it is understandable that governmental authorities are attentive to the choice of those who will carry out the important role of leading and shepherding the local Catholic communities." The Pope also reiterates that the Vatican is ready to move its diplomats from Taiwan to Beijing the moment relations are restored with the People's Republic.
For years, there have essentially been two Catholic churches in China, an official, state-sponsored "patriotic" church with Beijing-picked bishops, and an underground network of priests and parishioners loyal to the Pope. Increasingly, with local mediation and a softening from both Rome and Beijing, there is more cross-over among parishioners of the two churches. Indeed, says Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of Asia News and a longtime China expert, the Pope's letter was aimed at "making clear in public that the Church is united, that the official and unofficial churches are related. This pushes all the communities in China to cooperate, which makes it more difficult to divide."
Months in the making, the letter is seen as the public cornerstone in Benedict's China policy, which may turn out to be more active and perhaps more fruitful than his predecessor's. With an estimated 12 million Catholics and a pent-up religiosity, China is seen in the Vatican as a great missionary opportunity. Still, no one in Rome has any illusions that the missive alone can heal the more than half-century rupture that came after the arrival of the Communist regime in 1949.
Chinese officials, who were given the letter as a "courtesy" several days before its official release, quickly fired off a response, demanding that the Vatican immediately sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not "create new obstacles" in negotiations with Beijing. The Patriotic church has refused to distribute the letter to its priests and faithful, and there are reports that the Vatican website where the text and an explanatory note are available in Chinese has been blocked on mainland China in recent days.
Cervellera says that Beijing's response could have been much more hostile, as it was in 2000 when Pope John Paul II canonized several Catholic Chinese martyrs. The reaction this time, instead, was pro forma. Still, it's impossible to know Beijing's next moves on the questions of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and religious freedom for Catholics not even the Chinese know. "We cannot solve this problem," he said. "The problem is inside the Chinese Communist party, which is undergoing a radical transition."