In a historic overture to China and its estimated 12 million Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday urged the Communist-sanctioned church and its underground counterpart to unite while also suggesting that the Vatican was prepared to end a half-century diplomatic rift with Beijing.
The pope was firm in denouncing restrictions placed on Catholics in China and reasserted his authority by insisting that Chinese bishops, priests and worshipers be loyal to Rome.
But he also laid out areas of potential compromise with Chinese authorities.
His instructions and commentary were contained in a 55-page letter to the Chinese faithful published Saturday in five languages, including modern and traditional Mandarin.
The Catholic Church in China has been divided since 1951, when the communist government required Chinese Catholics to sever ties with Rome.
The officially sanctioned church respects the pope as a spiritual leader but does not recognize his authority to appoint bishops. A government agency has assumed that duty.
Meanwhile, a clandestine church loyal to Rome has continued to function in the shadows.
Benedict wants to reconcile the two groups. He acknowledged in the letter that pro-Rome Catholics have been persecuted, but said it was important now to promote a “spirit of communion, understanding and forgiveness” that would help all China’s Catholics “grow in unity.”
“It cannot be denied that grave limitations remain that touch the heart of the faith and that, to a certain degree, suffocate pastoral activity,” the pope wrote. The church has witnessed what he called an unacceptable “demeaning” of its hierarchical power through China’s system of oversight.
“A church that is ‘independent’ of the Holy See, in the religious sphere, is incompatible with Catholic doctrine,” he said.
Nevertheless, Benedict said, the Vatican is willing to open a “constructive dialogue” with Chinese religious and state authorities to find ways to bridge their differences.
“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.
Specifically, he said, priests and bishops approved by the state should seek consecration from Rome. But Rome-backed clerics also could seek state approval as long as it did not interfere with their core ecclesiastical mission.
And he revoked a set of directives in place since 1988 that had banned all contact with the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assn. Although worshipers should try to find priests loyal to Rome as their spiritual guides, he said, it may not always be possible, and in those cases the faithful may go to state priests.
Furthermore, the pope said the Holy See would be willing to negotiate bishop appointments with the Chinese state authorities, an important concession.
All of this would be part of an improved dialogue and what the pope said he hoped would be an eventual normalization of diplomatic relations.
“This situation of misunderstandings and incomprehension weighs heavily, serving the interests of neither the Chinese authorities nor the Catholic Church in China,” the pope said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said authorities had “taken note” of the pope’s letter. The government, he said via the state’s website, remained committed to “candid and constructive dialogue” with the Vatican.
Fundamental to any improvement in relations, Qin said, was for the Vatican to end relations with Taiwan and refrain from interfering in China’s internal affairs.
The Vatican has indicated its willingness to remove its embassy from Taiwan, considered by Beijing to be a breakaway province, and reiterated that position Saturday in a note accompanying the pope’s open letter.
“The Holy See remains open to negotiations, so necessary if the difficulties of the present time are to be overcome,” the pope wrote.
From the beginning of his papacy, Benedict has been interested in the plight of Chinese Catholics and has been keen to heal the divisions in China. Saturday’s document is by far the biggest step to date in that campaign.
The history of the church in China is full of tumult and tragedy, from the expulsion of foreign priests soon after the communist takeover to purges during the Cultural Revolution.
Vatican officials say they believe they have an opening now, as China institutes some reforms and looks to gain acceptance in the West.
The pope said he perceived an increase in religious awareness and interest in China.
Quoting his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, Benedict said he hoped for a “great harvest of faith” in Asia in the third millennium.
Times staff writer Ching-Ching Ni in Beijing contributed to this report.