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China and religious freedom

John Cardinal Tong Hon published a letter entitled The communion of the Church in China with the universal Church on August 7, which has aroused much comment from both in and outside the Church.

While mainland Catholics generally found the article rational and balanced, some thought it a bit over-optimistic, as under the current government, restrictions on religious freedom may be too limiting to realise any real communion or unity between the official and unofficial Church communities, let alone with the universal Church.

Cardinal Tong points out the Catholic Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, but says that communion with the universal Church should not just be a spiritual thing, as the concrete action of the pope needs to be visible in the appointment of bishops.

He also addresses the problem of the local bishops’ conference, illegitimate bishops and the release of bishops and priests from prison, saying that the pope would not accept any agreement that would harm the integrity of the faith or the communion of the universal Church, as he “would only sign an agreement that would promote the unity and communion of the Church in China with the universal Church.”

He insisted that any Sino-Vatican agreement must be a win-win outcome, not a zero-sum game.

At the end of August, the Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, reinforced its desire to improve relations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing responded, saying, “The two sides have a well-functioning and effective ways of communication.”

The deputy minister of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan backed up the Vatican position saying that its mission requires engagement with China (see page 3).

Although both the political will and the way of communication already exist, both China and the Vatican are publicly mute and the bottom line of any progress is only inferred. All Cardinal Tong says is, “The negotiation… is a long-term process.”

There are inherent difficulties in dealing with a government which is continually imposing limitations on the Church, as illustrated by the new requirement of registration of clergy, the insistence on Sinicisation and the strengthening of the “principles of independence, autonomy and self-government.”

Cardinal Tong stresses, “What is spread by the Catholic Church in China is not just a gospel for the individual,” so while communion with the universal Church is important, communion within the Church is also important, as the unofficial communities are in a state of uncertainty and need encouragement.

While pushing for the normalisation of the faith life in China, the universal Church should pray for the communion of the Church and religious freedom in China, understand the situation and show concern for the needs of the people.

The problems of the Church in China challenge Hong Kong not to be judgmental, but show empathy, respect and encouragement by sharing its joy, hope, grief and the anxiety.


We should also pray for reconciliation and unity, and carry the heavy cross with its people. The Church needs real religious freedom, not only because this is people’s natural right, but also to help people to pursue truth, goodness, beauty and holiness, and “affirm and develop the dignity proper to them” (cf Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, No1 , 9). SE