The New York Times

October 25, 2001

The Pope Apologizes for the Catholic Church's 'Errors' in China


VATICAN CITY, Oct. 24 — Pope John Paul II apologized to China today for "errors" in the Roman Catholic Church's missions there and expressed his strong willingness to work toward full diplomatic relations with Beijing.

The pope has been pressing to normalize relations with China for years, but neither side has said it is prepared to make the changes that diplomatic relations would require: the Vatican still recognizes Taiwan, a deal breaker for the Chinese, and China does not allow Catholics to recognize the authority of the pope. Still, a seminar two weeks ago in Beijing for Catholic scholars honoring the 400th anniversary of the opening of a mission there by the Jesuit priest and scientist Matteo Ricci seems to have raised the hopes of Vatican diplomats, primarily because the Chinese allowed the conference to be held at all.

There was no immediate comment on the pope's remarks by China.

The state-sponsored Catholic church in China has about five million members, but the Vatican estimates that as many as eight million believers in the country are loyal to the pope. Those Catholics in the underground church have been harassed in varying degrees since the 1950's, when the new Communist government broke ties with the Vatican and established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Relations between the Holy See and Beijing have been tense of late, particularly since last year when the church canonized 120 Chinese as martyrs. Beijing has called those Chinese people criminals and traitors and has denounced the church's association with colonial powers.

But Catholics in Hong Kong, the British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, were also somewhat encouraged last week after China did not oppose church celebrations there on the anniversary of the canonizations. And today the pope tried to smooth grievances from the past, saying, "I feel deep sadness for the errors and limits of the past, and I regret that these failings may have given the impression of a lack of respect and esteem for the Chinese people, making them feel that the church was motivated by feelings of hostility towards China." The pope was speaking at a ceremony in Rome commemorating the opening of the mission in Beijing. "The present moment of profound disquiet in the international community," the pope said, "calls for a fervent commitment on the part of everyone to creating and developing ties of understanding, friendship and solidarity among peoples. In this context, the normalization of relations between the People's Republic of China and the Holy See would undoubtedly have positive repercussions for humanity's progress."

Official relations would obviously give the church a chance to enlarge its following among China's 1.3 billion people — and could give China a chance to improve its human rights image abroad. The pope said the church "is familiar with the significant advances made in recent times in the social, economic and educational spheres, and also with the difficulties that remain," adding:

"The church must not be afraid of historical truth and she is ready with deeply felt pain to admit the responsibility of her children. This is true also with regard to her relationship, past and present, with the Chinese people. Historical truth must be sought serenely, with impartiality.

"Once the misunderstandings of the past have been overcome, a dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese people and for peace in the world."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company