Pope Benedict XVI yesterday invited all Roman Catholics in China to unite under his jurisdiction and urged Beijing to restore diplomatic ties and permit religious freedom.
He called the state-run Catholic Church "incompatible" with Catholic doctrine, but nevertheless made unprecedented overtures toward it.
In an eagerly awaited letter to the faithful in China taking up a priority of his papacy, Benedict insisted on his right to appoint bishops, but said he trusted that an agreement could be reached with Beijing on nominations.
Significantly, Benedict revoked previous Vatican-issued restrictions on contacts with the clergy of the official church and recognized that some Chinese faithful have no choice but to attend officially recognized Masses.
The Vatican said in a note accompanying the letter that it was prepared to move its diplomatic representation from Taiwan to Beijing "at any time" as soon as an agreement with the government was reached.
The letter was the most significant effort by Benedict to balance his pastoral concerns for the up to 12 million Roman Catholics in China who are divided between an official church -- the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association -- and an underground church that is not registered with the authorities.
The Beijing government forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in the government-controlled churches.
Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations that remain loyal to Rome.
On several occasions, Benedict praised Catholics who resisted pressure to join the official church and paid a price for it "with the shedding of their blood."
But he urged them to forgive and reconcile with others for the sake of unifying the church.
Tellingly, Benedict referred repeatedly to the "Catholic Church in China," without distinguishing between the divisions -- an indication of his aim to see the two united and in communion with Rome.
On several occasions, he also called the Patriotic Association "incompatible with Catholic doctrine" because it named its own bishops and sought to guide the life of the church.
At the same time, however, Benedict made an unprecedented gesture, revoking 1988 guidelines issued by the Vatican's evangelization office that sought to limit contacts with the official church and declared that any bishop ordained by the official church would incur an automatic excommunication.
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