Peremptory, imperious, and inescapably misleading: On Cardinal Tong’s pastoral letter|Joseph Long

Published (HKT): 2020.09.26 09:14

I suppose there could not have been a cheerier way to start the week for Catholics – ordained ministries and lay people alike – in Hong Kong: a talking-to by His Eminence the Apostolic Administrator. Cardinal John Tong Hon, in all the pomp and pride of his red cassock and “with pastoral solicitude”, published a condescending letter through the diocesan chancery on Monday (September 21) which, in a nutshell, conveyed that His Eminence had just about had enough of all the slagging-offs and slamming by Catholics in Hong Kong in respect of his – and the Church’s – subservient attitude to China. The message is clear: the Catholic Church is hierarchical; thus, as lay people, we do not have the “right” to openly challenge the Church or its leaders. What Cardinal Tong did not say explicitly was that those who think otherwise should probably go to blazes.

I, for one, certainly would not have been able to tell if it was a “pastoral letter” written by a church leader or a decree of a Stalinist regime had one replaced its ecclesial references and religious citations with a more indistinct vocabulary. The tone of the letter is so peremptory and imperious that there is almost a Soviet hint about it. But then, on closer inspection, it could not have been a Soviet ukase, for it was written with such airs and graces that are so redolent of feudalism that the mere possession of such letter in Stalinist Russia would have ensured one being sent straight to the gulags in Siberia. Some of the most militant sentences of his letter can be found in paragraph 9:—

“Today there are Catholics who claim they have the ‘right’ to openly challenge their pastors and the Church. In fact, these Catholics have a misconception of their ‘right’ as lay people. […] [T]he same Council [Vatican II] equally emphasizes that lay people are to obey and duly respect their pastors who, by reason of their sacred offices, represent the person of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 37). Catholics who arrogantly challenge or criticize the Church, or even slander Church leaders, are simply setting a bad example and creating a split in the Church. Only by preserving their communion with the Hierarchy can Catholics truly manifest the ‘sense of faith’ (‘sensus fidelium’) as advocated by Vatican II (cf. Lumen Gentium, 12).”

The brusqueness and imperiousness that the above paragraph demonstrated is shocking, not least because, in so proclaiming, Cardinal Tong has almost declared that he, by virtue of his holy order, speaks for the Lord, and thus we, as lay Catholics, should never challenge or criticize anything – be it earthly or spiritual matters – he has said or done. In paragraph 37 of Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), it is stated very clearly that “Christian obedience” to the Church is confined to spiritual matters. Leaders of the Church only command authority as “spiritual shepherds” in the sense that “they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church”. “Christian obedience” on the part of the laity is to the Catholic faith; the authority of the Church and its leaders is confined to ex cathedra pronouncements, i.e., in the exercise of one’s office as a leader of the Catholic Church in the pronouncement of faith or morals. As believers and followers of the faith, Catholics are, by definition, “unable” to challenge the Church or its leaders when the latter are speaking ex cathedra in matters of faith or morals, for if they disagree, they are, by definition, not Catholics (they are non-believers or lapsed Catholics). All the same, that does not mean, as Cardinal Tong claimed, that Catholics do not have the right to openly challenge the Church. On the contrary, when the Church or some leaders of the Church have done something wrong, especially on earthly matters or that which at odds with the teaching or doctrine of the Church, it is a Christian obligation, both morally and spiritually, to call them out on it. If this was not a deliberate misinterpretation of the Catholic doctrine on the part of Tong then it would be a serious misunderstanding of the fundamentals of the faith.

As I pointed out in this column a few months ago, it has almost become the Lord’s eleventh commandment for those who belong to the inner circle of the Holy See that one shalt not irritate the Chinese, if not bow and scrape to them unreservedly till kingdom come. Not that I believe Cardinal John Tong belongs to the clique of Pietro Parolin (Holy See’s Cardinal Secretary of State) et al.; still and all, in the light of the pastoral letter written by the His Eminence last week, I could not help but wonder if Cardinal Tong really had insight into what the Vatican was planning to do. Judging by the doctrinaire tone and the strong wording of the letter, I suspect it would not take long for the Vatican to sneak “bow and scrape to the Chinese” somewhere in the Credo or pronounce it as the eleventh commandment of the Lord – if Cardinal Tong could go so far as to help the Chinese authorities to quell dissent in Hong Kong by misquoting church documents, why would it not be conceivable for the Church to ban Catholics from criticizing the Chinese government? After all, they have already done so inadvertently in the mainland through signing the underground church over to Xi and his cronies two years ago.

(Joseph Long is a London-based writer and linguist from Hong Kong. He is a Philosophy graduate of King’s College London and has been a member of the Society of Authors in the United Kingdom since February 2020.)

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