China is a great country, with a great culture, rich in history and wisdom: Pope Francis

I realise this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have an abiding interest in these fascinating developments. Perhaps the most significant observation is as follows: ‘He [Pope Francis] sees China not only as a great country but also as a great culture, rich in history and wisdom. Today China has come to arouse great attention and interest everywhere, especially among young people. The Holy See hopes that China will not be afraid to enter into dialogue with the wider world and that the world’s nations will give credit to the profound aspirations of the Chinese people’.

Not only does this indicate an official Vatican position, but it also reveals how hollow the ‘China threat’ narrative really is, peddled by a handful of former colonisers (12-15 at most) who know their influence is well and truly on the way out.

It comes from an interview with Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State. It was published today in the Global Times, but it also has clear connections with earlier statements (here, here and here). The text is as follows:

Editor’s Note: As a sign of positive developments in China-Vatican relations, the recent Easter celebrations were peaceful in China and the presence of the Vatican representation at the Horticultural International Exhibition in Beijing attracted positive attention. Cardinal Pietro Parolin(Parolin), Vatican Secretary of State, granted an exclusive interview to the Global Times (GT) special correspondent Francesco Sisci and staff reporter Zhang Yu. He talked about the latest progress of the provisional agreement between China and the Holy See, his memories of negotiating with Chinese representatives, and his take on China’s sinicization of religions in recent years.

GT: The agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China has been signed. The dialogue is still ongoing. How is it proceeding now? How often do the two sides meet? Can you give us some details about it?

Parolin: Yes, on September 22, 2018 we signed a provisional agreement on the nomination of bishops in China. The two sides are well aware that such an act constitutes the point of arrival of a long journey, but it is above all a starting point. There is confidence that a new phase of greater cooperation can now be opened for the good of the Chinese Catholic community and the harmony of the whole society. The channels of communication are working well. There are elements which demonstrate an increased trust between the two sides. We are inaugurating a method which appears positive and which will still have to be developed over time, but which, for now, gives us hope that we can gradually arrive at concrete results. We have to journey together, because only in this way will we be able to heal the wounds and misunderstandings of the past in order to show the world that even starting from positions that are far apart, we can reach fruitful agreements. I would like to highlight an aspect which is particularly close to the heart of Pope Francis: That is, the true nature of dialogue. In dialogue, neither of the two sides gives up its own identity or what is essential for carrying out its own task. China and the Holy See are not discussing theories about their respective systems nor do they want to reopen questions which by now belong to history. Instead we are looking for practical solutions which concern the lives of real people who desire to practice their faith peacefully and offer a positive contribution to their own country.

GT: There is some opposition to the Vatican’s dialogue with the Chinese government. What is your take on the opposition and what would you say to the opponents within the Church?

Parolin: As generally happens in complex issues and when one faces problems of great importance, also in Sino-Vatican relations, it is usual to compare different positions and likewise propose different solutions, according to the initial points of view and the prevailing concerns. Therefore, there should not be a surprise if there is criticism, which can arise either in the church or in China or from elsewhere, of an opening which can appear unprecedented after such a long period of confrontation. Indeed, it seems to me human and Christian to show understanding, attention and respect for those who express such criticism. Of course, not all problems have been resolved. Many questions still need to be addressed and we are facing them with willingness and determination. I am well aware that no one has it completely worked out (or, indeed, can provide a magic formula!), but I can also say that we are committed to finding enduring solutions, which are acceptable to, and respectful of all concerned. Obviously, criticisms which come from prejudiced positions and which seem to seek to preserve old geopolitical balances are another matter. For Pope Francis – who is well aware of all that has happened even in the recent past – the main interest in the ongoing dialogue is on the pastoral level: he is making a great act of trust and respect for the Chinese people and their culture of millennia, with the well-founded hope of receiving an equally sincere and positive response.  The truly important point is that the dialogue should be able to progressively build a wider consensus by bearing abundant fruits. A first and two-fold fruit, to observe carefully, is what has already taken place: on the one hand, we are beginning to overcome reciprocal condemnations, we know each other better, we listen to each other, we understand the needs of those involved in the dialogue in a better way. On the other hand, the prospect opens up that two ancient, great and sophisticated international entities – like China and the Apostolic See – may become ever more aware of a common responsibility for the grave problems of our time. Global responses have to correspond to global challenges. Catholicism by its nature is a global reality, able to promote in an original way the search for meaning and happiness, to bolster the value of belonging to a specific culture and at the same time experience universal fraternity. As a Chinese bishop recently pointed out, the Catholic communities in China today are asking to be fully integrated into universal communion, bringing to the Church the gift of being Chinese.

GT: Inculturation has always been important for the Catholic Church when it preaches the Gospel. Now China is carrying out “sinicization” of religions. What is your take on inculturation and “sinicization”?

Parolin: Inculturation is an essential condition for a sound proclamation of the Gospel which, in order to bear fruit, requires, on the one hand, safeguarding its authentic purity and integrity and, on the other, presenting it according to the particular experience of each people and culture. The fruitful experience of Matteo Ricci is an outstanding witness of this: he knew how to make himself authentically Chinese in order to promote the values of human friendship and Christian love. For the future, it will certainly be important to deepen this theme, especially the relationship between “inculturation” and “sinicization,” keeping in mind how the Chinese leadership has been able to reiterate their willingness not to undermine the nature and the doctrine of each religion. These two terms, “inculturation” and “sinicization,” refer to each other without confusion and without opposition: in some ways, they can be complementary and can open avenues for dialogue on the religious and cultural level. Finally, I would say that the principal actors in this commitment are Chinese Catholics, called to live reconciliation in order to be authentically Chinese and fully Catholic.

GT: The Vatican (Holy See) has played a positive role in helping China get recognition for its efforts to crack down on organ trafficking. Are there other areas in which the two sides can work together?

Parolin: As I pointed out before, today many global challenges exist which need to be faced with a spirit of positive cooperation. I am thinking in particular of the great issues of peace, the fight against poverty, environmental and climatic emergencies, migration, the ethics of scientific development and the economic and social progress of peoples. It is of primary importance for the Holy See that in all these areas the dignity of the human person be placed at the center, beginning with the real recognition of his or her fundamental rights, among which is the right to religious freedom, and the common good, which is the good of each and everyone. These are very broad horizons which today more than ever need a shared commitment on the part of everyone: believers and non-believers. The Holy See will continue to do its part within the international community and is open to every initiative which promotes the common good.

GT: It is a complicated time for the whole world and in particular for some countries. What could you say to political leaders personally, as a religious man?

Parolin: Today, more than in the past, political leaders are called to enormous responsibilities. What happens on the local level almost immediately has repercussions on the global level. We are all interconnected, so the words and decisions of a few persons influence the lives and way of thinking of many. As a man of faith and as a priest, I would like to invite those who have direct political responsibilities to keep in mind this power of influence over people, a power which can be vertiginous. I would like to say that even in the most difficult situations and faced with the most complex decisions they should not be afraid to lift their gaze, beyond immediate success, to seek lasting and far-reaching solutions without preconditions which can contribute to building a more humane, more just and more worthy future for everyone. In this regard, I would like to highlight the message of Pope Francis for the celebration of the 52nd World Day of Peace on  January 1, 2019, entitled: “Good politics at the service of peace,” which offers valuable indications to all those who have political responsibilities.

GT: You have dealt with Chinese representatives for many years. What is the most powerful memory of that time? And the most beautiful one?

Parolin: I have clear and fond memories of the time when, as Undersecretary for Relations with States, I had dealings with the Chinese representatives and I thank the Lord for allowing me to have that rich experience.  There was, of course, no shortage of concerns and fears. On not a few occasions, it seemed to me that we would never make progress and that everything would be brought to a halt. The will to move forward prevailed on both sides, however, and with patience and determination we sought to overcome the obstacles along the way. This particular detail has remained clearly impressed on my memory. The most poignant times were those when we spent moments of familiarity and friendship together, allowing us to get to know one other and to appreciate each other more and, in the end, to share the humanity that unites us beyond the differences that exist between us. These are situations that have a profound value in themselves, but which were also useful in creating a more favorable atmosphere during the negotiations. I remember, in particular, a whole day spent in Assisi with the Chinese delegation one Sunday in spring: the fascination of the places of Saint Francis and the climate that was created between us opened my heart to a great hope, which kept me going in all the following years and that still encourages me. We have seen the first fruits of it and, with God’s grace, we will see yet more, for the benefit of the entire Chinese Catholic community, which I embrace fraternally – above all those who have suffered most and continue to suffer – and of the entire population of that country, to which I sincerely extend every good wish.

GT: Your Eminence, do you have a particular message for the Chinese people and its leaders?

Parolin: I would like to send to the leaders, but also to all the people of China, the greetings, best wishes and prayers of Pope Francis. The Holy Father asks Catholics in particular to undertake with courage the path of unity, reconciliation and a renewed proclamation of the Gospel. He sees China not only as a great country but also as a great culture, rich in history and wisdom. Today China has come to arouse great attention and interest everywhere, especially among young people. The Holy See hopes that China will not be afraid to enter into dialogue with the wider world and that the world’s nations will give credit to the profound aspirations of the Chinese people. In this way, with everyone working together, I am sure that we will be able to overcome mistrust and build a more secure and prosperous world. In the words of Pope Francis, we would say that only by being united can we overcome the globalization of indifference, working as creative artisans of peace and resolute promoters of fraternity.

China and the Vatican sign provisional agreement on appointment of bishops

This happened faster than one might have expected, even with the 300 year history of the ‘Chinese Rites controversy’. They key, however, was not so much whether traditional Chinese rites were compatible with Roman Catholicism, but who would appoint the bishops. Would it be the Vatican or the state, an old controversy indeed even in Europe? Thus far, no agreement had been reached, so two branches of the Roman Catholic Church have been operating in China, one recognised by the state and the other by the Vatican (more detail here).

But now, after lengthy negotiations, an agreement has at last been reached. As the Global Times reports (see also the here here and here):

China and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops on Saturday, China’s Foreign Ministry announced later that day.

A Vatican delegation held talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao on Saturday in Beijing, after which the deal was signed, read a statement from the ministry’s website.

The two sides will continue communicating to promote bilateral relations, said the statement.

The two sides put in great effort to achieve the agreement and their good intentions deserve to be known, said Bishop Fang Jianping, deputy head of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

The provisional agreement will open a new page for the China-Vatican relations, Fang told the Global Times on Saturday.

“Provisional” shows this agreement will be improved and expanded over time, Vatican affairs expert Francesco Sisci told the Global Times on the signing of the provisional agreement between China and the Vatican on Saturday.

The Vatican is the historical continuity of thousands of years of Western civilization. The Chinese government is the continuity of three millennia of history. This deal signals that, for the first time, these two civilizations are meeting as equals, in peace, without the hatred of war or the petty calculations of trade, Sisci said.

The deal does not deserve criticism from Catholic groups as it was reached out of practical needs and to further the global development of the Catholic church, Fang noted.

Critics of the long-waited agreement are merely a “loud minority,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, also chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“In our interpretation, the critics are a little minority group of people, people who wanted to create trouble,” the bishop told the Global Times in an exclusive interview on Friday.

Sorondo explained the importance of having this deal, or having China better involved in the Catholic world, is that “the country has a large population with good quality people, it observes the common good and it has proved its ability to great missions like fighting against poverty and pollution.”

Note: this is the same Sorondo who observed last year:

Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese …

They (the Chinese) seek the common good, subordinating things to the general good … The dignity of the person is defended …

Liberal thought has liquidated the concept of the common good, not even wanting to take it into account, asserting that it is an empty idea, without any interest. By contrast, the Chinese focus on work and the common good.

China best realises the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church: Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo

This one is causing no small brouhaha among reactionary Roman Catholics and others. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following observations in an interview:

“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” a senior Vatican official has said.

Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, praised the Communist state as “extraordinary”, saying: “You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs”. Instead, there is a “positive national conscience”.

The bishop told the Spanish-language edition of Vatican Insider that in China “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.”

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo said that China was implementing Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si better than many other countries and praised it for defending Paris Climate Accord. “In that, it is assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned”, he added.

As part of the diplomacy efforts, Bishop Sánchez Sorondo visited the country. “What I found was an extraordinary China,” he said. “What people don’t realise is that the central value in China is work, work, work. There’s no other way, fundamentally it is like St Paul said: he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.”

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo concluded by saying that China is “developing well” and now has “many points of agreement” with the Vatican.

I never thought I would be quoting the Catholic Herald, but there you go. All of this is part of a serious historical deal in the making between the Chinese government and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops. For the last few centuries, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China. One is officially recognised by the state – the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) – and the other is not. A root cause of their difference is an old problem: who appoints bishops, the state or the Vatican? The officially recognised church has bishops who are recognised by the state, while the unofficial church does not. This has been the status quo for the odd century or three.

Now a breakthrough is in the works. Pope Francis has actively encouraged a deal in which future bishops would be appointed by a process that includes input from the government and the Vatican. Things move slowly in the Roman Catholic Church, since this little conflict goes way back to the efforts by Matteo Ricci and then the ‘Rites Controversy’ of the 17th and 18th centuries. But now it may well be resolved and the two branches of the Roman Catholic Church in China may become one – following the model already in place in Vietnam.

Needless to say, Chinese commentary has seen this as a positive development (here, here and here).