Translation: Agreement between the Holy See and China and mission in China

Continuity or discontinuity?

I thank Fr. Peter Baekelmans and SEDOS for this very useful and opportune initiative to help us to understand the problems of the mission in China better and to develop together a true understanding of the situation of Chinese Catholics and their problems. Often, in fact, this information is lacking, incomplete or distorted.

In line with the title of my speech, I propose to offer some elements to clarify the purport of the “Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China”, of 22 September 2018, and the prospects of the mission in China. In the Message to Chinese Catholics and the Universal Church of 26 September 2018, Pope Francis summarized the aim of the Agreement: “to attain the specific spiritual and pastoral aims of the Church, in order to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to establish and to preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic Community in China”. There is therefore a direct relationship between the Agreement of 22 September 2018 and the mission of the Catholic Church in China: this political-diplomatic act was signed with an explicit ecclesial goal: the unity of the Church and the evangelization of China. Often, however, these goals get forgotten or underestimated and the Agreement is appreciated or criticized on the basis of other principles and criteria, as though the Holy See could stipulate such an act regardless of the objectives proper to the Catholic Church, in particular evangelization which, since the Second Vatican Council, has become a fundamental priority.

As is well known, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re commented on this Agreement in a Letter to the Sacred College of Cardinals on 26 February 2020 stating that, “… in their approach to the situation of the Catholic Church in China, there has [been] profound harmony of thought and action of the last three Pontificates, which out of respect for the truth, have favored dialogue between the two Parties, not opposition. In particular, they have had in mind the delicate and important question of the nomination of Bishops”.

Doubtless, continuity is an important key to understand what happened between the Holy See and China in the last forty years. Note, we are not talking about theological but historical continuity. The first, in fact: faith, dogmas are not in question, but political-diplomatic Accords which by nature are strongly linked to historical contingencies. In this field, not surprisingly, continuity is more of an exception than the rule. Had that not been so, there would have been no scandal: in other words, everything would have been completely normal and fully licit if Benedict XVI or Pope Francis had followed a different policy from that of John Paul II. Therefore, even if those who claim that Francis did not follow his Predecessors were right — and they are not — that would not change much. But this did not happen. There was continuity between John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. However, precisely because we are talking about it in a historical sense, one must not think it was absolutely continuous, because that would have meant immobility, uniformity, perfect identity or the like. The “profound harmony” of which Cardinal Re spoke, meant the continuity of the policy of his Predecessors, pursuing the same aims, the same basic perspective, carrying out actions prompted by previous premises and so on. In short, among these three popes there was continuity and discontinuity, as it is natural, but on the most important issues, the former was strong.

The issue of Ostpolitik

To try to clarify the interlacing of continuity and discontinuity, I shall try to focus on one aspect: the issue of Ostpolitik. I shall begin with John Paul II. Today, it can no longer be disputed that John Paul II sought the agreement with China. Indeed there are already many testimonies of this and it has also been underlined in various historical reconstructions. Now Cardinal Re has authoritatively confirmed it. Instead the hypothesis being discussed is that John Paul II sought a different type of Agreement, and that he would not have approved the contents of the one signed in 2018. Those who support this hypothesis do not adduce direct evidence: in fact, there is no document which confirms what, in essence, remains a hypothesis. They therefore affirm this on the basis of an indirect and deductive argument, based precisely on the reference to the Vatican Ostpolitik.

To address the problem let us briefly recall what Ostpolitik means: the Holy See’s policy of the normalization of relations between it and the communist countries of Eastern Europe (and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union) starting in the early 1960s with John XXIII, and then developed more widely by Paul VI, and continued by John Paul II until 1989. Cardinal Agostino Casaroli was the main architect, not alone but always with the approval of the various pontiffs with whom he cooperated, first as Under-secretary, then as Secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs and then as Secretary of State (with John Paul II).

As regards the aims of Ostpolitik, Andrea Riccardi observed that “John XXIII’s pastoral ambition was: to re-establish contact with a part of the world closed to communication with the Church of Rome, to alleviate the situation of many Catholics, especially that of prisoners (among whom were numerous bishops), to encourage the resumption of communications between the Holy See and the Catholic Churches, to involve the Eastern Bishops in Vatican II, to build positive relationships with the Patriarchates of Moscow and the Slav Orthodox Churches”. In the historiographical context, the debate on John XXIII’s motivation was welded to that of the overall finality of the Vatican Ostpolitik. In this regard Helene Carrère d’Encausse held that the main objective of this Ostpolitik was not to establish diplomatic relations with the communist countries, but to use diplomatic relations to “stop the process of weakening the [Catholic] Churches in these States”. More precisely, according to the French Soviet expert, the Holy See’s main priorities were: recognition of the Pope’s authority over the Catholics in the communist countries, re-establishment of the hierarchy, the free communication of the bishops with Rome. These religious, ecclesial and pastoral finalities — on which many historians agree — have not always been understood by contemporaries, but the documentation confirms their centrality in the Vatican Ostpolitik. In fact, the reason for these contacts, meetings, negotiations between Vatican officials and the representatives of communist Governments: regarded the appointment of bishops, the normalization of diocesan situations, the reopening of churches and so on.

In comparing the Vatican’s Ostpolitik and its policy towards China, there are obviously analogies regarding the aims pursued. But the on-going discussion does not concern so much the aim as the method, attitude, implication, etc. Those who argue that Francis, unlike his predecessors, was inspired by Ostpolitik towards China mean that the first two [popes] would have assumed an uncompromising position in regard to the Chinese communist authorities, whereas Francis appears to have been too flexible in their regard. For this reason, the first Two would not have signed an Agreement which represents — according to these critics — a “surrender” or even an “under-sale” to Communist China. The question of communism is also linked to that of religious freedom and human rights. According to his critics, the unacceptability of the Agreement with the Chinese Government would lie above all in renouncing the demand for religious freedom and respect for human rights not only for Catholics but for everyone. Still, in-line with this reasoning, an Agreement between the Holy See and China would in theory be possible and indeed desirable, but only if the latter immediately and radically changed its religious policy. The current debate focusses chiefly on issues that refer to the influence Ostpolitik had on the relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.

In reality, the hypothesis that with regard to China Pope Francis followed the Ostpolitik policy that John Paul II had rejected takes for granted many premises that are far from obvious. Indeed, one needs to show, that: 1) Ostpolitik represented a policy of total compliance to communism; 2) John Paul II had totally rejected Ostpolitik (if that were so why did he appoint Cardinal Casaroli Secretary of State and keep him in that position for over ten years? Was it because that would have curbed Solidarity’s anti-regime pressure in Poland? And so on); 3) that Cardinal Casaroli’s diplomatic action in regard to China was entirely attributable to the Ostpolitik model; 4) Pope Francis’s action is inspired by Cardinal Casaroli and Ostpolitik, etc. These are all questionable points which frame very complex historical questions too simply.

But I do not intend to go into these matters here. In fact, I think it is more important to tackle the basic problem: what influence did the Ostpolitik have on the relations between the Holy See and China that led to the Agreement with China in 2018? It seems to me that this influence was not decisive and that initially it was stronger but gradually diminished. Moreover, I do not think that the 2018 Agreement played a crucial role.

Andrea Riccardi, (historian and Founder of the Sant’Egidio Community in 1968), framed this problem in general terms observing that:

“The model applied to Eastern politics, whose main architect was Cardinal Casaroli […] was ill-suited to China. This model reflected a vision of China primarily as a communist country, in which a ‘Church of silence’, that is, persecuted Christianity, existed, as was said in the years of the Cold War. (This expression however, was rejected by John Paul II, recently elected pope, in Assisi in 1978). […] But the reality of contemporary China is more complex. […] I do not mean that communism […] has not deeply marked the history of this country, but that the criteria that were used in the context of European communist countries could not be applied to this case: either as regards the clash and the dialogue. The religious reality of China — undoubtedly problematic — must be examined from another perspective”.

Andrea Riccardi’s words are confirmed by the absence of references to China, both in the book, Il martirio della pazienza/The martyrdom of patience, written by Cardinal Casaroli, and in all the most important texts on the history of the Vatican Ostpolitik; because, for the protagonists and scholars, China has always remained on the margins of the Ostpolitik. However, Andrea Riccardi’s observations go beyond the relations of Ostpolitik and China and pose a wider question: the applicability to China of all the schemata — uncompromising or accommodating — the Holy See applied to European communism. In short, beyond Ostpolitik and head-on confrontation. [La diplomazia dei “piccoli passi”: L’Ostpolitik di Mons. Casaroli].

The problem of the overall applicability of these schemata to China’s case may come as a surprise, since the People’s Republic of China was undoubtedly inspired by the Soviet model and referred to communist ideology in its religious policy. There is however evidence that can hardly be refuted which we should bear in mind. After 1949, something different and deeper happened in the Catholic Church in China than in the European communist countries. Something, whose effect was much more serious; now shown in the problematic and dramatic division of the Chinese Church into “patriotic” and “clandestine”, following the illicit ordinations that began in 1957. (In no other Communist country has there been such a division, although possibly there is an analogy with Czechoslovakia).

In synthesis, it can be said that with regard to the Catholic Church, with its universal character and the role of the Pope, a specifically Chinese concept had great bearing. I would summarize the question as: the Chinese conception of ‘sovereignty’ that involves the very meaning of its identity, which Westerners struggle to understand. Basically, after 1949 the insistence on the issue of sovereignty arose due to their perception of a colonialist attitude on the part of the Catholic Church, allied to Western imperialism. But its origin derives from a more deeply rooted, long-standing historical-cultural inheritance regarding China’s position in the world and the way of defining China (the term China, among other things, is a Western invention). In other words, the Chinese concept of sovereignty is rooted in the two-thousand-year-old history of the Celestial Empire which the events of the last century did not entirely bring to an end. This concept was accompanied by the ideological Marxist approach which in many cases ended up by prevailing. It was in the name of their idea of ​​sovereignty that the Chinese authorities forbade the Catholics in China to obey the Pope, as a foreign authority. They opposed the Holy See’s “interference” in the nomination of bishops and protested against the diplomatic relations with Taiwan. These are issues that cannot be ascribed to a communist ideological matrix (if anything, they could be called “nationalist”, but even this term could be misleading because it refers to the Western idea of ​​a nation).

The consequences of conceiving and practicing sovereignty in this way caused all the popes grave concern. Above all they were distressed by the forced separation of Chinese Catholics from Rome. On this point, however, it is important to be very clear: despite the fears of some of the possibility of a schism (and of a few even of the possibility of a “Chinese heresy”), Rome has never recognized the existence of a schism in the Chinese Catholic Church (let alone a “heresy”). Actually, the meaning of the word “independence” referring to this Church — has long been the subject of intense discussion — has not so far implied a schism (and will hardly do so in the future). However, the problem of the relations between the Pope and the Catholic Church in China has certainly constituted and still constitutes a very pressing problem for the Holy See today. This is precisely because this very problem impedes the missionary action of this Church and limits its evangelizing “expansion”.

It was precisely the specificity of these issues that prompted the pontiffs to move away – albeit often in a gradual, partial and non-linear way — from an interpretation of the Chinese question in exclusively Marxist–Leninist terms of influence and from adopting either the Ostpolitik model or that of the opposition.

From Paul VI to John Paul II

Paul VI had already moved in this direction. From certain aspects, the continuity evoked in Cardinal Re’s letter was anticipated by Pope Montini as Casaroli’s biographer, Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, explained on behalf of the Holy See in the seventies:

“Moscow, while dominating the lands up to the Pacific Ocean, was in a continent with undoubted Jewish-Christian roots; whereas Beijing was in Asia, a continent with another history and a more complex spiritual characterization”.

Paul VI tried to approach China in the Address to the UN in 1965 as well as in the Address in Hong Kong in 1970, which Casaroli followed up with a friendly interview with “patriotic” Catholics. The following year, when the People’s Republic of China took over from Taiwan at the United Nations, Paul VI pondered the possibility of transferring the Nunciature from Taipei to Beijing and then lowered the level of Pontifical Representation in Taiwan. For their part the Chinese paid a lot of attention to Paul VI’s words, but they were judged to have no concrete effect.

John Paul II adopted the line drawn by his Predecessor. Andrea Riccardi wrote, that with Pope Wojtyla too, it became clear that the “Vatican’s Eastern policy, in Casaroli’s way, could in no way respond to the need for a dialogue with China, even if it was the only tool that the Holy See had at hand”. In his early ministry Karol Wojtyla showed attention to the “clandestine” community, but he would also have “wanted to establish new relationships” with the Chinese Authorities. In this key when Cardinal Etchegaray was invited to China in 1980 he encouraged him and, in 1981, during his journey to Asia, he avoided flying over Taiwan, as well as visiting Hong Kong, so as not to offend the susceptibility of the Chinese Authorities. Meanwhile he sent Casaroli to the British colony. The result was a series of events that culminated in the rupture following the papal appointment of Bishop Deng Yiming as Archbishop of Canton which the Chinese deemed an illegitimate interference whereas for the Pope it was a normal expression of his universal authority. This “incident” too illustrates the discrepancy between the Chinese sense of sovereignty and the universal government of the Catholic Church, rather than to such questions as religious freedom and human rights in general. Along these lines, in 1982 John Paul II launched a vibrant Appeal in which he recognized that “for some time now, in that great country the demands of religious freedom [had] found greater understanding”, but he strongly denounced the lack of “a visible relationship” between the See of Rome and the Chinese Catholics.

In the following years, however, John Paul II and the Holy See developed a new approach to the Chinese question, also in view of the repeated reports missionaries sent stating that many “patriotic” Catholics were faithful to Rome. I remember the important work Fr. Politi, Fr. Lazzarotto, Fr. Charbonnier, Fr. Heyndrickx and many others carried out in this sense. The pope tried to respond to the accusations that, the Catholics in China had ties with a foreign (and hostile) power and were not good Chinese citizens. Referring to Matteo Ricci and his example, the Pope stressed that the Holy See had a sincere interest in the well-being of the Chinese people and in the development of China, and that the Chinese Catholics were good citizens. He also tried to renew the dialogue and wrote a Letter to President Deng Xiaoping.

           The recognition of many bishops as legitimate also began in this period. This decision, which was then supported with conviction by Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, represented an essential step towards the 2018 Agreement. Not by chance on the eve of the Accord, the last eight illicit bishops were recognized. This recognition has been the subject of controversy but it should be remembered that it was the result of a decision taken during the Pontificate of John Paul II. It was the point of arrival of a very scrupulous investigation, carried out from the theological, liturgical, historical and moral point of view, which actually identified exclusively political reasons for the illicit episcopal ordinations. Furthermore it was judged that, although the communist authorities had imposed these ordinations, that did not change their nature and did not constitute an obstacle for the papal recognition of the illicit bishops (provided that they had applied for it correctly). Initially thwarted by the Chinese authorities, this recognition has served over time as an affirmation of “sovereignty”.

In short, already in the 1980s, although without any concrete effect, John Paul II “favored dialogue between the two Parties, not opposition” to use the words of Cardinal Re. But what he then did Beijing considered to be insufficient persuaded that it was still only words which were not followed by concrete facts: it was the same criticism leveled at Paul VI.

After 1989, the Holy See began to make some “concrete gestures” of recognition of the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China with greater conviction. If fact: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War profoundly changed the international scenario. They contributed, in particular, to definitively overcome the image of China as the Asian “appendix” of the communist bloc (even if its policy had often been in contrast with that of the USSR).

In the West, the Tian’anmen Square Protest forcefully re-proposed the “communist” image of China — and the issue of human rights — just as communism seemed — to Western eyes — to have quit history. John Paul II expressed sorrow at such a distressing and dramatic moment in the history of the Chinese people, mourned for the young people killed while fighting for democracy and asked the Chinese authorities to respect the truth, justice and freedom. The pope maintained a serious attitude towards these events in the following years. But, on the one hand, China and the other communist States in the world no longer posed a serious threat to the very existence of the Catholic Church as the Soviet bloc had previously done; on the other, China seemed to follow a model of development increasingly distant from the classical Marxist one. In short, the Pope and the Holy See retained a negative historical opinion of communism, while China was increasingly perceived as a separate case from the models of European communism (which no longer existed). All this prompted one to take China for “what it was”, with its historical, social and cultural specificities; its difference from Western civilization, and to undertake to contextualize the mission in the perspective of the Second Vatican Council. In light of this, the replacement of Cardinal Casaroli at the head of the Secretariat of State does not appear to be so much an abandonment of the Ostpolitik policy as an expression of the necessity to focus the Holy See’s diplomatic action on priorities other than the communist question.

This new scenario and these new perspectives have allowed for new developments in the relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. In 1999, addressing the diplomatic corps and on the occasion of the return of Macau to China, John Paul II expressed the hope for a reunification between the “two Chinas” and the hope for full communion between Rome and Chinese Catholics. In March of the same year, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano declared that the diplomatic representation of the Holy See could be moved from Taipei to Beijing overnight. Contacts through the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Rome and some trips by Vatican representatives to China led to a possible understanding and the drafting of a draft Agreement. The attempt failed and one of the causes of the failure was due to the canonization of one hundred and twenty Chinese martyrs on 1 October 2000. This incident too reveals the particular sensitivity of China to the theme of sovereignty. In fact, it was considered offensive not only to choose the day of the National Liberation Day of 1949 for the celebration, but also to canonize figures of saints, mostly Westerners, martyred by Chinese citizens before the advent of communism in China. It seems to me emblematic of the broad conception of sovereignty, as said, that even the canonization of saints should have been considered by Chinese politicians and diplomats to be a question of sovereignty. The break in 2000 constituted a trauma for John Paul II, who then made various attempts to relaunch the dialogue with the Chinese authorities, — with no apparent success — no concrete results.

In conclusion, I think it may be said that in the Pontificate of John Paul II the relations with China evolved. From the outset there was openness on his part and a sincere desire to encourage relations, which were however balanced by Acts that affirmed the papal authority independently of the Chinese one and by a substantial immobility regarding the problem of Taiwan and diplomatic relations. Indeed, in the late 1990s, John Paul II was ready to move the Nunciature from Taiwan to Beijing and to reach agreement on the appointment of bishops. At the time of his death, for the first time since 1949, the Chinese Authorities publicly expressed their condolences for a pope and recognized that he had distanced himself from colonialism and had sought a spiritual relationship with Chinese Catholics that did not interfere with the sovereignty and autonomy of the People’s Republic of China. These are all elements which serve to affirm the continuity between John Paul II and Pope Francis, also linked to the progressive overcoming by the former of the connection between the communist question and relations with China.

 From John Paul II to Benedict XVI

There was certainly continuity between John Paul II and his immediate Successor, Benedict XVI. But even this continuity cannot be reduced to their common hostility to the Ostpolitik, even though they both had reservations concerning this policy. Rather, the new pontificate inherited the more positive climate regarding the relations with the Chinese Authorities prepared during John Paul II’s very last years. Confidential relations began immediately between the Vatican and Chinese representatives who met several times in Rome and Beijing between 2006 and 2009. The dialogue left the issue of Taiwan aside and the – related – issue of diplomatic relations, due to new developments in the relations between Beijing and Taipei. Instead, it especially concerned the role of the two Parties in the selection of new Catholic Bishops in China. Nevertheless, not all the new bishops were ordained with the consent of both sides.

Then in 2006, the Pope wanted to make a complimentary gesture to Chinese Catholicism by creating Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, Cardinal, in continuity with his predecessor, John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung, whom John Paul II had created cardinal. However, the Chinese authorities did not consider that Cardinal Wu Cheng-chung should play a mediating role in the relations with the People’s Republic of China and greeted the creation of another Bishop of Hong Kong as a cardinal very negatively, judging it a real interference. This stance also reflects Beijing’s attitude to the issue of Chinese sovereignty, and the issue of Hong Kong which had always been very important, as we see today too. Thus, just as the new Cardinal felt invested with greater responsibility for the Church in China, it became impossible for him to travel to mainland China, where he had often gone previously, particularly to Shanghai, his hometown. He was even cut off from many direct contacts with government officials whom he had previously cultivated.

As is known, Benedict XVI expressed his thoughts on China in the Letter of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China, 30 June 2007. In line with the decisions made by the Holy See — also with his contribution — in the 1980s on the recognition of illicit bishops, the Pope launched an exhortation to reconciliation and unity between “clandestine” and “patriotic” Catholics. By declaring the “clandestine community” of the Church to be a condition suffered but not desired and therefore acceptable only provisionally, he urged the “clandestine” Catholics “to reach the desired normalization of relations gradually”. He also expressed the hope that — “concrete ways of communication and cooperation – between the Holy See and the Government of the People’s Republic of China — could be established soon”. In short, Benedict XVI was explicit in indicating the objectives of the unity of the Church in China, the recognition of the clandestine bishops and an agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.

In the Letter there are no critical references to Ostpolitik and no condemnation of communism. On the subject of religious freedom, facing the situation in China with some realism, Benedict XVI took up John Paul II’s words recognizing that “in recent years the Church has enjoyed greater religious freedom than in the past”, but regretted that “nevertheless it cannot be denied that grave limitations remain that touch [the] heart of the faith and that, to a certain degree, suffocate pastoral activity…. It is likewise clear that She [the Church] asks the State to guarantee […] Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith”. In short, after repeating that “Likewise, the Catholic Church which is in China [does not] have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State”. He made some requests that only concerned Catholics, not the rights of all believers or all citizens. While recalling that “the Holy See would desire to be completely free to appoint Bishops” Benedict hoped that “an accord could be reached with the Government so as to resolve some questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate, the publication of the appointment of Bishops and the recognition concerning civil effects — where necessary — of the new Bishop on the part of the civil Authorities”. This is the approach that Francis has now taken up and continued: the 2018 Agreement fits fully into the framework traced by the Letter of 30 June 2007.

As is known, in the Letter Benedict XVI also raised the problem of the interference of lay bodies in the life of the Church, that is, the problem of the Patriotic Association. He also criticized the imposition of “commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their conscience as Catholics” on the clandestine bishops. These points did not contradict the explicitly indicated objectives, while recalling the existence of other issues that need to be resolved. Benedict XVI, however, did not indicate how these problems should be solved and left the responsibility of making concrete choices regarding their recognition to the Chinese Bishops.

Therefore, it is not surprising what Cardinal Re wrote in his Letter of 26 February 2020: “After having personally examined the existing documents in the Current Archive of the Secretariat of State, I am able to assure […] that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the draft of the Agreement on the Appointment of Bishops in China, which it was only possible to sign in 2018”. Full consonance is due to the fact that the 2018 Agreement fully meets the aims indicated in the 2007 Letter.

Cardinal Re does not mention the dates, but presumably he is referring to 2009, when the draft was drawn up between the two Parties “down to the last comma”. Why then — someone asked — was no official ratification of the Agreement reached in the time of Benedict XVI? In theory, there could be various reasons. But a change on the part of the Chinese seems unlikely for several reasons and above all because the same text was signed by that Party in 2018. The hypothesis that Benedict XVI may have changed his mind and retraced his steps also seems improbable. It is more likely that the signing of the Agreement on the appointment of the new bishops approved by him did not happen because some of the pope’s co-workers had tried to insert an addendum on other issues, such as the Patriotic Association, the clandestine bishops, or the borders of dioceses. In short, there may have been a sort of expansion-relaunch intention.

Naturally, in diplomatic negotiations, proposals made after agreement has been reached – but prior to the signature – harm the other party that is convinced that agreement has already been reached. In any case, what is certain is that this attempted delay-relaunch failed and the failure to formalize the Agreement was followed by years of hard confrontation between the two Parties, with illicit ordinations and excommunications. These clashes cost the Chinese Catholics a very high price. I remember only one case, that of Bishop Ma Daqin of Shanghai, who up to today has been prevented from exercising his office precisely because he was involved in that conflict, with many painful consequences not only for him but also for one of the most important dioceses in China. Furthermore, such suffering has been useless: the situation has not changed. It is no coincidence that, even before Benedict XVI renounced the Petrine Ministry and the election of Pope Francis, Chinese diplomacy resumed the enquiry in order to propose the signing of the Agreement that the two Parties had approved at that time and that neither of them had ever withdrawn.

Pope Francis

After his election, Pope Francis paid great attention to China, looking at the civilization and culture of this people and this country, rather than at the ideology of its leaders. But this does not seem to me to be an expression of Ostpolitik but rather of continuity with the shift, his Predecessors had started, to consider China not as we Westerners see it, but for “what it is”, based on its geographical location, on its millennial history, on its current aspirations, etc.

When he was elected, Pope Francis saw a situation strongly marked by the dynamics of the relations between the Holy See and China in the previous years. To such relations this Pope certainly contributed his humanity and his sensitivity, as mentioned, but it was not in his power to change the fundamental terms of the matter. Indeed, Francis was faced with an alternative not created by him but inherited from Benedict XVI: the alternative of continuing to clash or to sign the Agreement. The decision was not taken lightly and a conclusion was reached after more than five years of reflection. But for Francis there were basically only two possibilities open: accept an Agreement that had already been approved by his Predecessor or continue to clash with devastating effects for Chinese Catholics. The signing of 2018 was the consequence of the failure of the attempts put in place after 2009. However, this does not mean that Francis has abandoned the intention to address the other issues not considered by the Agreement: clandestine bishops, Patriotic Association, borders of dioceses, etc. Simply, he had to ascertain and acknowledge the impossibility of resolving them in the context of the agreement on bishops and he proposed to tackle them after this agreement. This is what is actually happening and which it is hoped will continue to happen as quickly as possible. As can be seen, even between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis there was not only full consensus on the Agreement but also strong continuity concerning the aims to be pursued overall. In short, there was neither “failure” nor “sale”.

In conclusion, I should like to go back to where I started. With the 2018 Agreement, in-line with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis has pursued the aims of the salus animarum and libertas ecclesiae: the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation and the possibility for the Church to carry out her mission. All Three Popes pursued these aims and measured up to the historical reality of contemporary China – which has also changed over the course of these forty years – particularly with regard to the Chinese conception of sovereignty. This does not mean that, in doing so they have only dealt with the Catholic Church, indifferent to the difficulties and aspirations of many non-Catholics. To improve this Church’s condition actually means contributing indirectly to improving the condition of other believers and benefiting all the Chinese people. That is why, after considering what Cardinal John Tong has called the “essential right”, the appointment of bishops by the Pope does not imply a “betrayal” of others. The Church, which suffers from a millenary-old marginalization in Chinese society, must get rid of improper burdens as soon as possible. These do not allow the Church to devote herself entirely to such urgent pastoral problems as a more wide-spread presence in the large urban centers, the evangelization of young people, the question of vocations, the formation of priests and nuns…. If she does not engage in other battles, that is because she is unable to sustain them today, but hopes to be able to do so tomorrow.

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