Cardinal Parolin defends China deal as Vatican prepares to renew agreement

Cardinal Pietro Parolin at an Aid to the Church in Need press conference in Rome Italy on Sept 28 2017 Credit Daniel Ibanez CNA Cardinal Pietro Parolin. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin defended the Vatican's controversial deal with China Saturday, saying that all recent popes hoped for such an agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Speaking in Milan, Italy, Oct. 3, the Vatican Secretary of State confirmed that the Holy See was committed to renewing the agreement, which expires Oct. 22, saying it was "only a starting point" for better relations between the two states. 

"For the dialogue to bear more consistent fruit it is necessary to continue it. On the part of the Holy See, therefore, there is the desire that the agreement be extended, ad experimentum [provisionally] as it has been so far, so as to verify its usefulness," the cardinal said at an event marking the 150th anniversary of the presence of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in China.

Vatican News reported that Parolin reiterated a statement by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Dean of the College of Cardinals, in February that Benedict XVI had approved the draft agreement on bishops' appointments "which could only be signed in 2018."

The Vatican Secretary of State addressed what he called "misunderstandings" about the agreement, which has been criticized both inside of the Church and outside of it. Critics argue that it represents a betrayal of "underground" Catholics who have remained loyal to the pope despite persecution and has prevented the Vatican from denouncing flagrant human rights abuses in China.

China was the subject of talks this week between Parolin and the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has argued that the agreement has failed to protect China's Catholics from a crackdown on religious believers under President Xi Jinping. 

Parolin said: "Some misunderstandings have arisen. Many of these arise from the attribution to the provisional agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China of objectives that this agreement does not have. Or from the bringing back to the agreement of events concerning the life of the Catholic Church in China that are extraneous to it. Or even links with political issues that have nothing to do with this agreement." 

"I recall once again -- and on this point the Holy See has never left room for misunderstandings or confusion -- that the agreement of Sept. 22, 2018, concerns exclusively the appointment of bishops."

He acknowledged that there were "many other problems" facing the Church in China, which comprises more than 10 million Catholics.

"But it has not been possible to address them all together and we know that the road to full normalization will still be a long one, as Benedict XVI predicted in 2007 [the year he wrote a letter to Chinese Catholics]. However, the question of the appointment of bishops is of particular importance. It is in fact the problem that has made the Catholic Church in China suffer most in the last 60 years," he said.

An agreement on appointments was vital to avert further illicit episcopal ordinations, the cardinal said, explaining that the Vatican decided "to confront and resolve this delicate problem once and for all." 

"But the experience of so many decades showed (and shows) that such a solution necessarily passed (and passes) through an agreement between the Holy See and the authorities of the People's Republic of China. For this reason, the Holy See has repeatedly stressed that the objective of the agreement is primarily ecclesial and pastoral," he said.

He said that the Church hoped that it could now "definitely" avoid future illicit consecrations, stressing that today all Chinese bishops are in communion with the pope.

The pastoral goal, he continued, was "to help the local Churches to enjoy conditions of greater freedom, autonomy and organization, so that they can dedicate themselves to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and contributing to the integral development of the person and society."

In his address -- the opening speech at a conference titled "Another China. Time of crisis, time of change" -- Parolin traced the history of the Catholic Church's relations with China, beginning with the mission of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the 16th century.

He noted that in 1951, the year that the Communist People's Republic of China broke off relations with the Holy See, Chinese authorities and Church leaders attempted to forge an agreement allowing local Catholics to continue to recognize the pope as their religious authority, while following the dictates of the government.

"This shows that since the time of Pius XII, the Holy See felt the need for dialogue, even if the circumstances of the time made it very difficult," he said.

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But after four drafts of a possible agreement, the attempt was abandoned, creating "mutual distrust."

"It is a failure that has marked the entire subsequent history," he said.

Only decades later could dialogue begin again, Parolin said, recalling an exploratory trip to China that French Cardinal Roger Echegaray made in 1980.

"Since then, a path has begun that -- amid ups and downs -- has led to the present day," he said.

The cardinal added that he saw signs that the agreement was beginning to overcome divisions between Catholics belonging to China's state-sanctioned and "underground" churches, which he emphasized was a fundamental goal of the deal.

The agreement also sought to consolidate "an international horizon of peace, at this time when we are experiencing so many tensions at the world level."

Parolin concluded that the deal followed a line that "from Benedict XVI leads to Pope Francis, a line directed more to the future than to the present, more to the Church that must grow in China than to the disputes of yesterday and today."

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