“The objective of the Holy See is a pastoral one … to help to create the condition, of greater freedom, autonomy and organization … (for local) Catholic churches …” With these words, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State and the patient builder of relationships between China and the Catholic Church during the last three pontificates, issued a comment about the news of the agreement signed in Beijing on September 22. 

“The signing of a Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China concerning the appointment of Bishops is of great importance, especially for the life of the Church in China, for the dialogue between the Holy See and the Authorities of that country and for the promotion of a horizon of peace in this present time in which we experience so many tensions at the international level. 

“The objective of the Holy See is a pastoral one. The Holy See intends just to … help to create the condition, of a greater freedom, autonomy and organization, in order that the Catholic Church can dedicate itself to the mission of announcing the Gospel contribute to the well-being and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the country, of every person and of the world as a whole.” 

“And today, for the first time (in decades) all the bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Pope Francis, like his immediate predecessors, looks with particular care to the Chinese People. What is required now is unity, trust and a new impetus; to have good Pastors, recognized by the Successor of Peter – by the Pope – and by the legitimate civil Authorities. And the Agreement will be an instrument for these objectives, for these aims, with the cooperation of all. 

To the Catholic Community in China – the bishops, priests, religious and faithful – the Pope entrusts, above all, the commitment to making concrete fraternal gestures of reconciliation among themselves, and so to overcome past misunderstandings, past tensions, even the recent ones. In this way they can really contribute, and they will be able to perform the duty of the Church which is the announcement of the Gospel and, at the same time, to contribute to the growth, the spiritual and material growth, of their country and to peace and reconciliation in the world.” 

In response to a question that we asked about why the Holy See was negotiating with a Communist government that denies religious freedom, in April 2018 Parolin answered: “If the government were not Communist and respected religious freedom, there would be no need to negotiate. Because we would already have what we wish for”.

These are clear, concise words that help us understand something that is often forgotten: concordats or agreements like the historical one signed in Beijing are necessary because they help solve existing problems. And for the Christian faith and the Church, unity and the communion of bishops with the Pope are neither a secondary nor negligible issues. 

For this very reason, any political or even only geopolitical interpretation of the agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, suggested or hailed by those inside the Church who have tried until the last minute to derail it by mounting the idea that the Church was “selling out” to the Communist regime, does not stand up to the facts. “Our goal is not a political one,” Cardinal Parolin said last April. “We have been accused of wanting only diplomatic relations in the hopes of whatever success. But the Holy See, as the Pope has said several times, is not interested in any diplomatic success. We are interested in spaces of freedom for the Church, so that she can live a normal life that is also in communion with the Pope. This communion is fundamental for our faith.” 

This Christian worldview, which cherishes the essential elements of the faith, is as far as one can get from the craftiness or diplomatic plotting that the Secretary of State has been accused of by some personalities in the Church. Just before the agreement was signed, the 86-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, told Reuters that Parolin “should resign. I don’t think he has faith. He is just a good diplomat in a very secular, mundane meaning.” 

Besides his call for a resignation, which has become a new sport for high-ranking clerics who seem to have lost their sense of ecclesiastical belonging and make public statements that read like political talk show criticism, what stands out in Zen’s declaration is how he appoints himself as judge of Parolin’s personal faith. The Secretary of State is known for having always placed his status as a priest and man of faith before his diplomatic career. This is a tangible sign that, from the USA to Asia, a certain way of describing relationships within the Church — the drive to defend the institution or disseminate propaganda — has seeped into the Church at all levels. Moreover, in recent years, this mentality walks arm in arm with a pathologically irresponsible use of new media to spread hatred and division, and to exert unnecessary pressure on the Church itself. 

Last April, the Cardinal Secretary of State shared the purposes of the agreement, which will be assessed over the next few years:

“It is fundamental that the Church be united, that the official community, subject to the control of the government, and the so-called underground community – which today each walk their own path — be united. Already Benedict XVI, in his Letter to Chinese Catholics, had said that the purpose of all work in China must be that of communion between the two communities, and of communion of the whole Chinese Church with the Pope.” 

Parolin, in a previous interview with Vatican Insider, in which he spoke only about the Chinese Church, had discussed the strictly Church-specific purpose of the negotiations.

“…the main purpose of the Holy See in the ongoing dialogue is precisely that of safeguarding communion within the Church, in the wake of genuine Tradition and constant ecclesiastical discipline. In China there are not two Churches, but two communities of faithful called to follow a gradual path of reconciliation towards unity. It is not, therefore, a matter of maintaining a perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures, but of finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context.”

“The Holy See knows and shares the serious sufferings endured by many Catholics in China and their generous witness to the Gospel … many problems [remain] for the life of the Church and that they cannot all be solved together.

“But, in this context, the question of the appointment of Bishops is crucial. On the other hand, we cannot forget that the freedom of the Church and the appointment of Bishops have always been recurring themes in the relations between the Holy See and the States. Certainly, the path started with China through the current contacts is gradual and still exposed to many unforeseen events, as well as new possible emergencies. No one can say in conscience that they have perfect solutions for all problems. Time and patience are needed to heal the many personal wounds inflicted on each other within the communities.

“Unfortunately, it is certain that there will still be misunderstandings, fatigue and suffering to be faced. But we all have confidence that, once the issue of the Episcopal appointments has been adequately considered, the remaining difficulties should no longer be such as to prevent Chinese Catholics from living in communion with each other and with the Pope.” 

Andrea Tornielli is the editor of Vatican Insider at La StampaRepublished under a Creative Commons licence.