In the wake of criticism of the Vatican’s overtures to the communist government in China from the former Bishop of Hong Kong, the pope’s chief advisor said the Vatican’s negotiations move along two lines: Constructive openness to dialogue and fidelity to the genuine Tradition of the Church.
Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that although it was legitimate to have different views on how to approach China, “no personal point of view can be considered as an exclusive interpreter of what is good for Chinese Catholics.”
The interview was published two days after Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 86-year-old retired Bishop of Hong Kong, wrote an open letter on Facebook criticizing a request by a Vatican diplomat visiting China that two bishops belonging to the underground Church loyal to the pope step down in favor of two bishops belonging to the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).
Zen claimed Pope Francis told another Chinese prelate – Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, the former secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and now Vatican ambassador to Greece, that he was “surprised” by the situation.
The Chinese cardinal also said he spoke to the pope about the matter on Jan. 12, and Francis told him he did not want “another Mindszenty case,” referring to Cadinal József Mindszenty, the Hungarian archbishop imprisoned by the Communist government from 1949-1956, and later exiled to the U.S. embassy in Budapest, before dying in Vienna in 1975.
On Tuesday, the Vatican press office issued a statement denying there was a rift between Francis and his collaborators on China.
In his conversation with La Stampa, Parolin reiterated this point.
“The Holy Father personally follows current contacts with the authorities of the People’s Republic of China. All his collaborators act in concert with him. No one takes private initiatives. Frankly, any other kind of reasoning seems to me to be out of place,” Parolin said.
The cardinal also said “no one should cling to the spirit of opposition to condemn his brother or use the past as an excuse to stir up new resentments and closures,” and said some might be asked to “make a sacrifice” for the greater good of the Chinese Church.
Parolin also said the Church’s pastors should help the faithful “to recognize in the pope’s guidance the sure reference point for grasping God’s plan in the present circumstances.”
The People’s Republic of China broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951 and established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to supervise Catholics in the country in 1957.
The CPCA does not recognize the authority of the pope, and a parallel “underground” Church exists which recognizes papal authority.
Complicating issues, the Vatican currently has diplomatic ties with the ‘Republic of China’ – the government on the island of Taiwan – which the People’s Republic of China considers a renegade province.
Parolin noted the changes that have happened in mainland China since the 1980s, when the country opened itself up to the world and encouraged market reforms, making it one of the strongest economies in the world.
“Since the eighties, however, contacts have been established between representatives of the Holy See and of People’s China, who have known different seasons and alternating events. The Holy See has always maintained a pastoral approach, trying to overcome the contrasts and making itself available for a respectful and constructive dialogue with the civil authorities,” he said.
He pointed to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, in which the pontiff said “the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities.”
Parolin said under Francis the ongoing negotiations “move exactly along these lines: Constructive openness to dialogue and fidelity to the genuine Tradition of the Church.”
The cardinal said the Vatican’s negotiations with China were based on trust, but not a trust based on “worldly logic” that was “the result of the strength of diplomacy or negotiations.”
“Trust is based on the Lord who guides history,” he said.
Parolin said it was important to remember there are not two Churches in China, “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,” he said, adding that the point of the current dialogue is “safeguarding communion within the Church, in the wake of genuine Tradition and constant ecclesiastical discipline.”
Parolin told the newspaper that the Vatican is aware of the many problems faced by Chinese Catholics, and said the appointment of bishops is “crucial,” but that “no one can say in conscience that they have perfect solutions for all problems.”
The cardinal did not address the specific case which drew the criticism from Zen: Allegedly last fall, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a longtime Vatican diplomat, requested that two underground bishops recognized by the Vatican resign their positions in favor of their state-sanctioned counterparts.
But Parolin said “if someone is asked to make a sacrifice, small or great, it must be clear to everyone that this is not the price of a political exchange, but falls within the evangelical perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ.”
However, he acknowledged the difficulties that reconciling the two communities will cause.
“Time and patience are needed to heal the many personal wounds inflicted on each other within the communities,” the cardinal said. “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.”
Parolin said the hope is that in the future, there will no longer be a need to speak of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” bishops, “clandestine” and “official” bishops in the Church in China, “but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of collaboration and communion again.”
“Without this experience, how could the Church in China re-launch the journey of evangelization and bring to others the consolation of the Lord? If you are not ready to forgive, this means, unfortunately, that there are other interests to defend, but this is not an evangelical perspective,” he said.
Zen has been highly critical of Parolin in the past. In an interview with Crux in October, the Chinese cardinal said the Vatican diplomat was “more interested in diplomacy than he is the Catholic faith.”
In his Facebook post, Zen reiterated his stance, saying the Vatican is “selling out” the Catholic Church in China, and said the government-sanctioned Church was schismatic.
Speaking to La Stampa, Parolin said different points of view are allowed in the Church, but said he was convinced that part of the suffering experienced by the Church in China is not so much due to the will of individuals as to the objective complexity of the situation.
“Having said that, I think that no personal point of view can be considered as an exclusive interpreter of what is good for Chinese Catholics. Therefore, the Holy See works to find a synthesis of truth and a practicable way to respond to the legitimate expectations of the faithful, inside and outside China,” Parolin said. “It takes greater humility and spirit of faith to discover together God’s plan for the Church in China. It takes greater caution and moderation on the part of everyone in order not to fall into sterile polemics that hurt communion and rob our hope for a better future.”
The cardinal also warned against thinking and acting in only a political manner.
“Expressions such as power, betrayal, resistance, surrender, confrontation, failure, compromise, should make room for others, such as service, dialogue, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, collaboration, communion,” he said. “If you are not prepared to change this approach, there is a serious problem.”