On Monday May 13th the English language daily Global Times, part of the People’s Daily group, which is the official Party mouthpiece, published on the front page an exclusive interview with Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin of the Holy See carrying a picture of the Pope. It was the first time in the history of the People’s Republic and also in the history of China. Parolin argued that in recent months, since the temporary agreement on September 22, things are improving although problems remain. Our interview with Francesco Sisci.
- Besides what was said, what is the sense of Holy See Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s interview with the Global Times?
It represents a major breakthrough in the position of the Church in China. The Cardinal could have said the same things on any occasion, and there would be plenty of media in the world eager to carry the words of the Cardinal. However, the fact that it is Global Times, China’s most popular English-language newspaper, and part of the People’s Daily, makes it a special event per se. Moreover, it ran the interview while carrying a picture of the Pope, and thus stressing correctly that Parolin didn’t speak for himself, but for the Pope.
It is perhaps a sign of change of thinking from Beijing to the Catholic Church in the world and in China. Cardinal Parolin speaks of the Church in China to the Chinese and to people around the world with some “blessing” and approval of the structure of the state. It is an unprecedented result. Never in Chinese history has Christianity ever received this kind of official recognition. Not even when Ricci’s Jesuits like von Schall or Verbiest were powerful members of the imperial court did the Church received this kind of recognition.
Moreover, as the Cardinal underlined in the interview, there are still problems in the life of the Catholic communities in China, and by publishing these comments in some ways Beijing recognizes the problems and that work must be done.
- Parolin is the second most important person in the Church; therefore in China the leadership must be aware of this. Then the story cannot be only about the Church. Being China, there must also be a China angle in it. What is it?
Of course I don’t know, but an interview of this kind on the Global Times, China being China, would be “blessed” by the leadership. Then, it proves the Chinese leaders and President Xi Jinping can be quite open minded. In the old communist mindset, religion was the most dangerous enemy. Deng or even reformer Zhao Ziyang opened the Chinese market, opening its economy but not opening to religion, especially to the religion of the ex-colonizers, Christianity. Xi is doing it and that proves he can be more amicable.
- The interview was published in the very hours the U.S.–China trade war started, and two days after the interview, Xi opened a grand congress on the dialogue of civilizations. Is it just a coincidence?
It might be, or it might have been a sign from God, since it was the day of Holy Mary of Fatima. Or it might have been partly a Chinese design. The fact is that as some people in the United States are talking of a clash of civilizations with China, China talks of mutual integration of civilizations and civilizations learning from one another. This is in line with the hopes of the Church, I understand. In fact, despite some of the anti-U.S. belligerent rhetoric in Chinese media, Xi appears open to solving the issues with the U.S. through dialogue and mutual understanding.
During the conference, Xi called on human civilization to have a new metabolism that can bring new life to everybody and stressed that China should not consider itself in isolation but in line with Asia and the world, almost mirroring some of the concepts expressed by Parolin.
It all signals that a peaceful way out can be achieved. The peaceful way out of an impending world war is a constant refrain of Pope Francis and also of Parolin, who spoke on May 14 in Milan of the efforts against the world wars since the time of Pope Benedict XV.
- If this is all true, it would be an important result, but is it really?
This present relationship between the Church and China would appear impossible if we were looking at the present situation 18 years ago, when the relationship between China and the Holy See exploded with the canonization of 130 Chinese saints on October 1, 2000. The present result was achieved by being very frank, patient, and honest—and by making many honest mistakes. There were, as far as I know, many things that went wrong, but they were done in good faith by both sides and thus helped bridge the gaps, rather than widening them. The Vatican presented clearly the necessities and concerns of the Church, and the parallel concerns and necessities from China. Not all has been solved, but there has been unprecedented progress.
Trade and geopolitical issues, of course, have different contours and different timetables. The Church can wait years, or even decades. Politicians have much shorter time spans and very different priorities, but perhaps there is still something to learn here.