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Parolin’s ‘no diplomacy’ diplomacy for a Chinese Church

Chinese Catholics can be their country’s best citizens, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in a speech Tuesday at a conference in Rome.

Parolin, the Holy See’s foreign minister and the architect of the controversial Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops, used the example of a 19th century papal envoy to China to outline a vision for Church-state relations and enculturation for the local Church.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Credit: World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard. CC BY SA 2.0

Key to a flourishing Church in China, according to Parolin, is making the local Church “missionary” but not foreign, and stripping back the Holy See’s engagement with the government to the level of ecclesiastical affairs only.

While indicating that the Vatican-China deal was almost sure to be renewed later this year, the cardinal also repeated the Holy See’s ambition for a permanent presence on the mainland, with a dedicated Vatican envoy in China. 

But, Parolin stressed, that envoy would have to be a purely pastoral presence, shorn of the diplomatic role of Vatican’s global emissaries.

The cardinal’s speech, given May 21 at a conference hosted by the Pontifical Urban University in Rome titled “100 years since the Concilium Sinense: Between the Past and the Present” offered an interesting view of the roadmap being pursued by the Vatican in China.

But it also raises questions about the identity of China as a nation, and Chinese Catholics’ place both in the Church and in their homeland.

Could Parolin’s bid for “no diplomacy” diplomacy with China work, or is it a manifesto for a Communist franchise church? 

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Cardinal Parolin framed his address Tuesday as a mediation on Cardinal Celso Costantini, who arrived in China in 1922 as the Vatican’s first apostolic delegate to the country. 

Costantini, Parolin said, had “an uncommon insight” into the Church’s situation and challenges in China, shaping his “strategy, missionary and diplomatic,” which led to the first General Council of the Church in China in 1924.

A key problem identified by the newly minted papal delegate, Parolin said, was that the Church was “in China” but not Chinese, with “a persistent, and then excessive, dependence on the foreign component of the mission,” “manifested both by the almost exclusive presence of foreign clerics and by a certain predilection of certain missionary circles for the patronage established by the great Western powers and the pastoral methods which resulted from it.”

“We have been in China for more than three centuries. The entire ecclesiastical hierarchy is [still] foreign. Is this the Church that Christ wanted?” Parolin quoted the diplomat as writing. “The Church must be naturalized: it cannot be perpetually composed of guests.”

Parolin also flagged Costantini’s concern that “human aid” from foreign powers might have protected and favored missionary expansion for a period of time, but it “also had a passive moral weight in the economy of evangelization.” 

“This conviction,” Parolin said, “is accompanied by the awareness that, to restore vigor to evangelization in the country, the Catholic Church will have to free itself from political events and colonial interests, remaining outside and above them.”

In order to see a necessary transition for the Church in China from “foreign missions” to an “authentically inculturated” Church in China, Parolin said, there must be direct dialogue between the Church and state authorities.

Parolin recounted how Costantini purposely distanced himself from the general diplomatic community in China at the time and established his residence “well away from the vicinity of the international legations, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding about the nature of its mission.”

The cardinal followed up his speech with comments to reporters, telling them that: "We have long hoped to have a stable presence in China.” 

That presence “may not initially have the form of a pontifical representation of an apostolic nunciature,” he conceded, but some other version of a purely pastoral representative might make a more immediate goal.

But both Costantini and Parolin agreed that dialogue had to be underpinned by true ecclesiology, with the Secretary of State saying that the inculturation of the Catholic faith comes with “a fundamental requirement, or rather a necessary and implicit condition, which supports its entire structure: the link with the Successor of Peter.”

“Throughout his writings, the apostolic delegate returned several times to the theme of unity between the pope and all Catholics scattered throughout the world, whatever their national affiliation, specifying that this communion was precisely the best guarantee of a faith far removed from external political interests and firmly anchored in local culture and society,” said Parolin.

Parolin went on to quote Costantini, saying “The pope is the spiritual leader of all Catholics in the world, to whatever nation they belong; but this obedience to the pope not only does not harm the love that each person owes to his country, but purifies and revives it.”

Taken on its own terms, Parolin’s speech offered an apparently simple lesson from history for the Church’s dealings with China: a local Church, led by Chinese bishops in union with the pope, supported by direct dialogue between Rome and Beijing limited to ecclesiastical affairs, is a blueprint for success.

But, as anyone familiar with Vatican-China relations over the last six years knows, the situation is far from simple. And, in the eyes of many observers, Parolin is mapping a road to nowhere.

Parolin opened his speech with a special greeting for Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of the Diocese of Shanghai, who also presented a speech to the conference.

While the cardinal offered a “particularly cordial” welcome to the Chinese bishop, his remarks elided the way Bishop Shen personifies a kind of personified critique of Parolin’s plan for engagement with China.

Shen was installed as Bishop of Shanghai just over a year ago, an event announced and sanctioned in partnership with the Chinese Communist Party government, but not the Holy See. At the time, Shen’s was the third appointment in a row in which a mainland Chinese diocesan bishop was named to a new diocese without prior Vatican authorization.

Parolin’s own state department conceded at the time that they first learned of the installation when they read about it in the press.

Since 2012, the bishop has also served as the president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, a body organized under the auspices of the Communist Party but not formally recognized by the Vatican, and which is responsible for the appointment of bishops under a Chinese law which itself doesn’t recognize a role for the Vatican in the episcopal appointment process.

In short, Bishop Shen personifies both the lack of communion between state-approved Chinese bishops and the Holy See and the dysfunction of the current Vatican-China deal on episcopal appointments — due to be renewed in October of this year. 

That agreement, as Parolin has said repeatedly in the past, does not represent a “diplomatic” engagement between two sovereign powers, but a pastoral accord between the Church and local authorities. 

That preference for “intra-Church only” engagement has led to serious criticism of the Vatican for remaining silent in the face of evidence of human rights abuses, including a genocide against the Uighur people.

Shen’s welcoming by Parolin, then, appears like a kind of public validation of a status quo which many see as obviously broken — including those close to his own department and senior figures in the Chinese mainland Church.

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Shen himself praised the Church’s progress in China, and hailed the ongoing program of “Sinicization” as both fruitful and synonymous with enculturation.

Today the Chinese people carry on “the great rebirth of the Chinese nation in a global way with a Chinese-style modernization,” Shen said, and the Catholic Church “must move in the same direction,” said Shen Bin, “following a path of Sinicization that is in line with Chinese society and culture today.”

One senior source close to the Secretary of State put the matter differently to The Pillar.

“The Vatican’s top diplomats know that [this kind of enculturation] is impossible,” they said, “but here Shen is saying it bluntly.”

Chinese government policy on Sinicization requires the Church, including bishops and priests, to recognize and accept the supremacy of state authority and Communist Party dogma over the Church’s hierarchy and teachings.

“Sinicization does not mean enculturation,” one senior cleric on the Chinese mainland told The Pillar. “It means the subordination of the Church in China to the Party.”

Parolin’s speech, he said, “just shows how one-sided the Vatican feels itself to be in this relationship — this is a man who arranged his own transfer to Shanghai, effectively, with the Chinese government.”

“The Holy See has effectively recognized [Shen] as the de facto head of the de facto bishops’ conference and is putting everything behind him being able to pull off some kind of arrangement with Xi.”

For both senior diplomatic and clerical sources, in Rome and in China, the problem with Parolin’s engagement with China as described in his speech on Tuesday is that it accepts the CCP’s premise that the Chinese culture and people are indistinguishable from the Communist Party, and therefore the subjugation of the Church to the party is a necessary characteristic of authentic enculturation.

But in validating the vision shared by Shen and the CCP, and accepting the bishop as the de facto leader of the Church in China, the Vatican has had to seemingly accept the breach in practical ecclesiastical communion between state-appointed bishops and the Bishop of Rome — despite Parolin describing this as a “fundamental requirement” and “implicit condition”.

This mutual exclusion of Parolin’s twin criteria for a fruitful future for the Church in China also requires an awkward and ever-more obvious policy of studied silence on the bishops in China who reject Communist authority over ecclesiastical affairs.

Many underground priests, and some bishops, have refused to register with the CPCA, citing the requirement that they acknowledge Communist Party authority over the Church and its teachings. 

Bishops and priests who refuse to register have been subject to systematic harassment, arrests and detention. Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou was arrested earlier this year.

The Vatican’s Secretariat of State issued unsigned guidance in 2019, stating that “the Holy See understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions,” but has raised no public objections to state harassment and arrest of bishops and priests.

For many, including many Chinese Catholics, these bishops and priests — who are Chinese, not foreign missionaries — are the real face of authentically enculturated Chinese Catholicism, committed to their ministry, to their people, to communion with Rome, and rejecting Communist interference in matters of the faith.

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Another problem for Parolin’s programme for engagement with China is that, whatever lessons he hopes to draw from history, it seems impossible for the Vatican to forge any meaningful relationship with China totally insulated from diplomatic affairs.

Beijing has long acknowledged, and long frustrated the Holy See’s dream of a permanent representative on the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, the Vatican is one of only a handful of sovereign powers to still recognize and maintain full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, officially the Republic of China but to Beijing a rebel province.

The Vatican has diplomatically tried to balance its commitment to Taiwan with not antagonizing Beijing, keeping the Taipei nunciature open but without a nuncio assigned to it for decades

Following Parolin’s speech Tuesday, the Taiwan foreign ministry released a statement saying that “We understand that the Holy See hopes to promote the freedom of belief and rights of Chinese Catholics, and has publicly expressed its desire to send representatives to China many times.”

Taipei also pointed out that it supported all international efforts to halt China’s “violations of religious freedom and basic human rights.”

While Cardinal Parolin might speak warmly about taking diplomatic issues out of its Chinese diplomacy, the reality is China has a clear policy of demanding de-recognition of Taiwan as a condition of moving ahead with relations with Beijing. 

While neither side has been willing to say so out loud yet, no serious observer expects Parolin to see the opening of any kind of Vatican mission on the mainland as long as there is a papal embassy in Taipei.

The sense of Parolin’s speech Tuesday was that the Vatican wants to hermetically seal its dealings with the Chinese government, holding talks on the future of the Church there separate from any other issues or considerations, and treating problems and awkward issues purely on their own terms.

Unfortunately for the Vatican, diplomacy cannot be done in a vacuum, and it’s increasingly obvious that its diplomatic exchanges with China are a zero sum game. 

However cordially Parolin might welcome Bishop Shen and the renewal of the Vatican-China deal for another two years, those years will likely come with costs — in communion of local bishops like Shen with the pope, in suffering for bishops who keep faith with Rome over the CCP, and in support for the Vatican’s diplomatic allies like Taiwan.

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