By Sergio Centofanti and Fr Bernd Hagenkord, SJ
It was only recently, specifically during the pontificate of Saint John Paul II, that institutional contacts with the Chinese Authorities were established. Confidential discussions were begun which, in the beginning, did not produce significant results. But the Holy See decided to continue the dialogue, demonstrating a respectful attitude toward the Chinese government and seeking to clarify, beyond any past or present misunderstanding, the religious nature of the Catholic Church and the aims of the Holy See’s work at the international level.
Something analogous to the distinction between theoretical positions and the need for dialogue seems to be happening in the thought of the Communist Party in China, with regard to the Catholic Church: while maintaining a philosophical prejudice concerning the meaning and function of religion in society, it has slowly moved from justifying serious actions of persecution to a certain openness toward the personal convictions of believers, even if the change has not occurred uniformly throughout the country.
Pope John Paul II in 2001 spoke about the necessity of dialogue with the Chinese Authorities: “It is no secret that the Holy See, in the name of the whole Catholic Church and, I believe, for the benefit of the whole human family, hopes for the opening of some form of dialogue with the Authorities of the People’s Republic of China. Once the misunderstandings of the past have been overcome, such a dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese people and for peace in the world” (Message to the Conference on Matteo Ricci, 24 October 2001). And Pope Benedict in 2007 clarified that in the dialogue, “the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women” (Letter to the Church in China, n. 4).
The Church, then, claims for herself the right and the liberty to announce the Gospel: strictly political questions do not fall within her mission. The construction of a just social and public order is first and foremost a political duty; but being at the same time a primary human and moral duty, the Church has the obligation to offer her own specific contributions through the purification of reason, ethical formation, and the prophetic voice, and even offering constructive criticism when necessary.
As his predecessors had done before him, Benedict XVI, in several places in his Letter to the Church in China, insisted that the Holy See is open to a dialogue with the Authorities of the People’s Republic of China. He expressed his hope “that concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China may soon be established” as “friendship is nourished by contacts, by a sharing in the joy and sadness of different situations, by solidarity and mutual assistance” (n. 4). Without ever forgetting the compass of faith and pastoral wisdom, on the one hand; and the humble recognition of the complexity of the matters under discussion, on the other; she must try to find solutions to the current problems, overcoming permanent conflict with the legitimate civil Authorities (ibid.).
Along this ongoing line of action and of the papal magisterium, Pope Francis wants to continue in the commitment to dialogue. And he seeks to persevere in the official negotiation with the Chinese government, with the necessary prudence and discernment, but also with the foresight and the untiring tenacity that come from trust in God. That explains, in part, why the Holy Father has on various occasions expressed the desire to visit the great Chinese Nation and to meet with the President of China.
This is the fourth in a series of in-depth articles on the dialogue between the Holy See and China.