ROME — The Vatican’s number-two man said China should not be afraid of the Catholic Church as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to travel to Rome this week.
Reuters reported Sunday that “senior Vatican sources” relate that the pope has made known to the Chinese president his willingness to meet with him, but that Chinese officials have not yet requested a meeting between the two leaders.
In the preface to a new book on China to be published Tuesday, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin wrote that the Vatican harbors “no distrust or hostility toward any country” and that the Church adopts “a stance of respect, esteem, and trust toward the Chinese people and their legitimate state authorities.”
Cardinal Parolin’s words mark the most recent of a series of overtures meant to persuade Beijing of the Vatican’s good faith.
A senior Vatican official caused a stir in Church circles last year when he gushed about how great life is in Communist China after a visit to the country.
The chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, went so far as to propose the People’s Republic of China as the best model in the world for living out Catholic social teaching today.
Upon returning from Beijing, Bishop Sánchez told a journalist that “at this moment, the Chinese are the ones implementing Catholic social teaching best.”
In describing his visit, Sánchez waxed of how he “found an extraordinary China” with an exceptional work ethic. What many people don’t know, he said, “is that the central Chinese value is work, work, work. There’s no other way, basically it’s what Saint Paul said: whoever does not work should not eat.”
“You don’t have shantytowns, you don’t have drugs, young people do not take drugs. There is like a positive national consciousness, they want to show that they have changed, and now they accept private property,” he said.
Pope Francis seems to share in Bishop Sánchez’ enthusiasm for life in China, defending the country’s practice of religious liberty and insisting that in China churches are full and religion is freely practiced.
In 2017, the pope said he would love to visit China “as soon as they invite me,” while in the midst of negotiations to reestablish diplomatic relations.
“China always has this aura of mystery about it that is fascinating,” Francis said. “In China the churches are full. You can practice your faith in China.”
Even prior to these statements, the pope had advised against fear of China’s growth as an emerging power on the world stage. “Fear is not a good counselor,” Francis said in 2016, while adding that China’s growth should come as no surprise to anyone.
It is obvious, he said, “that so much culture and so much wisdom, and in addition, so much technical knowledge – we have only to think of age-old medicinal techniques – cannot remain enclosed within a country; they tend to expand, to spread, to communicate.”
“Man tends to communicate, a civilization tends to communicate. It is evident that when communication happens in an aggressive tone to defend oneself, then wars result. But I would not be fearful,” Francis said.
The Vatican entered into a provisional agreement with China last September, which involved ceding an unspecified role to the Communist party in the naming of Catholic bishops in the country, a deal that some high-ranking Church officials have labeled a “betrayal” of Chinese Catholics.
For his part, the pope has tried to allay the fears of critics and wrote a letter to China’s Catholics last September saying that he understood their worries while urging them to trust him.
Francis said he is convinced that “encounter can be authentic and fruitful only if it occurs through the practice of dialogue, which involves coming to know one another, to respect one another and to ‘walk together’ for the sake of building a common future of sublime harmony.”
In the Provisional Agreement, he said, the Holy See has desired “only to attain the Church’s specific spiritual and pastoral aims, namely, to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China.”
Ever since 1951, the Catholic Church in China has been divided between an underground Church faithful to Rome and a state-controlled Patriotic Catholic Association out of communion with the Holy See.
In his preface to the new book on China, Cardinal Parolin wrote that the formerly “inextricable knots” between China and the Vatican could be loosened by means of an approach entailing “theology, law, pastoral work, and even diplomacy.”
The former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen has called for the resignation of the Vatican Secretary of State, saying the accord he brokered with the Chinese Communist party amounted to an “incredible betrayal” of the Catholic faith.
“I don’t think he has faith. He is just a good diplomat in a very secular, mundane meaning,” Zen said. “He should resign.”
Zen has been a vocal critic of the Vatican’s apparent eagerness to reestablish relations with China at any cost, saying that Pope Francis “is really naïve” and “doesn’t know the Chinese communists.”
At the moment, the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but would have to sever them in order to renew diplomatic relations with mainland China.
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