In a world witnessing rising tensions and conflicts, the Roman Catholic Church is planning a new peace mission which focuses on the good of Chinese Catholics, the good of all the Chinese people, the harmony of society, and peace in the world. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican’s highest-ranking diplomat, is hopeful the mission can succeed by helping Beijing build bridges of friendship with nations.
The Holy See has detailed its global diplomacy of super soft power and strategy for the most sensitive geopolitical issue in the world – China.
In a kind of division of roles with Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of state at the Vatican (de facto number-two in the Catholic hierarchy after Pope Francis), has over the weekend in the Northern Italian city of Pordenone drawn the diplomatic-political lines derived from the religious-prophetic indications of the Pope.
The indications were two fold, about a mission for peace and great attention to China, Vatican’s “top dream” for almost half a millennium since the time Jesuit Matteo Ricci reached Beijing.
On both fronts, the Cardinal registered success but faces a hard task ahead. And on both fronts, the Pope seems to entrust the secretary of state with the duty of carefully weaving the delicate fabric of relations and politics of the Holy See, a place that only appeals to moral and soft power and clearly abhors and refuses force and hard power.
This makes the effort extremely difficult, but apparently neither the Pope nor Parolin want to shirk what they feel are their responsibilities to find ways to avoid wars and destruction.
The first and most delicate issue was the Church in China. In the midst of growing global interest in a thaw between China and the Holy See after almost 20 years of freeze, the Vatican confirmed relations with Beijing are improving and stated that its goal in this is to work “for the good of Chinese Catholics, the good of all the Chinese people, and the harmony of society, and in favor of peace in the world.”
Here the Cardinal paid attention to the delicate historic experience, starting from the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century that triggered the decline and demise of the Chinese Empire. The wars are still considered a shock in the official historical narrative of China.
Then, after the Opium Wars when Western powers imposed unequal treaties on China, France took on the responsibility of protecting foreign missionaries and Catholics, both foreign and Chinese. This irritated many Chinese as they saw the spread of Catholicism and the Christian faith in China as a consequence of the treaties and proof of the link between Christianity and Western countries’ oppression of China.
In the 1920s, noted Parolin, the Church and its representative in China, Celso Costantini, born in Pordenone, radically changed their policy. Costantini, posted in China from 1923 to 1933, set ties with the Chinese government in a positive fashion. He insisted on having independent diplomatic representation in China, shedding the political protection of France.
This discarding of France’s protection indicated that the Vatican would not be subservient to the politics of any power. Similarly, Parolin’s stress of this issue underscores that the Vatican is now determined to pursue its own agenda with China and not be deferential to the political aims of any power. For this, Costantini was bitterly attacked, but in 1930s the Pope officially and publicly defended him, noted Parolin.
The Cardinal also stressed Costantini’s efforts in promoting the sinification of the Chinese Catholics. In 1922, there were 57 missions in China and none was in the hands of the Chinese clergy. In 1933, there were 121 missions and 23 of them were headed by Chinese clergy. Moreover, Costantini insisted on giving up his promotion to Cardinal, recommending in his stead Paul Yu Pin, who became the first Chinese Cardinal in 1937.
In Beijing, there are lingering suspicions that the Vatican might play a role in China similar to the role it played in Poland, where in the 1980s it helped to topple the local communist regime, a seminal experience for the fall of the whole Soviet empire. Almost as a balance to this memory, Cardinal Parolin reminded listeners of the Vatican’s role in brokering a peace settlement between the US and Cuba, still a communist country and very close to China.
Carefully walking on a tightrope between concerns in China about the West and in the West about rising China, Parolin in a separate but related speech argued that Vatican diplomacy should be moved by justice but even more by mercy.
This seems to indicate that in ties with China, a country which is both joining a Westernized world and moving out of communism, the Holy See must be moved by a spirit of generosity and forgiveness — a hint to those within the Church who are concerned that Rome is giving in too much to Beijing.
This is also a hint to Beijing of how much Rome is willing to suffer in order to achieve, “the good of Chinese Catholics, the good of all the Chinese people, and the harmony of society, and in favor of peace in the world.”
Parolin claimed the high moral authority of the Church and he blamed countries too eager to recourse to arms when diplomacy still can be used to solve the standing issues. He also recalled the strenuous efforts of Pope Francis in promoting a diplomacy of peace to solve existing wars and prevent future ones.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.
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