The Church and China: the point of Father Antonio Spadaro

Image source: Eco Di Bergamo

On September 22, 2018, the Vatican press office issued an official statement informing it of the signing of a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. This event undeniably represents one of the most “high” moments of Vatican diplomacy and the pontificate of Pope Francis.

We talked about it with Father Antonio Spadaro, director of “ La Civiltà Cattolica “. Father Spadaro is one of the leading experts on Sino-Vatican relations and recently published a text concerning precisely the relations between the Holy See and China : “The church in China: a future to write.”

Father Spadaro, what did the provisional agreement for the appointment of bishops signed in September 2018 between the Holy See and the Chinese Government entail? What goals have been achieved? Will there be the possibility of seeing the two Churches united, the so-called Clandestina and the one recognized by the Government?

The interim agreement between the Holy See and China is a very important agreement, because it clearly recognizes the fundamental role of the Pope in the choice of bishops in China . This had never happened in recent times, and is the element of difference compared to the past, as it goes in a direction that is not exactly that of the Chinese Constitution, because the Pope, after all, represents the head of a different state, of a foreign state. It must be clear, however, that this is a pastoral recognition . The provisional agreement, in fact, is not a diplomatic or political agreement, nor an agreement on religious freedom in China. This agreement is all the more important because today we experience a growth in the desire for spirituality in the Chinese state, especially for Christianity, which is growing rapidly. One of the elements of non-growth, however, was the division. But not between a “Church” Clandestina and an official “Church”.There have never been two separate churches in China! If anything, there have been two “communities” of the faithful who, at this point, are no longer divided. In fact, all the Bishops, thanks to this agreement, are in communion with the Pope and are in communion with each other . This is the great step from the point of view of the Catholic Church, that is, there is a community that is unique, in which even the pastors who are in charge of the Dioceses are in communion with the pontiff and between them.These are the basic steps. Is it a definitive agreement, closed, perfect? No, absolutely, but we are moving in a direction that is the right one and hopefully will allow us to move forward in relationships and above all to grow in trust.

In your opinion, in the management of the “Chinese question”, was there continuity between the pontificates of the new millennium? Taking into consideration also that during the pontificate of Benedict XVI there were two different “managements” of Sino-Vatican relations, the first attributable to the work of the current Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, until 2008, and the second in charge to Cardinal Zen until 2013.

If I have to be honest I wouldn’t see this difference. If we look at the pontifical magisterium and the way in which the Popes have moved, what I seem to be able to say is that the work of Francis is the direct conclusion of the steps taken by John Paul II and Benedict XVI . John Paul II with a message of great resonance on the occasion of a conference on Matteo Ricci hoped “to see soon established concrete ways of communication and collaboration between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China”. In 2007, on 27 May, a Letter from Benedict XVI was published in which he insisted on the unity of the Church and also hoped the dialogue with the government authorities. Quoting what John Paul II stated in a message of October 24, 2001, Benedict XVI expressed the hope “that sooner concrete ways of communication and collaboration will be established between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China”. And he added: “It is no mystery to anyone that the Holy See, on behalf of the entire Catholic Church and – I believe – for the benefit of all humanity, hopes for the opening of a space for dialogue with the Authorities of the People’s Republic of China , in which, after overcoming the misunderstandings of the past, we can work together for the good of the Chinese people and for peace in the world ».We also recall that the process of legitimacy was initiated by St. John Paul II and concerned about forty bishops. No major problem has ever been raised, and these bishops and the Holy See have reached solutions to recognize the appointments and move forward with the reconstruction of the dioceses and the life of the Church. Today Francesco has taken a big step forward in this direction traveled by his predecessors .

Can the “Chinese question” be the litmus test of the internal divisions of the Church of Francis? Is there a traditionalist church that opposes the work of Francis and who sees the Pope’s openings to the Chinese world with a bad eye?

The Church is not of Francis, nor of any other Pontiff, but of Jesus Christ . That there are divisions and divergences in the way we see the issue is under everyone’s eyes, this is obvious.They have also been expressed and it is interesting that they emerge and can emerge.Often there are interests of another kind, namely political and economic, which see the Pope as an obstacle to their aims. However, despite the resistance, the Church continues.

It is correct to say that from the point of view of information and journalism, “Civiltà Cattolica”, a magazine she directs, is close to the Pope’s positions, and therefore represents the Vatican’s current line, while Asia News, directed by Father Bernardo Cervellera, represents “anti-papist” positions of Cardinal Zen?

I let him tell this to us. I cannot say that I am in contrast with another press agency, absolutely not. We express our ideas, others express theirs, and it is the readers, then, who can judge and evaluate. In general I can say that we are within an ongoing process, there are different opinions , and this path that the Church is making is also formulated through oppositions, which are then addressed and re-discussed. At the level of the press, there is the freedom of the press, so everyone says what they believe, but frankly I get out of the contrast between one press agency and another. And the ratings are up to the readers.

Finally, in your opinion, how much did the fact that a Jesuit Cardinal ascended to the Papal throne to influence the start of this historic process of “reunion”? Considering the excellent reputation enjoyed by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci in China.

Clearly there is a charismatic harmony that I clearly feel. And certainly every Jesuit carries in his heart a Matteo Ricci. However, it does not seem to me that there is a specific difference in the interest for China just because Francesco is a Jesuit. I repeat, if we read the texts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we see that there has been progress, a path within which Francis has placed himself , so I would not see a Jesuit specificity in this. On the other hand, it is absolutely true that Jesuits have always paid particular attention to China. It is a particular love that Francis has clearly expressed with determination. Here, perhaps, there is a peculiar note precisely in this: in the attention, in love and affection with distant roots, which emerges in Francis in dealing with the Chinese question.

William De Carlo for


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