Why is the Vatican engaging in a dialogue with Chinese authorities? In China, Catholics have remained faithful despite the suffering caused by a regime that is hostile to religion. So what can such dialogue achieve?

Dialogue is basic to the life of the Church. It is an essential element in terms of the way the Church acts, both within its own structures, and in its relationship with the world. To dialogue means to get in touch with society, religions, and cultures. The 2nd Vatican Council considered dialogue a form of pastoral action, not just among Church members, but also towards non-Christians, civil authorities, and all people of good will. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes” states: “All people, believers and non-believers, must contribute to the proper construction of this world within which they live together: this cannot happen without a loyal and prudent dialogue” (No. 21).

Pope Paul VI says something similar in his Encyclical, “Ecclesiam Suam”: “The Church must come to dialogue with the world in which she finds herself. The Church speaks; the Church becomes a message” (No. 67). The Catholic Church “must be ready to support dialogue with all people of good will, within and outside its own sphere” (No. 97).

Dialogue between people, institutions, and communities, facilitates knowledge, which can become friendship. In all cases, dialogue is nourished by trust. Mutual trust is the fruit of many small steps, gestures and encounters, which take place on various occasions, often quietly and very discretely. “There are always doors that are not closed”, as Pope Francis said, on May 13th2017.

The current climate of dialogue between the Holy See and China has been achieved thanks to small steps taken by recent Popes, each of whom has opened up a path, added a new building brick, inspiring hope-filled thoughts and actions: from the careful diplomacy of Paul VI to the clear indications of Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, encouraging proactive dialogue with Chinese authorities. Most recently, there is the personality, teaching, and manner of Pope Francis, that encourages a process of dialogue and encounter between so many peoples and nations, including China.

The Catholic Church does not choose dialogue as an end in itself. It is not the kind of “compromise at all costs” that ends up selling out important principles in order to gain political or diplomatic advantages. In the case of China, this would mean forgetting the suffering experienced by the Catholic community. For the Church, dialogue must always be animated by the search for truth and justice, aimed at achieving the integral good of the human person, and respecting fundamental rights. It is important to remember that the Church’s mission, even in China, is not to change State structures or administration, or to challenge political power or authorities. If the Church reduced her mission to the purely political sphere, she would betray her true nature and become just another political protagonist among many, renouncing her transcendent vocation and reducing her own action to the temporal dimension only.

Sincere and honest dialogue allows the Church to operate from within society, both to protect the legitimate expectations of Catholics, and to promote the common good. In this context, when the Church makes critical statements, her aim is not to stimulate controversy, or to condemn, but to promote a more just society with a constructive spirit. Critique becomes a concrete exercise of pastoral charity, because it echoes the cry of suffering of those who are weak and do not have the strength to make their voices heard.

With regard to China, the Holy See believes that honest and respectful dialogue, as difficult and risky as it may be, will encourage a climate of confident exchange, one that will increase mutual knowledge, and will gradually succeed in overcoming the misunderstandings of the distant, and more recent, past.

Various signals seem to indicate that China is increasingly attentive to the “soft power” the Holy See exercises internationally. In China, history continues to run its course and those who have special responsibilities in the Church need to practice careful discernment. That is why the dialogue the Holy See has undertaken with Chinese authorities for over a quarter of a century, has become a veritable pastoral duty for those intent on reading the signs of the times, and on recognizing the presence of God in history.

This is the second in a series of in-depth articles on the dialobue between the Holy See and China.