Interview: The future of Vatican-China relations, and whether the agreement on bishops has paid off
This is the second installment of a three-part interview series with Archbishop Paul Gallagher. Read Part I here.
In the second part of an exclusive interview with America, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, speaks about the Holy See’s relationship with China and gives his assessment of the provisional agreement between the two sides on the nomination of bishops. He reveals that the Vatican will soon appoint diplomats to its study office in Hong Kong and its diplomatic mission in Taiwan. (On July 19, Gianni Cardinale reported in the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire that the Italian monsignor Stefano Mazzotti has been appointed as the interim charges d’affaires to Taipei and the Spanish monsignor José Luis Diaz Maria Blanca Sanchez has been assigned to the Holy See’s “study mission” in Hong Kong.)
He then speaks about the Holy See’s concern at the volatile situation in the Holy Land and the risk of more violence between Israelis and Palestinians. He emphasizes the importance of greater commitment by the United States to help resolve that conflict, which has lasted over 70 years.
China and Hong Kong
Turning to China: It’’s been four years since the signing of the provisional agreement. What balance sheet do you draw from this?
The balance sheet, I suppose, is not terribly impressive. We’ve had six episcopal appointments, and there are some others in the pipeline. So it’s not without results. I suppose we would have liked to see more results, and there’s much work to be done. But the agreement is delivering to a certain extent. The agreement could deliver more, but we have had Covid, and the delegations have not been able to meet in recent years. So, we’re working on that now, and we’re trying to move forward and make the agreement work and work better.
The balance sheet, I suppose, is not terribly impressive. We’ve had six episcopal appointments, and there are some others in the pipeline.
Is there a plan for the delegations from both sides to meet?
We are working on it. Yes. The hope is to bring about a meeting in the near future.
Would it be in Rome or in Beijing?
We have to wait and see.
Has there been any progress on any issue not included in the agreement?
No, because the delegations discuss only the things within the agreement. And I think the agreement has the function of being a sort of confidence-building measure; if we can work successfully with the Chinese authorities on the appointment of bishops, then that obviously helps both parties to begin to examine other questions as well.
My understanding was that before the signing of the agreement, the Chinese delegation used to say that they could not discuss any other issue until the agreement was signed. For example, they could not discuss the question of the underground bishops or the number of dioceses or the Holy See opening an office in Beijing until the agreement was signed. But after the signing of the agreement, has the Holy See delegation been able to discuss other such issues?
Yes, on some of those things there has been some discussion. There has been some discussion, particularly on the question of the office and things like that. Discussions, yes, but no conclusions yet.
If we can work successfully with the Chinese authorities on the appointment of bishops, then that obviously helps both parties to begin to examine other questions as well.
You have not yet appointed a new representative to the Holy See’s study office in Hong Kong since the former Vatican diplomat has been reassigned elsewhere. Why?
We’re appointing him! Yes. Because this is the time of year where we make the transfers in the diplomatic service of the Holy See.
Is the same true for Taiwan? Are you appointing a Vatican diplomat there, too?
Yes. We’re appointing him, too.
Why has the Vatican never published the text of the provisional agreement with China? I’ve heard many cardinals and bishops in Asia, and elsewhere, too, criticizing the fact that they don’t know the text of this agreement. Nobody has seen the text outside a small circle. Why the secrecy?
The text of the agreement was drawn up before I came into office, and it was never substantially changed since I came into this job. I’m led to believe that right from the beginning, it was decided by common consent that the text would not be published, at least not until it’s signed definitively. Furthermore, there is an undertaking to try and improve the text. When we see that maybe certain things don’t work as well as they should, then that may be the moment when the text could be modified and improved.
But the changes would only be in relation to the nomination of bishops.
Yes. That’s the only thing that the agreement touches on.
You met the Chinese foreign minister in Munich on Feb. 14, 2020. Is there any other such high-level meeting in the pipeline?
There’s a desire, yes. This is the desire to see the bar raised progressively so that Cardinal Pietro Parolin would meet somebody higher than [Foreign Minister] Wang Yi, but not the president, and thus eventually, possibly, preparing the way for a meeting between Xi Jinping and the Holy Father. There’s that desire.
Is the desire on the part of the Holy See only, or is it shared by China?
I think the Chinese are in agreement that there should be a gradual raising of the level of direct contact between us.
I think the Chinese are in agreement that there should be a gradual raising of the level of direct contact between us.
Pope Francis said recently that he hopes to extend the agreement that expires in October. Are you planning to extend the agreement for another two years, or to make it a definite agreement, or what?
Given that the delegations have not met for over two years because of Covid, I think it would be premature to sign definitively the agreement. It will be up to the two parties to negotiate whether we renew it for a year or two years. Last time, we renewed it for two years. I suspect that that will be the case again.
Since the last face-to-face meeting over two years ago, have there been any virtual encounters between the delegations from the Vatican and Beijing?
No. We haven’t had any virtual meetings.
Cardinal Joseph Zen was arrested in Hong Kong on May 12 and was subsequently released on bail. How do you interpret his arrest?
Well, obviously, the Holy See was very concerned by the arrest of Cardinal Zen. We were unaware that he was a member of this organization [the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided legal, medical and financial assistance to those who were arrested, injured or threatened with violence during the pro-democracy protests]. I certainly was not aware of it. That he was a member of that organization was obviously not appreciated by the authorities in Hong Kong. I think his arrest was something that for us was very surprising, and we hope that the matter can be resolved satisfactorily in the near future.
I think his arrest was something that for us was very surprising, and we hope that the matter can be resolved satisfactorily in the near future.
I understand that the Hong Kong authorities have taken away Cardinal Zen’s travel document, so he won’t be able to come to the consistory to create new cardinals in the Vatican at the end of August.
Well, if he hasn’t got travel documents, he can’t travel.
The new bishop of Hong Kong, Stephen Chow S.J., wrote recently in the diocese’s Sunday Examiner (June 2, 2022): “I can feel Hong Kong, including our church, is becoming more like an existence within cracks. And spaciousness for our freedom of expression, which we had taken for granted, seems diminishing.” How does the Holy See read the situation in Hong Kong?
The Holy See is committed to the defense of religious freedom. If the bishop feels that the space for Hong Kong Catholics is diminishing, we obviously regret that, and we will try to be as supportive as we can. Obviously, the situation has changed if that’s what the bishop is saying. I think we will be encouraging our people to make the best of the freedom that they have, of the space that they have, as we would do in many countries of the world. It’s not as if religious freedom is to be taken for granted very much these days; there are lots of restrictions on people’s freedom. And the Holy See works to try and assist and improve those situations wherever they are, whether it’s Hong Kong or somewhere else.
Would you agree that the restrictions imposed now on the church on the mainland and in Hong Kong make it very difficult to promote the social teaching of the church?
Well, I’d have to speak to the bishop to know what those restrictions are, and frankly, I don’t know what they are right now. I think that obviously there may be restrictions on what people can publish, what they can say. When you’re talking now, you are speaking very generically about restrictions, and I don’t know how that actually works, how that pans out in the church in Hong Kong.
The Holy See is committed to the defense of religious freedom. If the bishop feels that the space for Hong Kong Catholics is diminishing, we obviously regret that.
The Vatican and the Holy Land
Turning to the Holy Land, how do you see the present situation there? The government has collapsed in Israel, there has been increased violence between Israelis and Palestinians since the beginning of the year, and many observers think that the situation could explode again. So how do you see it?
I think you’re correct in saying that the situation is extremely delicate. You’re right, the violence is a growing problem. There are institutional weaknesses on both sides, as we see in the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government. Also, there are many pending issues amongst the Palestinians as well. There is obviously increasing, I’d say, desperation amongst young people on both sides.
The death of the young Catholic journalist Shireen [Abu Akleh] shocked everybody. That is but one example, a very graphic example, of the problems of the Holy Land. And I think we need to renew our commitment to peace and to dialogue and try to promote the Holy See’s commitment to the two-state solution, to the international status of Jerusalem, which people have tended to dismiss in recent years.
But then one asks, what other proposals are on the board? We saw President Trump’s administration made some proposals which obviously didn’t get off the ground. I think there is a renewed desire for a renewed concentration on the Middle East. Unfortunately, in the world and in the media, we tend to focus on one issue at a time, and the Ukrainian war has been all consuming. But there are other situations that demand our attention: There is Syria, Lebanon; there is the Israel-Palestine conflict; there are other situations, too, that merit the attention of the international community,
Does the Holy See have any new effort in mind to address the dramatic situation in the Holy Land?
I think we’d say that we’re always making some sort of effort on both sides. We try to engage as much as we can, in the ways we can, through the nuncio in Israel, the apostolic delegate in Jerusalem, and throughout the region. When Shireen was killed, and obviously that had an enormous impact on the Catholic and Palestinian community, we asked the Palestinian ambassador to come in and to explain their vision of the thing. And we also invited the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See to come in, and we tried to transmit a strong, robust message to his government at that time as well.
You see in this instance yet another example of the attempt to hit at the media, at journalists, for reporting what is actually happening in the Holy Land. A lot of journalists have been killed, detained or repressed for the work they do. Is the Holy See able to do anything in this situation?
I think the Holy See defends the right to life of everybody, in whatever way we can. If any particular group is being targeted in the Holy Land, then obviously that is a cause of great sorrow and scandal. But if you look around the world, journalists are very much in the crosshairs at times in many conflictual situations, and I think the Holy See and the local churches do what we can, but we don’t have ready-made solutions for all of these situations.
If any particular group is being targeted in the Holy Land, then obviously that is a cause of great sorrow and scandal.
Would you go to the Holy Land as an official Vatican representative if you were invited?
Yes, if I was invited! I have never been to the Holy Land, even in a private capacity, so I would be very keen to go.
In recent decades, I think the tendency has been for high-ranking officials within the Secretariat of State not to go to the Holy Land. The Holy Father goes and then is accompanied by those people. But yes, I would go, but I don’t see it as very likely that there would be such an invitation. We haven’t received a lot of high-ranking officials from Israel, either, since I’ve been here. I don’t know if any official at a high level has come to the Secretariat of State in recent years.
You say you have not met any high-ranking officials in the Vatican in recent years?
No, I don’t think so.
How do you explain that?
I don’t have a ready explanation. There’s obviously a desire on the part of the Israelis to maintain the relations formally as they are.
Obviously, the United States is one of the key players in the Middle East and in the Holy Land, and everybody says that without the United States really coming in heavy, there will be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you share that opinion?
I certainly share the opinion that the United States of America is a very important actor. President Biden is just about to make a visit to the region. Whether a solution can be brought about without the Americans, I don’t know. Obviously, I would hope that any solution would have the goodwill of the Americans. I don’t think we can put limits on things. There are other countries that have made very important contributions historically to helping in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I certainly think things would go better if the United States were to renew its engagement there.
As you mentioned, President Biden is going to the Holy Land. Have you made any effort to communicate your views and concerns to him before the president goes there?
I met with the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See a few days ago.
On this question?