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Dialogue with China: Small steps toward mutual trust

Hong Kong (SE): In early May, the Vatican News website began publishing a series of articles to give insights on the criteria and reasons guiding the Holy See in its contacts with the Chinese government. This is the second of a two-part commentary, published on May 7, written by Sergio Centofanti and Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, titled, Dialogue with China: Small steps toward mutual trust, in which they ask why the Holy See is engaging in dialogue despite the suffering of the faithful under a regime that is hostile to religion, and what could it achieve.
Centofanti and Father Hagenkord start Small steps toward mutual trust by establishing what dialogue means to the Church. They note that “dialogue means to get in touch with society, religions, and cultures” they assert that it is fundamental to the life of the Church, and an “essential element in terms of the way the Church acts, both within its own structures, and in its relationship with the world.”
They write that Second 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).”
The writers observe that Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (His Church), speaks in similar terms when he points out, ‘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).
Centofanti and Father Hagenkord write that “Dialogue between people, institutions, and communities, facilitates knowledge, which can become friendship. In all cases, dialogue is nourished by trust,” stressing that, “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 13 May 2017.”
They write that it is thanks to small steps taken by recent popes that the present climate of dialogue between the Holy See and China has been arrived at. Each pope, they write, 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.” They say that more recently, Pope Francis, with his personality, teaching, and manner, “ that encourages a process of dialogue and encounter between so many peoples and nations, including China.”
For the Catholic Church, Centofanti and Father Hagenkord, argue that dialogue is not an end in itself and is not a ‘compromise at all costs’ that sells out on important principles to gain political or diplomatic advantage because, in the case of China “this would mean forgetting the suffering experienced by the Catholic community.”
They write that 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.” 
They emphasise that, “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.”
Centofanti and Father Hagenkord point out that it is sincere and honest dialogue that enables the Church to operate from within society “both to protect the legitimate expectations of Catholics, and to promote the common good.” 
They continue, saying that 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.”
The writers argue that honest and respectful dialogue, even with the difficulties and risks, will animate a climate of confident exchange with China, “one that will increase mutual knowledge, and will gradually succeed in overcoming the misunderstandings of the distant, and more recent, past.”
Centofanti and Father Hagenkord observe that there are indications that China has become increasingly aware of the soft power wielded by the Holy See internationally and that “those who have special responsibilities in the Church need to practice careful discernment.”
The conclude, “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 recognising the presence of God in history.”

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