President Putin Receives The Card. Parolin, Russia © Kremlin.Ru

Russia, China and Nuclear Arms: Interview with the Vatican Secretary of State

In this interview, carried out by LIMES, subjects are addresses such as the present situation in Ukraine, China’s situation, and the Catholic Church’s relations with the Russian Orthodox.

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(ZENIT News – LIMES online / Rome, 11.08.2022).- The Italian Geopolitical Review LIMES carried out an interview with the Vatican Secretary of State. Addressed in the interview were subjects related to the Holy See’s diplomatic realm but it also has some personal hues, recalling the beginning of Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s diplomatic ministry. 

Here is an English translation of the interview.

* * *

LIMES: What distinguishes Vatican diplomacy from others?

Cardinal Parolin: The Holy See’s diplomacy isn’t linked to a State but to the reality of international law. In fact, the Holy See doesn’t have political, economic, military, etc. interests. It is at the service of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pastor of the universal Church. Hence, above all, it has a clear ecclesial function, given that it is one of the instruments of communion between the Pope and the Bishops and cooperates in the guarantee of the freedom of the local Churches in relation to the Civil Authorities. It is also characterized by its commitment to protect the dignity and fundamental rights of every human being, to defend the weakest and the last of the earth, to work for life in all its phases, to promote reconciliation and peace through dialogue, to prevent and resolve conflicts, to support integral development and to spread universal fraternity. At this level, it shares many of the objectives of civil diplomacy. It continues believing in the importance of international organizations, primarily the UN, and stresses the idea and method of multilateralism.  


LIMES: Does geopolitics form part of the formation? 

Cardinal Parolin: Knowledge of the geopolitical reality is an indispensable condition to exercise the diplomatic profession with the greatest efficacy possible. This also applies to the Holy See’s diplomacy. It’s necessary to immerse oneself in the ancient and recent history and culture of the realities in which one works, to know their characteristics, to follow their evolution, to deepen reflection on the dynamic of international relations , to weave patiently a network of transversal relations without ever closing the door to dialogue. All this not with an attitude of cold and detached observers, but with a sentiment of interest and participation in the happy and sad events  of each country and of all our humanity, which I don’t find a better expression to describe it than with the word “love.” As Saint Paul Vi said: we have man at heart, the whole man, all men and with that tinge of humour that stems from that witticism of Cardinal Domenico Tardini, John XXIII’s Secretary of State. To those who asked him if the Holy See’s diplomacy was the “first of the world,”” he replied with his Trastevere irony: “Imagine the second . . . “ 


LIMES: You have a long diplomatic activity behind you. What drove you to this commitment?

Cardinal Parolin: I can’t answer this question other than by referring to the mysterious plans that God has for each one of us. In fact, after my priestly Ordination and a few years of ministry in a parish, the Bishop sent me to Rome to specialize in Canon Law, with his and my intention to return to work in the diocese, but he received from Rome the request to put me at the disposition of the Holy See for the diplomatic service. I accepted, with his consent, and here I am again, so many years later! However, my basic conviction has remained intact: that my vocation is to be as a priest. I experienced the commitment of ecclesiastical diplomacy as a particular unfolding of that vocation; an unsought declination, but accepted as an indication of Providence read in the light of the Church’s discernment. I thank God that in the different situations in which I have found myself, He has given me the grace to be able to accompany the diplomatic mission with my priestly witness, despite my weaknesses and limitations. 


LIMES: The Catholic Church is, by definition, universal. How universal is your diplomacy?

Cardinal Parolin: It attempts to be so and I believe it is. In the first place, because of the composition of its Diplomatic Corps: the Papal Representatives come from local Churches worldwide. 

This is a peculiarity compared with the diplomacies of States, whose members all belong, by birth or nationality, to the country that sends them. But, of course, the provenance is not enough to certify the universality. Hence, those that prepare themselves to serve the Pope in diplomacy are called to assume a universal perspective, to “breathe” –I would say– the rhythm of universality. The specific formation imparted in Rome contributes to it (in the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy), center of catholicity. 


LIMES: In recent times it seems that the role of the “national” Catholic Churches tends to question the universal character of the Church of Rome. Some even propose a Holy See  that is no longer linked to Rome, but itinerant in geographically different places. Is this possible? 

Cardinal Parolin: The Holy See’s presence in Rome is linked to the figure of the Apostle Peter, who preached the Gospel in Rome and suffered martyrdom. The Pope is Saint Peter’s Successor in the Roman Chair and he becomes so as Bishop of Rome. It’s true that. In some historical periods, and even for a long time, the Pope lived in another place (think of the Avignon period) and the situation could be repeated in the case of serious impediments. But I exclude in principle the hypothesis of a Holy See no longer linked to Rome and itinerant in geographically different places. Neither do “national” Catholic Churches exist. In this connection, one doesn’t speak correctly of the Church “of” France, of Spain, of South Sudan, of Vietnam, but of the Church “in” France, in Spain, etc. That is, it’s the only Catholic Church that is rooted in the different geographic realities and assumes their riches. Hence, it’s correct to use the expression the “local” Churches. On the practical plane, there must be protection from the danger of nationalism, understood as the prevalence of the national identity, memberships and sentiments, which, in themselves, are positive values and a resource –in detriment to Catholic openness, namely, universal. In his Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul writes: “There is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free man; there is no man or woman, because you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Then there is an even broader fraternity, which stems from our common human nature, as Pope Francis reminded us in the Encyclical Fratelli Tutti. Returning to the topic of “national” Churches something else is decentralization, that is, the increase of the competencies of the local Churches and of the Episcopal Conferences. Especially since Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church  has put back in the first plane Episcopal Collegiality. Pope Francis has emphasized the concept of synodality, collegiality and synodality, however, to be linked always and combined with the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. 


LIMES: Of what importance is the Pope’s national origin in the Holy See’s geopolitical view? Example: what would have changed if in the 80’s the Pope had been Argentine and if today he were Polish? 

Cardinal Parolin: We can’t pose a hypothesis about what would have happened because, as we know, history is not made with “and if.” It’s natural, however, that the origins, the formation, the experiences and personal history influence the exercise of a Pope’s ministry, but as visible Head of the universal Church, he is the Pastor of all and for all. Nevertheless, we are very conscious of what the Conclave of October 1978 meant  for Europe and for the whole world, and the arrival on the throne of Peter of Saint John Paul II, a Slav Pope, who came from behind the Iron Curtain, from a country under Soviet control. He gave voice to the ”Silent Church,” he was a defender of religious liberty and supported the Solidarnosc trade union. He was convinced that Communism in Eastern Europe was going to implode; hence he never regarded himself as the architect of its fall, but, undoubtedly, he played a key role for this epochal transition to happen without much spilling of blood. Would the same thing have happened if the Pope had been another person? It’s difficult to say. However, I think that, looking at the history of the last Pontificates, it’s possible to see some providential elements against the light, namely, that each one of the Successors of Peter has been a gift for the Church and the world. 


LIMES: The Pope has made repeated and sincere appeals for peace to Russians and Ukrainians in vain and without a response. Why? 

Cardinal Parolin: The Pope’s voice is often “vox clamantis in deserto” (“a voice crying in the desert”). It’s a prophetic voice, of clairvoyant prophecy. It’s like a seed sown that needs a fertile earth to give fruits. If the main actors of the conflict don’t pay attention to his words, sadly, nothing happens, the end of the fighting isn’t achieved. It happened thus in 1917, with Benedict XV’s famous Peace Note during the “futile killing” of World War I, ignored by the belligerent powers of the time. It was repeated with Pius XII’s appeals, who did everything possible to avoid the huge tragedy of World War II. Let us think again, closer to us, of Saint John Paul II’s heartfelt supplication, who in 2003 begged that Iraq not be attacked. Also today, in the tragic Ukrainian issue, there doesn’t seem to be any will for the time being to engage in real peace negotiations and to accept the offer of mediation between the parties. As is obvious, it’s not enough that one of the parties proposes it or mortgages it unilaterally, but it’s indispensable that both parties express their will to do so.

Once again . . . vox clamantis in deserto. But the Pope’s words continue being a testimony of the highest value, which affects many consciences, which makes people more aware that peace and war begin in our hearts and that we are all called to make our contribution to promote the former and to avoid the latter. 


LIMES: Pope Francis lamented immediately the current “global piecemeal war.” Why has his prophecy been underestimated, and in what sense can the Russian aggression against Ukraine mark a negative leap towards the the union of pieces in a real global conflict? 

Cardinal Parolin: The war in Ukraine calls our attention for several reasons, primarily because it is a conflict in the heart of Europe, between Christian Nations, initiated by a country that has nuclear arms, with the real possibility that the situation will get out of hand. You are right, because, when you point out the possibility of a negative leap towards the union of pieces in a conflict of the real world. I think we are not yet able to predict or calculate the consequences of what is happening. Thousands of dead, cities destroyed, millions displaced, the natural surroundings devastated, the risk of famine due to the lack of cereals in so many parts of the world, the energy crisis . . . How is it possible that we don’t recognize that the only response possible, the only viable path, the only viable perspective is to halt the arms and promote a just and lasting peace? In regard to Pope Francis’ acute observation about a Third World War in pieces and the addition of the welding of the pieces, I would like to add that the Pope and the Holy See have always paid great attention to the many forgotten wars that, being far from us, concern us less or, in any case, are abandoned more rapidly from the focus of the great international media. It would be worthwhile to reread the texts of the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi messages and his addresses to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See. 


LIMES: Pope Francis isn’t “the West’s Chaplain,” as some of his Predecessors might seem to be. Is it a choice linked to his biography or of a profound change in the Church’s vision of the world? 

Cardinal Parolin: You’ve said it well: “as instead they might have seemed,” because I don’t think it really happened. I remember, for example, the position expressed by Pius XII on the War in Korea in 1950, and his refusal to be “enlisted” in some way by the President of the United States Harry Truman. I remember Saint John Paul II outstretched hand to Islam, who rejected with all his strength the idea of the “clash of civilizations,” after the September 11, 2002 attacks. Let’s not forget his gesture to bring together the leaders of the world’s religions in Assisi, to promote peace and eliminate any justification of abuse in the name of God for violent and terrorist ends. I’ve given only two examples, but there are many more to show how the cliché of the “West’s Chaplain” does not suit the Pastor of the universal Church, despite the attempts to grab him by both sides. Pope Francis, whom the Cardinals called to the throne of Peter nine years ago, taking him, hence, “almost from the end of the world,” seems even less comparable to the previous cliché. I believe that the universality and a special attention and sensibility towards the peoples of the poorest countries, as well as a less Eurocentric Church and a multilateral look on international problems are part of the Catholic Church’s DNA. And they are part of a process that began and continued in previous Pontificates. All the Popes, at least since Pius XII, have given one more step in this direction. 


LIMES: You played a distinguished role in the negotiation with China on an Agreement that is still secret. On what does the secret depend and what assessment can be made today of its result? 

Cardinal Parolin: The dialogue between the Holy See and the Peoples Republic of China, initiated at the request of Saint John Paul II and continued during the Pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis, led in 2018 to the signing of a Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops in China. In fact the characteristic of the provisional nature counselled the parties not to make it public, in the hope of checking its functioning on the ground and to make a decision about it. The objective of the Agreement was to guarantee that all China’s Bishops be in communion with the Successor of Peter and that the essential unity would be ensured of the ecclesial communities, internally and among them, under the direction of worthy or ideal Prelates, fully Chinese but also fully Catholic. The Agreement establishes that their appointment must follow particular procedures, which stems from the recent history of that Christianity, but which does not omit the fundamental and inalienable elements of Catholic Doctrine. If it were not so, there would no longer be a Catholic Church in China, but something else! The Church calls for legitimate freedom in the appointment of her Bishops, concerned that they be genuine Pastors according to the Heart of Christ and not respond to other merely human criteria, but one must not be scandalized by the fact that in certain situations she also accepts to respond to particular needs, such as certain petitions expressed by the Political Authorities. In regard to the assessment of the Agreement’s results, I think I can say that steps forward have been taken, but that not all the obstacles and difficulties have been overcome, but that there is still a long way to go for its correct implementation and also through a sincere dialogue, for its perfecting. 


LIMES: Kiev or Moscow, what destiny has priority in the Holy Father’s agenda and why? 

Cardinal Parolin: As the Holy Father himself has explained publicly, his greatest desire and, hence, his priority is that through his trip a concrete benefit will be achieved. With this idea, he said he wanted to travel to Kiev to bring consolation and hope to the people affected by the war. He has also announced his willingness to travel to Moscow, and all the forgotten conflicts are in the Pope’s heart. The dead, in the first place, and then their families, who have lost everything, those that have had to flee. Pope Francis wished to show concretely this closeness with the trips of Cardinals Konrad Krajewski and Michael Czerny and with the mission to Ukraine of the Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher. 


LIMES: Pope Francis met with Vladimir Putin on three occasions – in 2013, 2015 and 2019. What is his relationship with the Russian President? 

Cardinal Parolin: From the first months of his Pontificate, Pope Francis approached the Russian President to address the conflict in Syria. The subsequent meetings were cordial and made it possible to find points of convergence. Since last February, the contacts take place through diplomacy, no longer directly. However, I wish to recall here the Pope’s gesture the day after the start of hostilities, when, although already suffering pain in his knee, he wished to go in person to the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the Holy See to beg President Putin to halt the aggression against Ukraine. 


LIMES: The Pope is often accused in the United States and in other countries of being pro-Russian, sometimes in harsh tones. What is your opinion on this?

Cardinal Parolin: I confess that I’m somewhat frightened by this simplification. Is the Pope pro-Russian because he asks for peace? Is the Pope pro-Russian because he condemns the armaments race and the use of enormous sums to buy new and ever more powerful arms, instead of using the available resources for the fight against the hunger and thirst, health, wellbeing, education, ecological transition in the world? Is the Pope pro-Russian because he calls for reflection on what has led to these disquieting and dangerous events, reminding us that coexistence based on military alliances or economic interests is a coexistence with feet of clay? Is the Pope pro-Russian because he asks for a “peace scheme” instead of perpetuating the “war scheme”? The reality cannot be simplified so much. Pope Francis condemned the Russian aggression on Ukraine from the first moment, with unequivocal words; he has never equated the aggressor and the aggressed, nor has he been or seemed to be equidistant. He has been, so to speak, “equivocal,” that is, close to those that are suffering the nefarious consequences of this war, the civilian victims in the first place, and then the soldiers and their families, including the mothers of so many young men and very young Russian soldiers, who haven’t had news of their sons who died in the battles. Hence, I consider that some criticisms aren’t very generous and are even a bit rough, perhaps linked, to go back to what was said earlier, to the observation that the Pope isn’t the “West’s Chaplain.” 


LIMES: Is the Church pacifist? Within what limits does she accept the use of arms? 

Cardinal Parolin: The Gospel is a proclamation of peace, a promise and a gift of peace. All its pages are full of it. The Angels invoke it at the moment of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. He himself desired it for His own no sooner He resurrected. The Church follows the example of her Lord: she believes in peace, works for peace, fights for peace, gives witness of peace and tries to build it. In this regard, she is pacifist. In regard to the use of arms, the Catechism of the Catholic Church  provides for self-defense. Peoples have the right to defend themselves if they are attacked. However, this legitimate armed defense must be exercised within certain conditions that the Catechism itself enumerates: that all other means to put an end to an aggression have shown themselves to be impracticable or ineffective; that there are sound reason for success; that the use of arms does not cause greater evils and disorders than those to be eliminated. Finally, the Catechisms states that, on evaluating this question, the power of modern means of destruction plays and important role. For these reasons, in the Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis affirms that war can no longer be thought of as a solution, because the risks will probably always exceed the hypothetic usefulness attributed to it. He concludes with Saint Paul VI’s same cry in the United Nations on October 4, 1965 “No more war, war never again!” 


LIMES: Is it right to arm the Ukrainian resistance?

Cardinal Parolin: I would answer this question remitting myself to the principles that have just been outlined. Concrete decisions corresponds to rulers, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges. However, it must not be forgotten that disarmament is the only appropriate and decisive answer to these questions, as the Magisterium of the Church holds. Reread, for example, Saint John XXIII’s Encyclical Pacem in Terris. It is about a general disarmament and subject to effective controls. In this connection, it seems to me correct to ask the attacker to give up the arms and not ask, in the first place, those that are attacked to do so. 


LIMES: The powerful seem no longer to understand one another, while old rules and diplomatic habits are violated and controversial tones reach bloody insults between Heads of State. What do you think?

Cardinal Parolin: As Pope Francis said during the Regina Coeli of May 1, the military escalation is increasingly accompanied by a verbal  escalation. Obviously, I’m not equating the words and arms, the insults and bombs. But, unfortunately, escalation smooths the way  for another. War begins in man’s heart. Every bloody insult takes away peace and makes any negotiation difficult. We must not yield to the logic of demonizing the adversary, the enemy. 


LIMES: In disagreement with Patriarch Kirill, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Council affirmed its full independence and autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate. How do you assess this de facto schism and what repercussions can it have in the relations between Rome, Moscow and Kiev? 

Cardinal Parolin: I don’t know if it’s appropriate to speak of a “schism.” The war underway certainly involves peoples brothers in the Christian faith and who, in the main, celebrate the same Liturgy. It is a profound and bloody wound for Eastern Christianity  and for all Christians. In this case also, it’s still too early to understand the consequences of what is happening. However, without  doubt it’s more shocking and scandalous that they are Christians, in the heart of Europe, who are engaged in these tragic events.


LIMES: The dialogue between Rome and Moscow seems to have reached one of its lowest points. Do you agree? 

Cardinal Parolin: It’s a difficult dialogue, that advances by small steps and also experiences highs and lows. It received an important impetus with the historic meeting in Cuba in 2016 between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. As is known, work was already underway for a second meeting, planned for last June in Jerusalem, but which was later suspended. It wouldn’t have been understood and the war underway would have affected it too much. However, the dialogue has not been interrupted. 


LIMES: What repercussions can the rupture between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox have on Ukraine’s Greek Catholics? 

Cardinal Parolin: It’s too early to make predictions. I imagine that the Churches of Ukraine will be increasingly aware both of their differences as well as of what they have in common. However, we’ll have to wait for the evolution of events, especially those related to the recent decisions adopted by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Council. 


LIMES: What are relations like between Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics in Ukraine, and how does the Church move between these two realities? 

Cardinal Parolin: The Church has always regarded as a richness the plurality of Rites and Liturgical Traditions, expressions of the history and culture of the different populations and of a faith that meets with life. All the Churches, both the Latin as well as the Eastern, contribute, therefore, to the multiform unity and the harmony of the catholicity. In Ukraine, both the Latin Church as well as the Greek-Catholic are very dynamic and, although they are based on cultural components and social realities that are partially different, they respect and cultivate the identity of the Ukrainian people. What is hoped for is that the cooperation between them will also grow increasingly, for the benefit of the one People of God. I imagine that the sad experience that they are living together will help to reinforce their ties of solidarity between them and also with the other Churches of the country. To suffer together normally reinforces sentiments of friendship. 


Translation of the Italian original by ZENIT’s Editorial Director, and into English by Virginia M. Forrester

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