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Address of Cardinal Parolin to the Croatian Parliament

Zagreb (IKA)

Address of His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, To the Croatian Parliament, Zagreb, 12 May 2022.

Address of His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin
Secretary of State of the Holy See
To the Croatian Parliament

Zagreb, 12 May 2022

Mister President Gordan Jandroković,
Honourable Vice-Presidents,
Honourable Members of the Parliament,

It is with much gratitude and joy, and indeed a great honour, to speak before this admirable Parliament, located on Saint Mark’s Square, a place whose urban and architectural style is replete with deep symbolism. This square – on which are located not only the highest institutions of the modern Croatian state, but also the centuries-old symbols of the history of Croatian statehood that reflect its iura municipalia – also finds a church at its centre. This church is the oldest building on the square. With the passing of time, other buildings that represent the headquarters of the Croatian legislative, executive, and constitutional-jurisprudential branches of power: the Croatian Parliament, the Croatian Government, and Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, found their place within the proximity of the church, and although they are physically separated from the church, these buildings were intentionally constructed with a direct view of the church and with utmost respect to its appearance. The development of Saint Mark’s Square reflects, at a symbolic level much deeper than merely that of an architectural and urban development, all the spontaneous features and the whole reality of the historical relations between the Croatian people and the Catholic Church. These aspects of the Square faithfully reflect what was once in the Croatian regions – and that which is still in contemporary times – self-evident in these relations.

As you well know, the legal and diplomatic relations between Croatians and the Holy See historically came about already during the 7th century, that is, from the very beginnings of the Croatian presence in these regions. They developed during different time periods, in divergent contexts and territorial-political frameworks, and it is thus impossible to characterise or to understand them from only one standpoint. However, regardless of these evident historical and conceptual variabilities, it is possible to single out the constant features of these relations, namely, their uninterrupted course across centuries (even under different forms of totalitarianism), the sincerity, mutual dedication and functionality, mutual understanding, but above all – and I wish to particularly highlight this on this solemn occasion of the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the international accords between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See – the mutual closeness of Croatians and the See of Saint Peter.

Various legal practices, such as treaties, accords, legal and diplomatic communications, diplomatic relations and the like, between Croatians and the Holy See ought to be understood according to their merit, namely, by considering what is their essence and what they truly reflect – mutual connection and support. They are also an expression of a strong and authentic faith, of the loyalty of Croatians to the Holy See on which they could always count as a source of support, and the trust that the Holy See places in the Croatian people. Regardless of its legal-historical qualification and the necessary caution in interpretation (considering that it is an act that took place eleven centuries ago), the blessing that Pope John VIII gave on 7 June 879, to Duke Branimir, to his whole people and his whole country, while recognizing his temporal authority over the whole of Croatia, has particular weight and legal significance. This papal act had a decisive meaning for the identity of Croatians because through it the Croatian people were recognized as an autonomous and sovereign subject with their own government and ruler among the European peoples at the end of the 9th century as well as Christian people devoted to the Roman Pontiff. This act has particular importance because it was imparted in the early medieval times, in the period when written documents and testimonies are rare not only in the Croatian regions, but also in all of Europe. At a time when written traces are extremely rare, the Roman Pontiff sends to the Croatian Duke not only a written legal act, but also a letter of such strong and significant importance with long-term effects on the Croatian identity. It is often and correctly affirmed – you tell me – that it is precisely this act and blessing of the Roman Pontiff that constituted a legally relevant recognition of Croatians and introduced them into the context of European peoples and Western civilization, which is founded upon Christianity.

Approximately half a century later – in the years 925 (nine hundred twenty-five) and 928 (nine hundred twenty-eight) – an act of Pope John X will institute a unified ecclesial region that will comprise the entirety of Croatia and Dalmatia under the Bishop of Split, an area that will give form to an administrative region later to become the nucleus of the Croatian territory. It is precisely this region that will become not only an administrative territory for Croatians, but also their own spiritual, cultural, political and historical patrimony that decisively defines the Croatian identity, in other words, the centre of Croatian statehood.

Approximately half a century later – in the years 925 (nine hundred twenty-five) and 928 (nine hundred twenty-eight) – an act of Pope John X will institute a unified ecclesial region that will comprise the entirety of Croatia and Dalmatia under the Bishop of Split, an area that will give form to an administrative region later to become the nucleus of the Croatian territory. It is precisely this region that will become not only an administrative territory for Croatians, but also their own spiritual, cultural, political and historical patrimony that decisively defines the Croatian identity, in other words, the centre of Croatian statehood.

Saint John Paul II had a particular respect for the Croatian people and, apart from his distinguished love for this people, he understood it deeply. Perhaps as nobody else, this pope – a Polish pope – understood the heavy burden of history, but also that of injustice and suffering to which Croatians were exposed as a Slavic people in their centuries-old aspiration to have their own State. With deep intimacy and strong emotion, he felt and shared the sufferings of this people, as well as its aspirations and aims, especially during the communist period. John Paul II recognized steadfastness and unwaveringness, as well as an exemplary testimony of faith, personified in the Archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, whom he declared blessed and martyr in Marija Bistrica in 1998, during his pastoral visit to the Republic of Croatia, before an unjust regime. With this, he solidified the decision of Pope Pius XII from 1953, when Alojzije Stepinac was created a Cardinal during the difficult and extraordinary times of persecution, when the Archbishop gave a witnessing of faith while under house arrest in Krašić.

Saint John Paul II was aware of and nurtured an immeasurable respect for the millennial commitment of Croatians to Christianity, to the Roman Pontiff, and to the Holy See, the expression of which was manifested also in numerous diplomatic acts and relations, but also by the fact that in crucial instances, in watershed moments for the Croatian people, Croatians could always find a place of support in the Church and from her clergy. When, in the early 1990s (nineteen nineties) of the last century he sensed the possibility of the creation of an autonomous Croatian state, a state that would be the proper state of the Croatian people, John Paul II, as the Roman Pontiff and the supreme authority of the Holy See, provided strong legal and diplomatic encouragement towards this project both to the Croatians and the international community. It is especially important to highlight that he did this without compromise or hesitation, on account of his strong conviction in the justice of this goal and its foundation in international (public) law, especially in the right of the Croatian people for self-determination and autonomy. While he recognized and interpreted with precision the signs of the times for all of Europe in that period, as well as for the Croatian people, and while he decisively responded to them, Pope John Paul II gave the incentive with his authority to a more intense legal and diplomatic activity and communication in the international community both before and during the creation of contemporary Croatian state, especially at the moment of the proclamation of its autonomy and independence – as you are very well aware – which culminated in the international formal recognition of the Republic of Croatia by the Holy See on January 13, 1992 (exactly thirty years ago), thereby confirming the legality and legitimacy of the contemporary Croatian state. He did this sincerely and with dedication, without ulterior motives, and the Holy See was among the first subjects of international law to provide this recognition.

The recognition of the Republic of Croatia by the Holy See will always be remembered as a legal act through which the Apostolic See gave its strong and decisive support to the legalization and legitimization of the Croatian state before the international community. For both the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See, this act remains even today a sign of strong faith, confidence, closeness, dedication, and mutual support. Saint John Paul II continued to confirm these qualities with his three pastoral visits to the Republic of Croatia, each of which was profoundly significant both legally and spiritually in its own historical moment: the first during the Homeland War (1994 – nineteen ninety four), the second for declaring Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac blessed in 1998 (nineteen ninety eight), and, finally, at the very beginning of the 21st century (2003 – two thousand three) when the young contemporary Croatian state already became more mature. It is certainly symbolic that Saint John Paul II chose to visit his beloved Croatian people on the occasion of his 100th pastoral visit outside Italy.

Within the scope of relations between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See, a special place belongs to the mutual legal relations, most of all because each aspect of these relations is expressed in legal form. During 1996 (nineteen ninety six) three accords were signed (on legal matters, on cooperation in the fields of education and culture, on religious assistance to Catholic members of the armed forces and the police of the Republic of Croatia), which entered into force at the beginning of 1997 (exactly a quarter of a century ago) and then, a year later, in 1998 another accord was signed regarding economic matters.

At the very beginning of the accord on legal matters it is stated that the State and the Catholic Church are independent and sovereign, each in its own order. On the other hand, it is also specified that each party will fully respect the aforementioned principle in mutual relations, in the context of the care for the integral spiritual and material development of the human person and for the promotion of the common good. In this sense, such accords between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See, fully respect the mission of the Catholic Church, while the constitutional values of the Republic of Croatia are also applied, since both aim towards the promotion of human dignity, social justice, spiritual and material prosperity of the human person and of the common good. The true beneficiaries of these efforts are all the members of Croatian society, independently of their national, ethnic, religious, or other identity or political orientations. Although their sequences are independent and conceptually separated from one another, the aforementioned accords denote a framework of true partnership between the State and the Church, of their mutual support, respect, closeness, and even of the interconnectedness of their respective aims and the policies whose true end is always the human person.

The accords stipulated between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See ought not to be viewed and valued to detriment of other religious communities. On the contrary, they could eventually be considered as a model also for people of other faith-based groups. For instance, in the subsequent acceptance of an identical model and criterion of financing religious education in public schools together with the analogous usage of what in the Catholic Church is denoted by the concept of “canonical mandate”, in the recognition of civil effects in the legal order of the Republic of Croatia of communities of life that are regulated by the State’s Law on the family and were contracted according to the rules of a religious community and before its minister, in the rules regarding the restitution of property confiscated during the totalitarian regimes, and so forth. The accords between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See differ from these analogous arrangements at the level of State law, only because of their status as accords of international law, not on account of their legal content. And since the Republic of Croatia is a country in which most citizens declare themselves as Catholics, the normative reach of the accords with the Holy See regarding their beneficiaries and the number of legal issues covered will be broader, yet not because these accords introduce different legally relevant issues.

In short, any agreement between two subjects of international law is an instrument for preventing conflicts and avoiding the law of arbitration or, even worse, that of force.

From the beginning of their existence until today, the Holy See’s agreements with states represent a permanent effort to adapt to social changes and religious reality. Adaptations of this kind are valid for the defense of human rights and, specifically, of religious freedom, even in the contemporary state framework of a secularized or non-secularized society.

It would be wrong to think that, in the past, agreements were made only because the states were Christian: the Holy See has always tried to negotiate with sovereigns or governments, even non-Catholic or non-Christian, about the concrete conditions of life of the Church. Even in the course of European history, in constant change for centuries with the separation between the Churches of the West and the East and with the Reformation, the Holy See has endeavored to establish the best relations with the civil authorities of a country, Catholic or not.

Therefore, today as in the past, the agreements between the Holy See and states prove to be useful because of the need to regulate the life of the Church and to ensure its independence in the face of the desire of sovereigns and governments to interfere in the life and organization of the Catholic Church. Even in the context of a society deeply linked to Catholicism, it proved necessary to establish rules to prevent the temptations of the civil authorities to interfere in the affairs of the Church and vice versa.

However, the usefulness of the agreements is also valid because of the opportunity to coordinate and facilitate the active participation of the Holy See and the Church in the construction of a human society, just and in solidarity, according to that luminous perspective that is outlined in the conciliar constitution Gaudium et spes.

An interesting and sui generis case is the agreement on the appointment of bishops, signed on 22 September 2018 between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China: an international agreement between two parties for which formal mutual recognition does not yet exist.

Here I wish to recall what the late Card. Agostino Casaroli said to an Officer of the Secretariat of State: “The important thing is not the concordat, but concord”. This statement is not a denial of the value of concordats or agreements, but quite the contrary, it means that negotiated agreements are necessary to promote harmony and coexistence within today’s societies.

In every agreement, questions of principle are intertwined with purely practical, even instrumental issues: yet, they all aim to guarantee the local Church the best possible space of freedom. On the ground of principles, the parties can meet in recognition of the presence and historical role of the Church in the conformation of the nation, as happens, for example, here in Croatia and with various agreements signed with Central-Eastern European countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But starting with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council a prerequisite, I would say necessary, is religious freedom.

The conciliar declaration Dignitatis humanae reaffirmed that the space of autonomy, protected by this civil liberty, is fully reconcilable with the requirements of libertas Ecclesiae (n.13), which remains the first and fundamental principle of relations between the Church and any other society: “A harmony exists – I quote – between the freedom of the Church and the religious freedom which is to be recognized as the right of all men and communities and sanctioned by constitutional law”. And the constitution Gaudium et spes, for its part, indicates the various aspects of libertas Ecclesiae where it declares: “(…) at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it” (n. 76; EV 1/1583).

Religious freedom is, at the same time, the foundation and limit of the concordats. These, in fact, represent a “customized guarantee”, above all of the collective and institutional dimension of religious freedom, without which it cannot exist even at the individual level, as the painful experience of so-called real socialism has shown, which aimed above all to hinder the communitarian practice of religion. In this regard, I think it should be emphasized that almost all European countries, which have had this experience, Croatia is not an exception, have chosen the system of confessional agreements in restoring religious freedom. The institutional cooperation, however, from which concordat agreements are born, cannot in turn affect the personal religious freedom of citizens, whether they are members of the Catholic Church, of another Christian confession or do not belong to any religion. In these agreements, the Catholic Church does not ask the state to act either as defensor fidei or as an executive arm of canon law: it only intends to obtain a civil statute as suitable as possible for its specific needs, within the framework of the common constitutional right of religious freedom.

After these general considerations, let us return to the situation in Croatia.

Besides the four above-mentioned international accords, the legal relations between the state of Croatia and the Catholic Church are further determined by a series of supplementary agreements. These agreements are established between the government of the Republic of Croatia and the Croatian Bishops’ Conference, regarding certain concrete questions and issues. Through them within the framework of the international accords, these supplementary agreements are adapted for practical and more concrete purposes. They do not have the status of international accords but of operative agreements of the local Church and the State, whose goal is to further determine the generic rules of the four international accords and make their enforcement more efficacious. The stipulation of these last agreements is an expression of sincerity, openness, trust, but also of the constant consciousness that the contractual clauses are not imagined as something that is purely formal or as only a hypothetical declaration, but as legal content that tends towards its realisation in everyday life for the attainment of the common good. Hence, we can say that the supplementary agreements represent a specific sui generis source of law of the Republic of Croatia’s legal order.

Such supplementary agreements might be very brief and denote the result of simple negotiations which are truly operative inter partes.

As an example, I wish to quote the recent Agreement on the “Caritas” of the Catholic Church in the Republic of Croatia signed on March 18, 2022 (twenty twenty-two), when the Government of Croatia, strongly emphasised that the Republic of Croatia considers Christian solidarity to be one of its most fundamental social values. This declaration is of great importance as an expression of the Croatian social reality, but also as an endorsement of the essence of the breadth of the relations between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See. Christianity and Christian solidarity represent the foundations of the Western culture and Europe. The founding members of the European Union and the creators of its fundamental ideas consider the nucleus of this multinational organization and the unifying factor of its internal diversities to be essentially founded upon Christianity and its idea of solidarity.

With the legal regulation of the charitable activities and social care of those most in need, the Catholic Church and the Republic of Croatia work more as agents unified through a common aim, than as mere partners in a process, or as only two parties to a purely formal contract.

The example of “Caritas” and its aforementioned agreement perhaps reflects in the best possible way the authentic intention, the nobility of the cause, and the aim of all those included, both legally and personally, in the project of the development of the relations between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See during the last quarter of a century, or, at a more particular and operative level, between the Government of the Republic of Croatia and the Croatian Bishops’ Conference.

As I mentioned earlier, throughout history as well as today, the relations between the Croatian people and the Holy See have been uninterruptedly rooted in certain realities. These realities were denied in a brutal way by the totalitarian regimes, which sought to cancel the life of the Church and the faith of the Croatian people, especially by eliminating and destroying the ecclesial legal persons, without ever succeeding in eliminating them. The totalitarian regimes sought to cancel the spirit and the spiritual, but also the temporal goods through which the parishes, dioceses, institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, other institutions, hospitals, orphanages, ecclesial cultural institutions, and other ecclesial social realities that promoted the Church’s mission. The essence of this mission must be love for mankind and a special dedication to the people, in this case, the Croatian people. The long decades of totalitarian destruction have left a harmful mark, which cannot be healed easily.

Mr President, I thank you once again for having given me the honour of addressing this distinguished assembly on the 30th anniversary of the recognition of Croatia by the Holy See and, in particular, on the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the first three agreements between them. As stressed in these my words, they are, however, only a contemporary expression of a long millennial reality of mutual understanding and trustworthiness constantly present in our relations. These legal acts, and the corresponding relations, were not created, so to speak, ex nihilo; they are a result of deep and long-term historical dynamics, motivations, implications, contexts, and traditions. They ought to be credibly and contextually interpreted and understood in this way.

The relations between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See have never been a pure formality or only an administrative façade, a legal form without both real content and a sincere mutual intention of bringing the wholeness of that content to life. On the occasion of these great and significant anniversaries, it is only right to emphasize the long and firm faith of the Croatian people, but also the bona fides quality present in the relations between the Holy See and this people. They make up the fabric that is at the foundation of any form or formality of legal contractual negotiations and other procedures in which our relations have been shaped and developed. It is because of this all-encompassing sincerity that the Holy See has maintained a particular commitment to Croatia throughout the centuries and, today as well, faithfully stands beside its beloved Croatian people.

Thank you for your kind attention.