The Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops was a pastoral, not political agreement, that also had been approved by Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican Secretary of State said.

Every pope, from St. Paul VI to Pope Francis, has tried to resolve what Pope Benedict described as a difficult situation "of misunderstandings and incomprehension" that did not benefit "either the Chinese authorities nor the Catholic Church in China," Cardinal Pietro Parolin said, according to Vatican News Oct. 3.

Pope Benedict himself, the cardinal said, approved "the draft agreement on the appointment of bishops in China," which was signed in 2018 by the Holy See and Chinese officials and is due for renewal at the end of October.

The cardinal was speaking at a conference in Milan, marking the 150th anniversary of the presence of missionaries of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in China.

Vatican officials repeatedly have said that the agreement with China deals only with the appointment of bishops, a question essential for the unity and survival of the Catholic Church in the country.

Cardinal Parolin said the agreement "is only a starting point," which has already led to some good outcomes, including "signs of growing closeness among Chinese Catholics who have long been divided on many issues."

"It is necessary to continue the dialogue so it can bear more substantial fruit," he said in the opening speech at the conference.

Since the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Holy See has "felt the need for dialogue, even if the circumstances of the time made it very difficult," Cardinal Parolin said.

It is important to reject any political interpretation of the 2018 provisional agreement, which is purely a pastoral agreement, he said.

"I remind you once again that the agreement of 22 September 2018 concerns exclusively the appointment of bishops," Cardinal Parolin said.

He explained that there were "many other problems concerning the life of the Catholic Church in China. But it has not been possible to deal with them all together."

"We know that the road to full normalization will still be a long one, as Benedict XVI foresaw in 2007. The question of the appointment of bishops, however, is of particular importance. It is, in fact, the problem that has caused the Catholic Church in China the most suffering in the last 60 years," he said.

For the first time in decades, all the bishops in China are in communion with the pope, and the faithful "know how important it is that all Chinese bishops are in full communion with the universal church," he added.

Before the agreement, there was always the possibility of illegitimate ordinations, which is why it was necessary "to face and resolve this delicate problem definitively" with an agreement aimed at helping "the local churches enjoy greater freedom, autonomy and organization, so that they can dedicate themselves to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and contributing to the integral development of the person and society."

The agreement, the details of which have never been made public, was set to expire Oct. 22, and a decision was expected regarding a Vatican proposal to extend the provisional agreement.

The agreement does not cover "direct diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, the juridical status of the Catholic Chinese Church, or the relations between the clergy and the country's authorities," wrote Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, in an editorial on Vatican News in late September.

The goal of the provisional agreement, he wrote, was "always genuinely pastoral. Its objective is to permit the Catholic faithful to have bishops in full communion with the successor of Peter who are at the same time recognized by the authorities of the People's Republic of China."