ROME — When U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited Pope John Paul II in Vatican City in 1982, the leaders immediately found a common cause in their opposition to a shared enemy: communism.
As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touches down in Rome Tuesday, it seems unlikely he can count on the Holy See’s backing in the new cold war between the U.S. and China.
In a climate of growing mistrust of Beijing and condemnation of its maltreatment of minorities, Donald Trump’s administration has joined a chorus of critics pressuring the Vatican not to renew a two-year bilateral pact with Beijing on the appointment of Catholic bishops.
Pompeo last week urged the Holy See not to renew the deal, saying the agreement had not shielded Catholic or other religious minorities from persecution by the regime.
“The Vatican endangers its moral authority should it renew the deal,” he warned in a strongly worded missive on Twitter.
“The Vatican is a super soft power” — Francesco Sisci, sinologist at Renmin University of China in Beijing
The architect of the deal, Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, has expressed hopes the agreement would advance religious freedom by finding some “normalization” for the Catholic community in China, which is split between the state-sanctioned Patriotic Church and an underground church.
But critics say the agreement has done nothing to improve conditions for Catholics or other religious minorities, and lends moral legitimacy and authority to a repressive regime.
An estimated one million Uighur Muslims have been imprisoned and reeducated, Christians have been harassed and churches have been destroyed, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 annual report on religious freedom. Dissenting Catholic priests have been placed under house arrest, forbidden from practicing as clergy, beaten and “disappeared.”
Devil in the detail
Benedict Rogers, activist and founder of Hong Kong Watch, said the Vatican’s China agreement comes at a time of “the worst crackdown on human rights since Tiananmen Square and worst oppression on religion in all its forms since the Cultural Revolution.”
The deal has “bought the pope’s silence” over the suspected genocide of the Uighurs and repression in Hong Kong, Rogers said. “They may have recognized the pope’s authority, but at too high a price — the pope is undermined and there is no benefit on the ground.”
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a consultant to the Vatican, said the church lost credibility in the 20th century by being accommodating to dictators. Patten said he feared the Vatican was cozying up to the Chinese Communist Party “at the worst conceivable moment.”
“The Vatican now must say clearly what has been agreed and what has been achieved,” he told POLITICO. “We have a right to know what has been done in our name.”
The details of the pact, which must be renewed by October 22, have not been made public, but a former diplomat to the Holy See said it was likely based on a draft deal with Vietnam, where the state would provide a list of approved bishops, and the pope retains the final say. The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment.
Supporters of the agreement say there have been some positive results from the two-year interim period, including the recognition of the pope’s authority and the union of Chinese Catholics into one church.
“After 70 years the whole church in China is united in communion with Rome,” said Francesco Sisci, a sinologist at Renmin University of China in Beijing. “All bishops are recognized by the pope and none are outside his blessing.”
Officially atheist, China has long seen religion as a vulnerability and possible path to foreign infiltration. But it also recognizes that even in a totalitarian state, religions persist.
The Vatican deal sends the message that religion can exist under the authority of the Chinese state, giving an indication to other faiths that a good rapport is possible, says Father Lorenzo Prezzi, editor of a Catholic publication and an expert in the Vatican’s international relations.
Amid neighboring countries’ growing tensions with China, increasing wariness from the European Union and the Trump administration’s decision to start a new “cold war,” the agreement represents a positive result, Prezzi said. “At a time in which China sees criticisms and is estranged from other countries … the existence of a channel of communication to the Vatican, the oldest authority in the West, is good news for them.”
Playing the long game
For Sisci, the long-term benefits of embracing rather than excluding China weigh in favor of the deal. He argues that the recognition of the church may in the long term lead to better conditions for Catholics.
Much like China, the Vatican plays a long game, with time measured in decades and centuries, rather than years. The negotiation over its deal with China effectively started in the 1960s with the policy of Ostpolitik — which meant refraining from criticizing communist regimes and negotiating with Warsaw Pact governments in the hopes of keeping the Catholic church alive.
Pope John Paul II, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Poland, was known for playing a role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, encouraging and protecting the leaders of the Solidarity protest movement in Poland, and becoming their moral figurehead. But his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, declared he was ready to engage in dialogue with the Chinese authorities and called for unity in the church. Since Pope Francis’ election in 2013, hours before Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency, the Vatican has continued moving toward a rapprochement.
And given the deal has been under construction for decades, it’s unlikely Pompeo’s visit will have any impact — particularly as Pope Francis reportedly declined a meeting with the secretary of state, citing the proximity of the visit to November’s U.S. presidential election.
Regardless, it would be near impossible for the Holy See not to renew the deal after Pompeo raised his objections publicly, as it would not want to appear partial, according to the former diplomat.
Whether the U.S. gets what it wants or not, Pompeo’s visit underscores the symbolic role of the Vatican’s China deal — and the Holy See’s enduring influence.
“The Vatican is a super soft power,” said Sisci.
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