The Vatican and China: Lessons From John Paul II and Cuba

COMMENTARY: Why a past historical episode came to mind when learning of reports of espionage shenanigans against Pope Francis’ Vatican by the communist Chinese.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, shown signing the book of condolences at the nunciature in Havana on April 4, 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II, welcomed the Polish Pope to Cuba in 1998. Castro declared Christmas Day a national holiday in Cuba that year.
Cuban President Fidel Castro, shown signing the book of condolences at the nunciature in Havana on April 4, 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II, welcomed the Polish Pope to Cuba in 1998. Castro declared Christmas Day a national holiday in Cuba that year. (photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

In October 1997, as Pope John Paul II prepared for a historic visit to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a once devoutly Catholic country that communists had subjected to a nasty war on religion, Vatican aides found a hidden microphone in the parish house where the Pope was scheduled to stay. The Vatican team made the discovery once it had gone ahead to Havana to help plan for the pontiff’s Jan. 21-25, 1998, visit.

According to the Madrid-based newspaper El Pais, Vatican aides were outraged by this betrayal and threatened to cancel the trip. The Polish Pope, for his part, was no doubt unsurprised. He had long dealt with far worse mischief from communists in his homeland. He was surely also unsurprised when Cuban officials laughably claimed that the microphone was an unnoticed leftover of the Batista era that had somehow eluded their previous inspection.

Such behavior was standard operating procedure for a communist regime.

I thought of this episode when learning of reports of espionage shenanigans against Pope Francis’ Vatican by the communist Chinese.

“The Vatican Is Said to Be Hacked From China Before Talks in Beijing,” stated the headline in The New York Times, echoing what other newspapers are reporting. Catholic News Agency reported:

“State-sponsored hackers have reportedly targeted Vatican computer networks in an attempt to give China an advantage in negotiations to renew a provisional deal with the Holy See.  

“A report, released July 28, said that hackers may have used a counterfeit condolence message from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, to gain access to Vatican communications. 

“The report was compiled by the Insikt Group, the research arm of the U.S.-based cybersecurity company Recorded Future. Researchers said they had uncovered ‘a cyberespionage campaign attributed to a suspected Chinese state-sponsored threat activity group,’ which they referred to as RedDelta.”

According to investigators, RedDelta began targeting the Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong in early May. Additional Catholic targets included the Hong Kong Study Mission to China and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Italy. These “network intrusions” took place ahead of sensitive talks to renew a “provisional agreement” between the Holy See and China. The controversial agreement was initially sealed in 2018, with an expiration date in September.

As the Insikt Group report noted, this suspected intrusion would provide RedDelta with crucial insight into the negotiating position of the Holy See ahead of the deal’s September 2020 renewal. Moreover, the targeting of the Hong Kong Study Mission and its Catholic diocese could also provide “a valuable intelligence source for both monitoring the diocese’s relations with the Vatican and its position on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement amidst widespread protests and the recent sweeping Hong Kong national security law.”

If these reports are accurate — and there’s no reason to suspect they are not — then they ought to serve as a wake-up call to this Vatican as it pursues an Ostpolitik-like policy of accommodation toward communist China, akin to what John Paul II’s predecessor, Pope Paul VI, had pursued toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s. For Pope Francis and his Vatican, these reports, if true, should teach them the harsh reality of who they’re dealing with in Beijing.

To that end, the Vatican should not only take this as a lesson, but it ought to play Beijing’s duplicity to its advantage. In fact, it should take a page from John Paul II’s trip to Cuba in 1998, which brings me to the rest of the story regarding the hidden microphone found in that parish house in Havana in October 1997.

According to reports from January 1998, Fidel Castro — who, for whatever reasons, badly wanted the John Paul II visit to his island — sought to mollify angry Vatican aides by declaring Christmas Day a national holiday in Cuba that year. Until then, Christmas had been banned in Cuba. Thereafter, it would be acknowledged and even celebrated. It was suspected that Castro made this move under pressure from John Paul II’s Vatican, with the shrewd Polish Pope pushing the Cuban dictator in that direction. Karol Wojtyla was adept at such maneuvering with communist officials during battles with them in Krakow in the 1960s.

For the record, John Paul II’s Vatican had already been pushing for a celebration of Christmas that year. George Weigel, in his classic biography, Witness to Hope, notes that Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls that October had been prodding Castro precisely on that point, with the despot objecting that it would be difficult to celebrate Christmas that year “since it was the middle of the sugarcane harvesting season.”

Something prompted Castro to give in. According to El Pais, he relented once Vatican officials expressed outrage over the hidden mic, threatening to cancel the trip. The Vatican played a little diplomatic hardball.

It’s important to understand John Paul II wanted to go to Cuba as badly as Castro and the Cuban people wanted him there. He likewise did not want to jeopardize the trip. Still, a good negotiator seizes a bargaining chip when it’s dropped in front of him.

And that brings me back to the Chinese communist leadership and Pope Francis today.

The Vatican of Pope Francis should take advantage of this situation to likewise gain some sort of concession from communist officials to benefit the Christians in China and Hong Kong. Bargaining is about bargaining.

The Vatican should not allow itself to be played by the communist Chinese. Fears of Vatican naivete toward China already exist, and these latest reports merely compound those fears. The Chinese have reportedly betrayed the trust of the Holy See. Pope Francis and the Vatican cannot let Beijing treat them like patsies.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

His books include A Pope and a President, The Divine Plan and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism.

Joe Biden leaves after attending Mass at St. Ann Catholic Church on Nov. 21 in Wilmington, Delaware.

The U.S. Bishops’ Biden Problem

A NOTE FROM OUR PUBLISHER: The U.S. bishops have challenged some of Joe Biden’s public positions as problematic because they cause confusion about Church teaching. But for many Catholics, the bishops’ stance on whether politicians should be allowed to receive the Eucharist when their public positions are at odds with Church teaching is equally confusing.