Despite Differing Perspectives, US-Vatican Secretaries of State Discuss a Way Forward With China

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Oct. 1 at the Vatican with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for Relations With States.

U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Vatican, Oct. 1, 2020.
U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Vatican, Oct. 1, 2020. (photo: Courtesy photo / Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Vatican counterparts discussed their “respective positions” on relations with China in a “respectful, relaxed and cordial atmosphere,” the Vatican said today.

In a short statement responding to reporters’ questions, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said other areas of “conflict and crisis” were also discussed in 45-minutes of talks at the Vatican with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for Relations With States. 

Topics also included the “Caucasus, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean,” Bruni added. The U.S. State Department did not release a statement on the meeting. 

The talks took place amid a diplomatic clash between the U.S. government and the Holy See over differing visions on how to approach an increasingly oppressive communist regime in the People’s Republic of China, which has stepped up its persecution of Catholics and followers of other religions. 

Pompeo, who had a private audience with Pope Francis last year, was denied a meeting with the Holy Father today because it would be seen as influencing the upcoming November U.S. presidential election, Cardinal Parolin told reporters on Wednesday. 

“Yes he asked,” Cardinal Parolin said, “but the Pope had already said clearly that political figures are not received in election periods. That is the reason.” 

But chances of a meeting appear to have lessened due to a recent op-ed Pompeo wrote in First Things, openly urging the Vatican not to renew a much-debated 2018 accord with Beijing on the appointment of bishops. 

The secretary of state warned in the article that if the Vatican did renew the agreement — which it looks set to do later this month — it would increase the cost of resisting tyranny, embolden Beijing, and weaken the Church’s moral authority when it is needed “more than ever.”

Some senior Vatican officials close to the Pope viewed the article as unwelcome interference in Vatican and Church affairs. Archbishop Gallagher told reporters on Wednesday it came as a “surprise,” and was an unusual step to take just before such a high-level meeting. 

“You negotiate the agenda for what you are going to talk about privately, confidentially. It’s one of the rules of diplomacy,” he said. Asked by a reporter whether he thought Pompeo was seeking to exploit the Vatican for political purposes, Archbishop Gallagher said, “Well, that’s one of the reasons that the Holy Father is not receiving the secretary of state.” 

Cardinal Parolin said he had no evidence of that, “but it is a thought that can be made.” 

Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday that he though such an assertion was “just crazy.”

Defending the First Things article, Pompeo said that the “churches and the Catholic Church included have enormous capacity” to make a difference, and that he wrote it “to honor the moral authority of the Catholic Church and its capacity to influence and make things better for people all across the world.”  

He added that Christians have “historically stood with oppressed peoples all around the world” and consequently the piece was written to bring all who can “take away the horrors of the authoritarian regime the Chinese Communist Party is inflicting on these people.”  

“That was our mission set, and it will remain our mission set,” he said, adding that such an approach existed “long before the election” and will “remain so after the election.”


Religious Freedom Conference

At a conference on the theme of advancing and defending religious freedom on Wednesday, organized by the U.S. embassy to the Holy See, Pompeo strongly urged the Pope and all faith leaders to speak out and bear witness to the importance of religious freedom, especially in relation to the increasing persecution taking place in China. 

He said that “nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today” and that, as with all communist regimes, “the Chinese Communist Party deems itself the ultimate moral authority.”

An “increasingly repressive” Chinese Communist Party was “frightened by its own lack of democratic legitimacy,” he continued, and is working “day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom, on a horrifying scale.” 

Pompeo drew special attention to the Uyghur Muslims suffering human rights abuses in Xinjiang, but also Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees and others in China. 

He also singled out the Catholic Church for its example in defending religious freedom, and argued that a Church “permanently in a state of mission” should be “permanently in opposition to tyrannical regimes.” He highlighted Pope St. John Paul II’s witness in this regard, and called on the Church to be “so bold in our time.” 

Similar views were echoed in Oct. 1 comments by Cardinal Gerhard Müller who, in an interview with Breitbart News, stressed that human rights are “universal and we are all brothers and sisters because of our common human nature. We must therefore denounce the crimes of the CCP in defense of the dignity of every Chinese person.”

In his address to the conference, Archbishop Gallagher said the Holy See is “convinced” it must remain “present and active” in debates on religious freedom and that “pulling away” from such discussions is a “disservice,” not only to the voiceless and persecuted, but also “to those who disagree with us” as they also “need to understand the gravity of what is at stake.” 

Cardinal Parolin closed the conference by addressing different understandings of human freedom and religious liberty. He warned against a “via negative”approach “which states simply that there should be no coercion in the practice of religion” and stressed instead that liberty must also be ordered to the “freedom to seek the truth.” 

After this morning’s talks at the Vatican, Pompeo visited the Sant’Egidio lay community in Rome, which has a record of conflict mediation in various parts of the world as well as helping the poor and most vulnerable. 

The organization has close ties with China, and its founder, Andrea Riccardi, was also one of the most vocal supporters of the Vatican’s 2018 provisional agreement.

Pompeo did not mention China in his remarks there, however, and instead praised the organization for its “extraordinary work” for the world’s “most needy,” singling out its peacemaking work and defense of religious freedom in Syria and on behalf of the Muslim Rohingya fleeing Burma.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.