Pope Francis on China: ‘I Am Ready to Go There’

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Pope signaled his openness to dialogue with the Asian superpower while flying through Chinese airspace on his way back to Rome, but Vatican-China relations remain difficult.

A Cathoilc church in Cizhong, Yunnan Province, China
A Cathoilc church in Cizhong, Yunnan Province, China (photo: Wikipedia)

VATICAN CITY — At the end of 2014, when Pope Francis chose not to meet with the Dalai Lama, while the Tibetan spiritual leader was in Rome for a meeting of Nobel laureates, the decision was attributed to the Holy See’s fear of antagonizing China.

But during a Jan. 19 in-flight press conference after the close of his visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis insisted that he was open to a future meeting with the Dalai Lama, and thus media commentators were wrong to have framed his failure to label a December meeting with the Tibetan leader as a  “snub.”

“Some newspapers said that I did not meet with him out of fear of China,” Pope Francis noted during his airborne press conference.

“This is not true. He asked for an audience some time ago. A date has been fixed. But not for the moment. We are in contact.”

The Pope did not meet with the Dalai Lama during the Nobel laureates’ gathering because, he said, it is “a protocol of the Secretariat of State not to receive heads of state and people at that level when they’re taking part in an international meeting here in Rome.”

The belated clarification marked the complex diplomatic legacy Pope Francis inherited from his predecessors.

China and the Holy See do not enjoy full diplomatic relations, and previous popes have struggled to defend the rights of Chinese Catholics, who have faced periods of intense persecution and who have resisted the Communist Party’s brutal one-child policy.

“The Chinese are polite, and we are also polite. We are doing things step by step,” explained Pope Francis during his Jan.19 press conference, which took place while his plane was flying through Chinese airspace.

The Chinese “know that I am ready to go there [China] or to receive [Chinese officials] at the Vatican,” he added.

Equally striking was the Pope’s silence on China and the problem of religious persecution in that country during his lengthy Jan. 12 address to the Holy See’s diplomatic corps. North and South Korea were mentioned, and so were other countries in Asia and elsewhere.

Of course, knowledgeable people could apply the Pope’s critique of a “throwaway culture” to China’s dismal record on human rights, but there was nothing explicit.


Engaging an Assertive China

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis must consider how to engage an increasingly assertive China that is never apologetic about using aggressive tactics to isolate or punish its enemies, including the Dalai Lama.

While the Dalai Lama has become a highly respected advocate for the cultural and political rights of his Tibetan people, the Holy See similarly has pressed for greater religious freedom for Catholics and other Christians in China.

But the Vatican must also deal with distinctive issues that define its often-tense relations with Beijing. A key sticking point is the Holy See’s insistence that Rome, not Beijing, has the authority to appoint Catholic bishops in China.

Thus far, the Chinese Communist Party has resisted such claims. In 1957, the party created a state-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association, an entity that has served as a parallel church that takes its orders from party officials and has been infiltrated with party members.

Meanwhile, with every passing decade, China has witnessed an explosion of growth in the underground Catholic Church, where bishops, priests and laypeople have suffered persecution for their loyalty to Rome.

“Despite the Holy See’s valiant efforts over decades to have a productive dialogue with Beijing, the Catholic Church continues to suffer stifling restrictions and even persecution in China,” noted Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a Washington research center.

Shea reported that Shanghai Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Ma Daqin “has been detained since his ordination in 2012, an ordination approved by both the Holy See and China.” Bishop Ma was arrested in July 2012, after he announced at his ordination Mass that he was resigning from the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Shea noted that, since the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, “the Christian population has skyrocketed, with credible estimates ranging between 70 and 100 million. The government-registered-and-heavily-regulated Catholic Patriotic Association counts a mere 6 million of these as Catholic. Another 6 million are thought to be members of the underground Catholic Church, membership in which the Vatican has discouraged.”


Benedict XVI’s Letter

However, in recent years, the lines between the Catholic Patriotic Association and the underground Church have blurred. In 2007, then-Pope Benedict XVI issued a “Letter to the Church in China” that sought to address the confusion created by the two systems.

The document affirmed the primacy of the pope and his right to make episcopal appointments free from state coercion.

“The appointment of bishops for a particular religious community is understood, also in international documents, as a constitutive element of the full exercise of the right to religious freedom,” read the letter. “The Holy See would desire to be completely free to appoint bishops.” 

Further, Benedict sought to diffuse the Chinese government’s long-standing hostility toward foreign influence, while asserting the right to religious freedom.

The Church, he stated, “cannot and must not replace the state. Yet, at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”

Now, amid the headlines sparked by Pope Francis’ decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama, some foreign-policy and religious-freedom experts call for a more assertive style of leadership from the pope. But these experts also recognize the need for caution.

Thomas Farr, who teaches at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and also serves as the director of the Religious Freedom Project at the university, said the Pope’s decision to put off a meeting with the Dalai Lama was a legitimate source of concern. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict met with the Tibetan leader.

“This refusal will have been justifiable only if there appears to be an immediate opportunity for a genuine breakthrough,” Farr told the Register.

Such a breakthrough, he suggested, must be based on the Chinese “giving credible signals that, with concessions like this from the Pope, they are willing to make significant strides in the direction of religious freedom.” 

A real turning point, he said, would be Beijing’s decision to “stop the harsh and sometimes brutal treatment of Catholics who do not accept the authority of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” and to reach an agreement “that Catholic bishops will no longer be elected or appointed without the approval of the Holy Father.”

But Farr also wants Pope Francis to demand Chinese concessions for Tibetan Buddhists as well as for Catholics in China.

“This is the real significance of the Dalai Lama to the Roman Catholic Church,” Farr said.

“He is a symbol of religious persecution in China. All champions of religious freedom — especially Pope Francis, who has spoken out so boldly against religious persecution and for religious freedom — should be standing with him.”


Ambassador Rooney’s Perspective

However, Francis Rooney, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and the author of The Global Vatican, suggested that Pope Francis was right to be cautious, given the constraints of the Holy See’s relationship with a world power that has been a tough and patient negotiator.  

For much of the Cold War, noted Rooney, the Holy See accepted the Western policy of “containment” when engaging the Soviet bloc and only substantially altered that policy when Pope John Paul II began to lay the foundation for the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet Union.

Rooney suggested the Vatican has remained in “the containment phase on China, and it is in for the long haul, looking for ways to generate greater freedom in China.”

In Rooney’s view, “the Holy See’s long-term thinking is much like China’s. They don’t jump from one policy to another. They stay the course.”

Robert Royal, an author with deep knowledge of the Holy See’s foreign policy and president of the Faith and Reason Institute, said that the Holy See’s long-standing difficulties with Beijing underscore the practical problems of challenging a powerful, entrenched system.

However, he also views the Pope’s initial rebuff to the Dalai Lama as a puzzling departure from the Holy Father’s striking efforts to challenge injustice and defuse conflict across the globe.

“The Vatican has made it clear, through [Secretary of State] Cardinal Parolin and others, that it wants to engage in a more activist foreign policy,” Royal told the Register.

If the Pope intends to follow through with this plan, said Royal, he must defend religious freedom for all people in China.


Concerns About Reprisals

Some news stories about the Pope’s decision not to meet the Dalai Lama cited a Vatican official, who worried that the meeting would prompt reprisals against vulnerable religious groups.

According to Britain’s Catholic Herald, a Vatican official said the decision not to meet with the Tibetan leader was “not taken out of fear, but to avoid any suffering by those who have already suffered.”

Royal questioned this argument, but agreed it was a tough “judgment call.”

Said Royal, “Personally, I don’t see that meeting the Dalai Lama would have brought a severe backlash — maybe some tough talk, but that’s it. And giving in to Chinese wishes might lead to further pressures on the Vatican.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.