All talk: Has Pope Francis given up on getting something out of the China deal?

Analysis

Pope Francis offered rare comments on the Vatican’s dealings with China, defending the Church’s controversial diplomatic efforts with the Communist regime while acknowledging that the process has yielded “questionable” results. 

The pope was unusually candid for a Vatican official about the challenge of engagement with China, while doubling down on commitment to the diplomatic process. But the pope’s remarks raise the prospect that the Church is now committed to “dialogue” for its own sake, and has given up any expectation of real progress.

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“You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that... but it is the way. Closed-mindedness is never the way,” Francis said in a Wednesday interview with Radio COPE. 

“China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up [on] dialogue,” Francis added. 

The pope also acknowledged criticism of the controversial Vatican-China deal, which handed the government a role in the appointment of bishops and has heaped pressure on local clergy to take oaths of loyalty to the state-sponsored Church under Communist authority.

Francis said he sympathized with those who wanted to “set the pope’s path” for him on China, and allowed that the criticism can be legitimate “if it is done with good will.” But, despite this apparent openness to other opinions, many within the Vatican say that there is actually little, if any, tolerance for disagreement on the Vatican’s China policy.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and a strident critic of the Vatican-China deal, has been unable to secure an audience with Francis during his trips to Rome in recent years, and key officials known to be quietly opposed to the diplomatic deal have been pointedly cycled out of positions of authority.

In 2017, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, the only senior Chinese-born official in the curia was demoted from his post as secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and reassigned as the Holy See’s ambassador to Greece. 

Hon was widely known in Rome to be a skeptic of what became the 2018 Vatican-China deal, and has since gone on to speak about how “the underground communities have felt abandoned by the Holy See" in the wake of diplomatic engagement with the Communist government.

"Instead of showing light," Hon said at a conference earlier this month, the Vatican’s policy of engagement has "diminished the light of the last teaching of the church and the martyrdom of many Catholics."

In 2019, Hon’s former boss, Cardinal Fernando Filoni was also demoted from his post as prefect of the congregation and reassigned as the Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Filoni, an expert on the Church in China, spent years living in Hong Kong and serving as Pope St. John Paul II’s emissary to the bishops on the mainland, both in the underground and the CPCA. 

His reassignment was widely credited around the curia to the influence of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the architect of the Vatican-China deal, which Filoni publicly supported but about which, according to several sources close to the congregation, he had expressed reservations to the pope. 


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Francis insisted this week that dialogue was its own “achievement” in China, which might mean the pope is trying to reset the measure by which the deal can be said to have worked.

To date, only five bishops have been consecrated for Chinese dioceses under the terms of the deal, and one of those, Bishop Thomas Chen Tianhao, was, at least according to some close to the Secretariat of State, was actually consecrated before the Vatican even knew it was happening. Meanwhile, shortly before the Vatican-China deal was renewed last October, the formerly underground Bishop Guo Xijin resigned his role as auxiliary bishop of Mingdong, saying that he could not in conscience sign up to the state-affiliated Church but did not want to become an “obstacle to progress.” 

But what progress, exactly, is hard to see. While pointing to other “concrete” results of the Vatican’s dialogue with China, including on the appointment of bishops, even the pope accepted this week that “these are also steps that can be questionable and the results on one side or the other.”

While criticism has in recent months focused on the pope’s silence on the well-documented genocide being carried out against the Uighur population in Xinjiang Provice, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State has emphasized that humanitarian and religious freedom concerns are often raised in closed-door conversations with Chinese officials, and said progress was being made quietly out of the spotlight. 

But those claims appeared to be undercut earlier this summer, when Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s senior diplomat, told reporters Vatican “did not perceive” that it could “make a positive contribution” to the situation in Hong Kong, where several prominent Catholics have been arrested for their pro-democracy and free speech advocacy. 

“One can say a lot of appropriate words that would be appreciated by the international press and by many countries of the world,” the archbishop said, “but I — and, I think, many of my colleagues — have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever” to China.

Taken as a whole, with only a handful of new bishops appointed for the country, and the apparently settled internal opinion that the Vatican has no influence to wield on human rights, it seems fair to ask what, if anything, Rome has gained from its Chinese diplomacy — and what, if anything, it hopes to achieve in the future.

The current version of the Vatican-China deal is set to run through 2022. But, with it increasingly clear that the pope expects neither good faith in diplomatic talks or concrete results on the ground, it’s paradoxically hard to see it not being extended, or ever judged a success.