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Francis on China’s door-steppe: Next stop Beijing?

Pope Francis made history last week as the first pontiff to visit Mongolia, but the significance of his trip — for many Church- watchers — was that pope stood at the doorstep of a country intertwined tightly with the Francis legacy — Mongolia’s neighbor, China. 

Pope Francis in Ulaanbator with Cardinal John tong Hon and Bishop Stephen Chow. Credit Vatican media.

While touring Mongolia and visiting the country’s tiny Catholic community, Francis appeared to keep at least one eye on China, and the pope even used his Mongolian trip to make an overt appeal to China’s Catholics.

But with the mainland Chinese government having effectively nationalized the appointment of bishops and muscled the Vatican out of its own landmark deal with China, what is Francis hoping to achieve — and is it realistic?


Under Pope Francis, and with his explicit backing, the Holy See has made engagement with China a cornerstone of its international diplomatic efforts in recent years. 

For those backing the pope’s bid to see a China more open to the Church, centered around the controversial 2018 deal on the appointment of bishops, Francis has strengthened ties with the mainland government, bringing the local Church into the open and the CCP to the diplomatic table. 

Critics of the Holy See’s efforts, however, point to the bad faith of the Chinese government and its increasingly open disdain for the Vatican-China deal as proof the pope is tilting at windmills in China, and sacrificing the Church’s diplomatic credibility in the process.

In his comments during the now customary inflight press conference, the pope put a brave face on Sino relations, insisting that “relationship with China is very respectful, very respectful,” and that “the channels are very open.”

But with China increasingly open about its willingness to act unilaterally in Church affairs, and even members of the Holy See’s diplomatic department voicing a kind of resigned frustration with the whole process, what, exactly, might Francis be hoping to achieve?

During his trip to Mongolia, the pope perhaps gave an inkling.

Sidestepping the Chinese government’s rolling tally of episcopal appointments without Vatican input, Francis said that “I think we need to move forward in the religious aspect to understand each other better, and so that Chinese citizens do not think that the Church does not accept their culture and values and that the Church is dependent on another, foreign power.”

The Beijing government’s sense of the Church as an “outside force,” subversive of Chinese culture and Communist Party rule, is real, and has fueled a number of legal measures and national security enforcement actions against Church figures, both on the mainland and in Hong Kong

On Sunday, Francis used his public Mass in the Mongolian capital to speak directly to Catholics over the southern border and, by extension, to the Chinese government.

Noting that with him on the altar were Cardinal John Tong Hon and cardinal-elect Stephen Chow, the former and current bishops of Hong Kong, the pope said he “would like to take advantage of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble people of China.” 

“To all the people I wish the best. Strive ahead, always advancing. And I ask Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens.”

Francis’ exhortation that Chinese Catholics be “good citizens” prompted backlash online, with many China-watchers noting the regimes oppressive policies — to say nothing of its campaign of domestic genocide against the Uyghur people. 

Taken on its own, the comment might raise some eyebrows. But those immersed in the Vatican-China chess game know that discussion of “good citizenship” has been a mantra of Vatican diplomacy for several years — and that it comes with a context. 

Francis used the phrase while holding the hand of Bishop Chow, who made a similar call during his own trip to Beijing earlier this year. But Chow also explained to Chinese Catholics that being good citizens does not mean kowtowing to the country’s government.

Of course, for all Francis’s insistence that the channels are open with China, the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric.

Though he was flanked by two Hong Kong cardinals, absent from the papal entourage in Mongolia were any bishops or lay faithful from the Chinese mainland, because of a government ban on their traveling to attend.  

Still, Francis does appear convinced that persuading the CCP that Chinese Catholics aren’t a threat to the social order is both possible and the key to unlocking better relations with Beijing, with, it seems, a papal visit the ultimate — and long desired — goal.

During the papal flight home, Francis shifted a discussion on China to praise for the Vatican’s recent diplomatic progress with another Communist regime in Vietnam, often held out as a template for talks with China.

“With Vietnam, the dialogue is open, with its pluses and minuses, but it is open and slowly moving forward,” said Francis. “There have been some problems, but they have been resolved.”

The pope went further and declared a trip to Vietnam, where the Church was outlawed for much of the previous century, an inevitability: “On the Vietnam journey, if I don't go, John XXIV certainly will,” Francis said. 

“There will certainly be [a trip], because it is a land that deserves to progress and that has my sympathy.”

An eventual papal visit to Vietnam does indeed now look likely, where once it was impossible. And while a China trip might presently appear inconceivable, it has long been acknowledged around the Secretariat of State as the ultimate aim of the Vatican’s China diplomacy.

Perhaps that dream could be made a reality by Francis’ relentless optimism, aided by the Vatican’s bearing with the CCP’s effective nationalization of the local Church, praising the state doctrine of the Sinicization of religion, and effectively turning a blind eye to the persecution of local Catholics and arrest of faithful bishops. 

But even if the dream could be made real, would it be worth it?

In the minds of at least some prominent Chinese Catholics, the answer is no. 

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Not present during the Mongolia Mass was the other living bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was recently arrested for “collusion” with foreign powers and has been labeled a threat to national security by CCP media.

Zen has previously spoken bluntly about his fear that Vatican engagement with the CCP government will put the Church on the wrong side of Chinese history and that when the Communist regime falls the Catholic Church will be remembered as a collaborator and frozen out of a future, more free China.

But it is hart to predict or quantify what effect a papal visit to China could have on the local Church, or on Chinese society more broadly. 

However positive, even deferential Francis might sound, Beijing knows all too well the risk it would be taking letting the pope in behind the great firewall. Even the most carefully stage-managed itinerary, with the most rigorously vetted texts for the pope to speak from couldn’t exclude totally the prospect of Francis going off script. 

And, whatever the cost in diplomatic (many would argue moral) capital the Vatican spends getting the pope there, the chances that it could become a catalyst for something beyond government control are real enough.

Those most passionately committed to the idea and potential of a papal trip to China often point to St. John Paul II’s homecoming tour of Poland in 1979. Ahead of that trip, diplomats on both sides were at pains to paint the visit as a religious one, with no political dimension. 

Indeed, St. John Paul assured the Polish government that his trip was beneficial to the existing social order: “By establishing a religious relationship with people, the Church consolidates them in their natural social bonds,” he told the Polish Communist leader, Edward Gierek.

And, although police roamed the crowds, and broadcast official warnings they would tolerate no national songs or displays, only religious ones, the papal visit is widely appraised as an historic turning point towards the ending of Communist rule.

And everyone, from the most inscrutable of Vatican diplomats to the most ardent critics of Francis’ China policy would have to admit, if only privately, that there is no predicting, let alone guaranteeing, what the pope might say or do once on stage in front of a Chinese crowd. 

Of course, many — including some of Francis’ own most ardent supporters — would insist he is entirely sincere in his admiration for aspects of Chinese society and has no agenda to ape St. John Paul’s example as an agent of dramatic change. But the case may be moot. 

Francis himself said on Monday that while he’d like to be the pope to visit Vietnam, it could likely fall to his eventual successor to make the trip. And, even assuming the best of all possible progress for the pope’s overtures to China, he’s unlikely to reign long enough to see the ultimate results.

While debate will continue about what it has cost the Vatican, morally and diplomatically, to accumulate its current credit with China, the eventual question will likely become how his successor will choose to spend it. 

Depending on who Francis’ hypothetical “John XXIV” turns out to be, Francis’ legacy in China could prove to be a ruinously bad investment, or perhaps it will prove to be the price of making history.

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