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What's behind the Vatican chief diplomat's change of tune?

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher in Kyiv, May 20, 2022. Credit: Alamy

In Vatican diplomacy, balancing the prophetic witness of the faith, the internal relationships of the local Church, and the realities of statecraft is a challenge.

Vatican diplomats often have to walk a fine line in what they say publicly, none more so than the Secretariat of State’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who has led the department’s diplomatic section since 2014.

For much of the last eight years, Archbishop Gallagher has appeared to be a model of diplomatic restraint, limiting his public statements and choosing his words carefully. He has also been, at times, a dogged defender of Vatican diplomatic efforts, pushing back on public criticism on controversial issues like the Vatican-China deal, and stressing the Holy See’s reliance on private discussions, away from the public eye.

Yet, in recent days, Gallagher has appeared to strike a more frank tone, offering measured but pointed criticism on some of the most contentious topics in the Church’s internal and external relations. But what prompted this change in tone from the Vatican’s chief diplomat, and what might it signal about the Holy See’s internal thinking?

In an interview with the official outlet of the German bishops’ conference published on Wednesday, the normally circumspect Gallagher discussed the Vatican’s relationship both with the German government and the German bishops’ conference.

The archbishop seemed clear that the Holy See enjoyed a far easier and more positive relationship with the civil government, led by a Catholic who publicly renounced the faith, than it did with the local bishops.

“We are very concerned right now about the direction that the Church in Germany seems to be taking at the moment,” Gallagher said. “Of course, this also has an impact on our work. This has an impact on how the German state sees the Holy See and the Catholic Church - and vice versa.”

The archbishop went on to suggest archly that “the German Church should ask itself” some tough questions about its considerable wealth, stemming from billions in state-collected tax revenues, and its effect on the local bishops.

The remarks were striking, even in the context of recent Vatican interventions against the German synodal process.

Gallagher’s pointed comments about the influence of money on the German bishops were even more striking, given he went on to point out it wasn’t an issue that related to the secretariat’s work. In June last year, the archbishop drew scrutiny for saying that the Holy See’s diplomatic department didn’t talk about issues it didn’t think it could affect by doing so — even to the point of remaining silent on the human rights crisis in China and Hong Kong.

But on China, too, Gallagher has taken a suddenly more robust public stance.

Speaking about the controversial Vatican-Beijing deal, which the pope recently said he expects to see renewed in October, Gallagher candidly admitted in an interview last week that “the balance sheet, I suppose, is not terribly impressive.”

Despite his stance last year that Vatican diplomats didn’t talk about human rights and Hong Kong, Gallagher also weighed in on the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen earlier this year, telling America magazine that the Vatican wanted to see Zen’s case “resolved satisfactorily in the near future,” and acknowledged Hong Kong Bishop Stephen Chow’s statements on civil liberties in the special administrative region.

“The Holy See is committed to the defense of religious freedom,” Gallagher affirmed, including in Hong Kong.

While these statements are hardly provocative in themselves, they all represent a noticeable sharpening of tone by the Vatican foreign minister and a real, if subtle, shift in the way he addresses the most sensitive issues facing the Vatican right now.

And they are not the only sensitive topics Gallagher has addressed with sudden candor.

For months, the Vatican, and Pope Francis personally, have beaten back against furious media speculation about his health and longevity, and insisting, pain in his knee notwithstanding, that the pope is otherwise in rude health and set to continue in office indefinitely.

But, speaking to the German bishops’ official outlet about the pope’s future plans, Gallagher noted that other proposed trips presented “a great challenge, also for the health of the Holy Father.”

“Of course, the time he has left is limited,” Gallagher observed when asked about the prospects of Francis visiting European countries like France or Germany.

The pope is, of course, 85 years old, and acknowledging that there are fewer days ahead than behind in his pontificate is just stating the obvious. Nevertheless, it’s an obvious truth the Vatican has been at pains to deflect from aknowledging in public.

Even if the shift is subtle, the Holy See’s senior diplomat suddenly becoming casually frank about Germany, China, and the “limited time left” to Pope Francis marks a real change. But what is driving it?

One possibility is that it is a calculated change in tone from the Secretariat of State itself.

Gallagher’s interview with the German bishops’ own news service comes hot on the heels of an unsigned statement from Rome about their synodal way, interpreted by some German Catholics as the Vatican pulling the “emergency brake.”

Similarly, while Pope Francis has remained bullish on reviewing the controversial Vatican-China deal, the Secretariat of State has quietly filled its vacant senior posts in Taiwan and Hong Kong in recent weeks, suggesting it has drawn a line under the idea of more formal diplomatic links to Beijing for the time being.

It could be that Archbishop Gallagher is deliberately tipping the Vatican’s hand on German and China as a show of resolve, perhaps in an effort to forestall any further moves by the German bishops to upend their ecclesial structures or by the Chinese to tighten their grip on the Church in Hong Kong.

Together with a sudden frankness about Pope Francis’ longevity, it might even be meant to signal the institutional commitments of the Vatican, beyond the current pontificate.

It is equally possible that Gallagher is freelancing with his change of tone, perhaps in the expectation he is soon to change jobs. While Vatican officials normally work to five year appointment terms, many of the senior roles below prefect turn over on a different schedule.

The 68 year-old Englishman is approaching eight years in post, the same amount of time served by his predecessor, Dominique Mamberti, whom Pope Francis made a cardinal in 2014 and appointed to lead the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. When Cardinal Angelo Becciu was made a cardinal by the pope and appointed to lead the then-Congregation for the Causes of Saints, he had served seven years as sostituto at the Secretariat of State, a term he has said was already longer than usual for the role.

At the end of August, Pope Francis is set to convene a consistory in Rome to formally elevate the most recent slate of newly named cardinals and discuss the principles of his new apostolic constitution for the Roman curia, Praedicate Evangelium.

There is widespread expectation in the Vatican that shortly afterwards, in the first weeks of September, Francis will announce a reshuffle in the leadership of several departments, including the dicasteries for bishops, Catholic education, and for Eastern Churches.

With new appointments expected, and new vacancies arising as a result, it is possible Gallagher expects to be moved from his current role and his recent interventions are signs of a kind of end-of-term relaxation on his part.

Whether calculated or casual, what is certain is that Archbishop Gallagher’s change in tone isn’t meaningless. And what he talks about in the coming weeks, and how he talks about it, should make for interesting reading.

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