The Vatican’s number-two official asserted the city state’s right to pursue an accord with Beijing on the appointment of bishops that has been strongly criticised by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following talks between the two sides in Rome.
Pompeo met Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher on Thursday on a visit marked by Vatican irritation over Pompeo accusing the Holy See of putting its “moral authority” at risk if it renewed an agreement with China on the appointment of bishops.
The essay, published in a conservative US Catholic publication that has called Pope Francis’ pontificate a failure, sparked a minor diplomatic crisis. Vatican officials suggested Pompeo was trying to drag the Catholic Church into the US presidential election by denouncing its relations with China; an allegation Pompeo denied.
Parolin, second only to the pope in the Vatican hierarchy, spoke to reporters on the sidelines of a book launch on Thursday night and said the two sides’ positions remained far apart on their approach to China.
“He (Pompeo) explained his reasons for making those statements and we explained our reasons why we intend to move ahead on the path we have already chosen,” Parolin said.
The Vatican “asserts (the right to move forward) with a choice that has been thought through, reflected on, prayed over, a choice the pope has made, therefore the freedom to move forward”, he added.
The Vatican wants to extend the China accord, which was signed in 2018 and envisages a process of dialogue in the selection of bishops. It hopes the agreement will help unite China’s Catholics, who have been split between those clandestinely following Rome – and those belonging to an official, state-sanctioned church set up by the Communist Party.
The Vatican has defended the accord against criticism the pope sold out the underground faithful, saying the deal was necessary to prevent an even worse schism in the church in China.
Parolin said the Vatican would renew the agreement when it expires this month, adding that Pompeo had expressed “understanding for the way the Holy See approaches these issues”.
Pompeo sought to downplay the differences in an interview with Fox News, but said he had urged the Holy See to take a stronger stance against Chinese restrictions on religious freedom.
“We had a constructive discussion,” Pompeo said after the meeting. “We have a shared objective. The Chinese Communist Party is behaving in ways that are reminiscent of what’s only happened in centuries past in terms of human rights violations. We’ve watched them oppress not only Muslim Uighurs but Christians, Catholics, Falun Gong, people of all faiths.
“I know that the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Holy See all care about these issues deeply,” Pompeo told Fox News. “We’ve urged them to take a stronger view, to express their moral witness against these depredations that are taking place there in China.”
The Vatican has rarely if ever called out China for its crackdown on religious and ethnic minorities and other human rights abuses, and it has stayed silent during months of protests in Hong Kong. Similarly, it rarely criticises Russia, for fear of harming relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.
US President Donald Trump has taken an increasingly hard line on China ahead of the November 3 election. He is also associated with conservative Protestant and Catholic movements, many of which have been critical of Pope Francis.
In an address to a symposium on Wednesday, Pompeo did not directly address the Vatican agreement with Beijing but described China as the world’s worst abuser of religious rights.