Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, will hold talks at the Vatican on Wednesday after weighing into a dispute with the Holy See over its attempts to appease Beijing and protect the rights of Catholics in China.
Mr Pompeo criticised an agreement struck between the Vatican and Beijing two years ago relating to the appointment of bishops in China, and his official visit could potentially embroil the Catholic church in the growing tensions between the US and China.
In a tweet this month, the secretary of state said the Vatican would endanger its moral authority if it renewed its deal with Beijing.
Mr Pompeo will not meet Pope Francis, whom he met last year, but will instead hold talks with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s top diplomat, raising speculation in the Italian media that the US criticism has gone down badly.
However, the Pope does not always meet visiting foreign ministers and is likely to want to appear impartial ahead of November’s US presidential election.
In an article for the anti-secular magazine First Things this month, Mr Pompeo argued that the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing, the details of which were kept secret, marked a surrender to China over the rights of Catholics.
“The church’s hope was that it would improve the condition of Catholics in China by reaching agreement with the Chinese regime on the appointment of bishops, the traditional stewards of the faith in local communities,” he wrote. “Two years on, it’s clear that the Sino-Vatican agreement has not shielded Catholics from the party’s depredations”.
Francesco Galietti, of the political risk consultancy Policy Sonar, believes that diplomacy between the Vatican and China, and the concerns of the Trump White House, must be viewed in the context of a growing closeness between Rome and Beijing.
Last year the then Italian government became the first G7 country to endorse China’s Belt and Road investment initiative, prompting criticism from US diplomats and warnings about the risks of allowing Chinese investment in Italy’s telecoms infrastructure.
The move illustrated how Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, and its prime minister Giuseppe Conte, were keen to expand the boundaries of the country’s historical alliances by deepening relations with China.
Mr Galietti argues that the Vatican’s influence in Italian political life and its own “pivot to China” has facilitated the new phase of diplomacy between Beijing and Rome.
“Sinophilia these days has more to do with Italy’s political elites than with the popolo [people]. This is where the Vatican is so important — its clout is huge across Italian political elites.”
The central disagreement between Beijing and the Vatican had been over the appointment of bishops. The Holy See previously named “loyalist” Catholics unwilling to submit to party oversight, often known as China’s “underground” church, and shunned picks from the Communist party-approved Patriotic Catholicism Association.
As part of the 2018 deal — which the Vatican described as “not political but pastoral” — the pope recognised a number of previously excommunicated Beijing-backed bishops and in exchange agreed to a consultation process with Chinese authorities for future appointments, with the ultimate veto lying in Rome.
Sam Brownback, Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, speaking to the Financial Times this year also expressed concern over the Vatican’s deal with China, arguing it was giving up control over who represented the Catholic church in the country.
“I understand the Vatican’s desire to operate above ground in China and not have an underground church . . . and wanting to be able to have the Catholic faith practised there,” he said. “I think those are all very legitimate and laudable. But he added that when the Chinese have to approve a bishop: “You’re really losing control then and who does the bishop answer to? And what if the bishop does something that the Chinese government doesn’t like?”
Defenders of the 2018 deal argue that the Vatican was laying the groundwork to mend divisions among China’s Catholics, but critics said it did little for China’s “underground” Catholic communities. Joseph Zen, an outspoken retired Hong Kong cardinal, called it a “betrayal”.
Yang Fenggang, a scholar of religion in China at Purdue university in Indiana, said the 2018 deal resolved the Communist party’s major concern by putting the Catholic church “fully under its control”, but had failed to relax restrictions on “underground” bishops.
Instead of becoming more lenient, the United Front work department, the party’s arm in charge of managing religious communities, has intensified efforts to crack down on “illegal” religious activities. In June, in a locality of northern Hebei province, a stronghold of Chinese Catholicism, the department began offering rewards of up to Rmb5000 ($733) for information on organisers of unapproved gatherings, according to an official notice.
“The [Communist party] has yielded not an inch since the Vatican-Beijing secret deal in 2018,” said Mr Yang.