The US presidential campaign seems at times to have become an almost intra-Catholic affair, especially after President Donald Trump nominated a Catholic to be the next Justice on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Amy Coney Barrett would be the sixth of the nine justices who are members of the Catholic Church. A seventh justice, Neil Gorsuch, was baptized and raised Catholic.
Barrett’s nomination shows that Trump’s administration and campaign team have a Catholic agenda. It is aimed at capitalizing on the antipathy that sectors of the United States, including among vocal and influential Catholics, have shown towards Pope Francis since the beginning of this pontificate in 2013. Trump’s Catholic agenda is a domestic strategy with an international dimension.
Mike Pompeo attacks the Vatican’s policy on China
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets top Vatican officials this week in Rome – Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State; and British Archbishop Paul Gallagher who, as deputy Secretary for Relations with States, is Pompeo’s counterpart.
One person Pompeo will not meet when he goes to the Vatican is Pope Francis.
The pope must avoid any appearance that he is being used for political purposes just a few weeks before a presidential election. But he must also avoid being entangled in the serious crisis in the transatlantic relations that have to do with China.
Mr. Pompeo mounted an unprecedented attack against the sovereignty of the Holy See in an article published September 18 in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things.
He accused Francis and papal diplomats of not deploying “the moral witness and authority” of the Catholic Church when dealing with the Chinese government.
Secretary Pompeo doubled down on this message soon after arriving in Rome when he spoke at a September 30 symposium on religious freedom organized by the US Embassy to the Holy See.
Lecturing the Vatican’s savviest diplomats
In the presence of Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher, who were seated in the front row, he lectured the Vatican on John Paul II’s understanding of religious freedom and then contrasted Pope Francis’ strategy on China with the late Polish pope’s strategy on Communism.
The top US diplomat’s unprecedented attack against the Vatican has gone largely unnoticed in the United States. Part of that is because the country’s Catholic bishops have been reluctant to criticize White House foreign policy.
It’s also because Donald Trump’s opponent in the upcoming election – Joe Biden – is a Catholic.
The Trump strategy is to use the Vatican’s foreign policy (especially on China) as a means to convert the deep-seated anti-Francis sentiments in the United States, found in conservative and nationalist Christianity, into votes for the current president.
But Pompeo’s attack has not gone unnoticed in Rome, where top representatives have already signaled that the 2018 Vatican-China deal is likely to be renewed. And in the rest of the world, many Catholics see this as Trump’s top diplomat violating the freedom of the Holy See.
Pompeo’s article was just another of the many symptoms of the disruption of the international order and of the erratic behavior of US foreign policy under president Trump.
Cardinal Parolin has not responded to Pompeo’s attack, but he will deliver a speech on October 3 in Milan at the headquarters of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions), a group with a great deal of experience (and suffering) with the Chinese government.
Pompeo’s article was timed in a particular way for the relations between the Vatican, Washington, and Beijing: the talks for the negotiation of the deal, Pompeo’s trip to Rome, and the presidential campaign.
The September 2018 deal that the Vatican signed with China – after three decades of negotiations – finally allowed the Vatican to start bridging the division within Chinese Catholicism between the hierarchies of “patriotic Catholics” and of “underground Catholics” by giving the Vatican more power in the appointment of bishops in a process (very common in church history) of consultation and coordination with the national government.
Since the 2018 deal, the Chinese situation has been difficult for the Catholic Church, given the mounting pressure that Beijing and local governors have put on religious and ethnic communities – including Catholics – not to talk about the situation in Hong Kong.
Vatican diplomacy has never been concerned with regime change
It is fair to say that there are now more critical voices against the Vatican-China deal – both inside the Church and out – than there were in 2018.
Vatican diplomats are walking a very fine line. But Holy See diplomacy with authoritarian governments in majority non-Christian countries has always been about finding a way to let local Catholic communities survive in extremely challenging times. It has never been about regime change.
Being a Catholic Church in today’s global world means difficult choices. The Holy See and the papacy have limited options in China.
But what Secretary Pompeo did not consider – or what he has chosen to ignore – is that the Holy See and the pope stand as a sovereign entity.
Trump and Pompeo do not really care about the ability of the Catholic Church to pressure governments on human rights.
Just look at Pompeo’s pressure on the Vatican from a non-US point of view and one acquires quite a different perspective.
For instance, Christians in the Middle East could reasonably ask what sort of impact the forging of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Washington in 1984 has had on US foreign policy in their part of the world.
If the Vatican made human rights compliance a precondition of its engagement with other States, it would not only lose all influence in the world: it couldn’t have relations with the United States.
Integral to the context of Secretary Pompeo’s attack on Holy See diplomacy is the fact that a majority of those critical of the Vatican-China deal come from the United States.
And any of these are US Catholics that have been critical of Pope Francis’ pontificate on a range of theological and moral issues since the very first months of his tenure in 2013.
A dangerous and cynical game
But, let’s be clear, the Trump administration has no moral or theological concerns about the Vatican-China. Its interest is purely political.
This is another example of the administration’s cynical use of religion for political purposes.
Beginning at the domestic level and now moving to the international arena, tensions between Washington and the Vatican have now peaked to an unprecedented level since the election of Donald Trump.
This attempt to undermine Vatican diplomacy is another attempt to signal the gap between the diplomacy of the Holy See and the Trump administration’s dream of a new Cold War.
This is a very dangerous game. And Catholics – especially those in the United States – should reject it or at least be aware of its long-term costs.
The Holy See is a subject of international law and an active participant in international relations. In the last century there have been repeated attempts, especially by the United States and others, to reduce its role to being “chaplain” of the western hemisphere.
Even during the Cold War, the Holy See was very aware that an alignment with the United States would be dangerous for the future of the Catholic Church. This awareness has served well Vatican diplomacy ever since, included under Pope Francis.
The Holy See: the world’s oldest diplomatic service
This is one way to explain the Vatican’s silence on the “Abraham Accords” between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel, which was signed in Washington on September 15 under the auspices of the Trump administration.
The Holy See has the oldest diplomatic service in the world and enjoys relations with almost all countries around the globe.
It is also a permanent observer to many international organizations. It rightly views as unseemly any attempts to reduce its international role to that of handmaid of the foreign policy of another country.
And that position is even more firmly held by Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina who has reoriented the geopolitics of the Catholic Church from a firm anchoring in Europe and North America towards the global south and Asia.
It is extraordinary that during the last few weeks of a presidential campaign, the US Secretary of State would try to put pressure on the diplomacy of the Holy See and the manner in which he did so – in the pages of a magazine like First Things that has been the most influential and best connected voice of the high-brow and intellectual – yet virulent – anti-Francis sentiment in the Anglosphere.
But the Holy See has never shown much interest in looking like it was following the orders of Washington or of any foreign government, especially when these orders are formulated in public and at a sensitive time.
It is a lesson in independence that the papacy learned the hard way exactly 150 years ago – on September 20, 1870 – with the fall of the Papal States after ten centuries of existence.
The US Catholic bishops: silent and afraid
Will Mike Pompeo succeed where Steve Bannon failed? That is, will his attacks on Pope Francis and the Vatican rally a new sacred alliance against the international order?
For sure, this is an unprecedented attack. It comes during a presidential campaign where Trump’s opponent is a Catholic whom conservative Catholics accuse of not being real a Catholic because of his record on abortion.
This extremely delicate political moment in the United States is another reason why the country’s Catholic bishops have been totally silent about Mike Pompeo’s extraordinary interference in the affairs of the Holy See.
But there is also an evident asymmetry at work when it’s about measuring the Catholic bona fide of a Catholic like Biden on one side and the Trump administration on the other.
One can only imagine how the bishops would have challenged the Obama administration if had dared interfered in Vatican affairs in a similar way.
On the other hand, this attack of the Trump administration against the Vatican is one more evidence that the most outspoken anti-papists today are not American Protestants or secularists but, instead, Roman Catholics aligned to the Trump’s Republican Party.
In America we constantly hear loud and cheap cries of “anti-Catholicism”, levied, for example, against those who want to ask some questions about the religious views of a Catholic judge likely to serve for decades on the highest court of a multicultural and multi-religious country.
But this anti-Catholic cry has remained mute when the top diplomat of the Trump administration threatens the freedom of the pope and Vatican diplomacy in an unprecedented way.
Conservative Catholics in the United States coined the expression “cafeteria Catholicism” to accuse liberals of picking and choosing what they like from the menu of Catholic teaching.
Now it has become clear that there also exists a cafeteria anti-Catholicism, where conservative Catholics choose from the menu of anti-Catholicism what they find ideologically expedient.
This criticism of papal diplomacy must be read in the context of the history of anti-papal rhetoric in American history and of the contempt that the peculiar ecumenism of the alliance between white Evangelicals and conservative Catholics has shown towards Pope Francis since 2013.
Communion with the pope and the global Catholic community are conditional, because the domestic political agenda of one political party always trumps ecclesiology.
Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis. Moving toward Global Catholicity(Orbis). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.