A truly bizarre and wild diplomatic kerfuffle is playing out between the Vatican and the Trump administration in the lead-up to the November US election, and of course taking center stage is the growing White House targeting of China.
"The Vatican said on Wednesday it had denied a request from Mike Pompeo for an audience with Pope Francis, and accused the Secretary of State of trying to drag the Catholic Church into the U.S. presidential election by denouncing its relations with China," Reuters reports on Thursday.
This after the papacy was targeted in a series of recent tweets and statements by the Secretary of State who has strongly suggested the Vatican's “moral authority” is at risk in its decision to allow the Chinese Communist government to give approval for the appointment of bishops in the country.
There's long been an unofficial split within the local Chinese Catholic Church, with the "official" hierarchy under Rome including those bishops explicitly approved by Beijing, while a separate, parallel 'underground' church structure has existed outside of Beijing's control going back through much of the 20th century.
Pompeo has called out this set-up ahead of the Vatican expecting to renew the status quo agreement with Chinese authorities.
Apparently Pompeo this week sought a personal audience with the pope, however, Pope Francis appears to have rejected the 'optics' of it, suggesting it could be used to manipulate American voters ahead of the Trump-Biden election. Reuters details:
Pompeo, who was in Rome on Wednesday and due to meet Vatican officials on Thursday, repeated his denunciations of China’s record on religious freedom at an event hosted by the U.S. embassy to the Holy See.
The Vatican’s two top diplomats, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said Francis had declined a request from Pompeo for an audience, as the pope avoids meeting politicians ahead of elections.
Cardinal Parolin said this policy has already long been set, based in strictly observed Vatican protocol. “Yes, he asked. But the pope had already said clearly that political figures are not received in election periods. That is the reason,” Parolin said of Pompeo's formal request.
Pompeo was expected to press Pope Francis on the China issue, but instead was left to press the case in public remarks in Rome:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attacked China's record on religious freedom during a visit to Rome that has been overshadowed by his criticism of the Vatican for pursuing closer ties with Beijing https://t.co/IhYUNrfx6W pic.twitter.com/iaKY43v4Dn— Reuters (@Reuters) September 30, 2020
And Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Gallagher offered a similar explanation:
“Normally when you’re preparing these visits between high-level officials, you negotiate the agenda for what you are going to talk about privately, confidentially. It’s one of the rules of diplomacy.”
The spokesmen underscored that the delicate situation of the Catholic Church in China doesn't have anything to do with US politics, and should remain completely outside of US political interference.
Parolin underscored that it remains “a matter that has nothing to do with American politics. This is a matter between Churches and should not be used for this type of ends.”
In the aftermath of the rejected audience, Pompeo called the idea that the White House was "picking a fight" with the Vatican on the China issue "crazy".