U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo came to Rome on Wednesday and waded into a dispute with the Vatican over China and diplomacy.
Pompeo used a speech at a religious freedom seminar sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to attack Beijing as an egregious abuser of human rights. He called on the Vatican to join the Trump administration in making a similar condemnation.
“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today,” Pompeo said on the third day of a five-day trip that includes stops in Greece and Croatia. “That’s because, as with all communist regimes, the Chinese Communist Party deems itself the ultimate moral authority.”
Though his speech mostly quoted the late Pope John Paul II, a hero to conservative Catholics and other Christians, Pompeo used a phrase commonly uttered by Pope Francis that a church must be “permanently in a state of mission.”
“Surely one of them is to be a church permanently in defense of basic human rights,” Pompeo said.
The comments came after Pompeo earlier this month criticized the Vatican for renewing an agreement with China over how the Roman Catholic Church can operate there. He suggested that the agreement betrayed underground Chinese Catholics in favor of those who the government tolerates.
Vatican officials were irked at Pompeo’s remarks, which they said should have been handled through diplomatic channels. Instead, Pompeo wrote his comments in a conservative U.S. publication that has been consistently critical of Pope Francis, a Latin American often seen as more progressive than his recent predecessors.
“The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal,” Pompeo said in a series of tweets after his article appeared in the First Things journal. Repetition of the phrase “moral authority” here and now struck Vatican officials as deliberate.
Pompeo’s counterpart at the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, spoke at the same conference Wednesday. To reporters later, Parolin said the Holy See was “surprised” by Pompeo’s article.
Another senior Vatican official who also spoke at the conference, Archbishop Paul Gallagher of England, told reporters of the Holy See’s irritation at the Pompeo article.
Gallagher also said the proximity of Pompeo’s Rome visit to the U.S. election in just over a month was “one of the reasons why the Holy Father is not receiving the secretary of state.”
It had been a matter of some speculation whether Pompeo was being snubbed by the pope, whose empathy for the poor and refugees has led to public clashes with President Trump. Francis received Pompeo last year when he spoke at a similar symposium in Rome.
Pompeo has made religious freedom the central human right that he believes nations should stand up for. And bashing China has also become one of the key themes of Trump’s reelection campaign as he, Pompeo and others seek to focus blame for the deathly toll of the coronavirus pandemic on Beijing rather than their own handling of the crisis.
Pompeo on Thursday will meet with Gallagher and Parolin at the Vatican.
The ability of the Catholic Church to function in China has long been a delicate diplomatic and religious issue. The Chinese government sought to control the church there and name its leaders. The agreement that the Vatican has now with China — which is about to expire and is being renewed — allows the pope to name bishops in China. But many believe that concession was made at the expense of Chinese Catholics who have long worshiped in the shadows.
Asked later Wednesday if he was “picking a fight” with the Vatican and whether that could hurt Trump’s political fortunes with U.S. Christian voters, Pompeo said the idea was “just crazy.”
Wilkinson is a Times correspondent.