It is clear that relations with mainland China are fraught. The geopolitical situation is hazardous and seemingly insurmountable. Diplomacy has collapsed into shouting matches; polemical argument supplants reasoned argument.
But there may be an avenue we haven’t explored, and it is an unusual recourse.
What do Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai, the owner of Next Digital and Apple Daily and the most prominent critic of mainland China and its various satraps, as well as Baron Christopher Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University and the last British Governor of Hong Kong who was instrumental in establishing the “two systems, one country” policy ensuring thereby the peaceful transfer of the former colony in 1997, have in common?
They are all three committed and practicing Catholics.
Does that matter in the current geopolitical orbit? In the ordinary run of things, no, but these are not ordinary times and the Vatican has taken notice, and long before the current dustup.
The Vatican’s Secretary of State, the able polyglot Pietro Cardinal Parolin, and the prelate in charge of Relations with States, the Liverpudlian Archbishop Paul Gallagher, have been involved in sensitive negotiations with Beijing that have created turbulent waves among many in the hierarchy. But they are not only architects of a new policy with regard to mainland China, they have been doing it at the urgent behest of their boss, Pope Francis.
Well before strains between Beijing and Hong Kong reached its present level with the implementation of a new security law that is draconian in its content and execution, with protests and arrests a daily occurrence, the imposition of sanctions, the revocation of extradition treaties and an unchecked intemperance of rhetoric on all sides, the Vatican has been working almost since the inception of the Francis papacy to find some common diplomatic ground.
The Vatican’s diplomatic corps is the oldest in Europe. Its training ground, the Pontificia Academia Ecclesiastica, guarantees a sure training in languages, law, polity and the finer points of diplomatic etiquette. The Vatican’s ambassadors do their job with a class and efficiency that is a model for their secular counterparts.
These papal ambassadors do what all ambassadors do: they listen, monitor, avoid drawing attention to themselves, make recommendations to head office on the Tiber and enforce Vatican directives when instructed. And they have been silent players on the international scene for a long time. For instance, negotiations in 1978 around a dispute between Chile and Argentina over contesting claims of sovereignty with the Beagle Islands Channel that were successful in avoiding war were brokered by the Vatican of John Paul II. Francis and his team were major players in the rapprochement between Havana and Washington that occurred in 2016 during the Obama Administration.
They have demonstrated that they have the chops. As the battle rages among all the contesting parties engaging the Vatican may prove profitable.
But a major caveat rests with the increasingly public disputes around the Vatican’s quiet discussions with Beijing. To ensure the reconciliation of the “two” Catholic Churches in China—the Underground Church that has been systematically persecuted and has remained fiercely loyal to Rome and the official Catholic Church that has acknowledged the rights of Beijing to appoint bishops and regulate Catholic institutions for political fidelity—the Vatican has had to make accommodations that Francis’s critics find reprehensible. And some of these critics carry significant clout.
Lord Barnes, a self-described progressive Catholic and very pro-Francis, has publicly called into question Rome’s silence on the current uproar, cautioned that its naivete regarding Beijing’s intentions may compromise its international standing on this issue, with the result that many Chinese Catholics feel abandoned. These sentiments are much more vigorously articulated by the former Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, but there is no indication that the Vatican will interrupt its negotiations nor generate a reversal of policy.
Persuaded that ospolitik, the diplomatic approach of Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and Pope Paul VI when negotiated with the Soviet regimes of Eastern Europe, is the best way of ensuring the survival of the church, Francis is out of sync with his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who rejected ospolitik and opted for a more confrontational style.
The jury is out on which approach will prove most successful in dealing with China, but what is clear is that Francis’s diplomacy is designed to avoid the resurgence of a global Cold War, enshrine fundamental respect for religious freedom without repudiating the values and principles of a political system at variance with its own and keep dialogue open. There are dangers in this, as Lord Barnes has made clear, but the Vatican is a long-term player and has included the costs in its calculus.
Given what Lam, Lai, Patten and the Vatican have in common—their faith—this may provide the opportunity for another behind the scenes diplomatic initiative.
Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s and president of Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.