(RNS) — Pope Francis returned from his brief trip to Kazakhstan, a country nestled between Russia and China, having failed to sit down with his Russian counterpart Patriarch Kirill or the delegation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
With the pope surrounded by empty seats in Kazakhstan, critics questioned the efficacy of his diplomacy of encounter and his strategy of silence when it comes to outright condemning human rights violations in China, Russia and Nicaragua. But Vatican diplomacy insiders urge patience, arguing that even as the pope remains silent, the institution's diplomatic corps is hard at work behind the scenes, advancing the cause for dialogue.
Soon after being elected, in 2013, Pope Francis scored a major win for Vatican diplomacy efforts. As the United States and its allies prepared for an offensive against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, the pope beseeched all parties involved — including Russia — to stop the conflict. According to the memoirs of the then-foreign minister of Australia, Bob Carr, the tensions were diffused as Russian President Vladimir Putin urged U.N. member states to "listen to the pope."
Three years later, Francis sat down with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in the airport of Havana for a meeting that seemed to pave the way for the pope to be the first Catholic leader to visit Moscow. Vatican observers marveled at the peacemaking prowess of the pope from the Global South. But today, as Ukraine enters its seventh month of war with Russia, Francis seems to have lost his touch.
The pandemic forced a meeting between Francis and Kirill to be rescheduled, and the two met instead in an online conference in May where the pope warned the patriarch not to become "Putin's altar boy." But even as Pope Francis refused to openly condemn Putin and Russia for the war in Ukraine, relations with the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church chilled.
Victor Gaetan, author of "God's Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America's Armageddon," thinks that's only half the story.
"The Holy See is the only Western institution that has an ongoing dialogue with the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church," Gaetan said, speaking to Religion News Service on Tuesday.
"It was actually the Western states, and especially the United States, that have failed in the path of dialogue with Russia and its state religion," Gaetan said.
Gaetan said that Metropolitan Anthony, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations department, has kept a steady relationship with the Vatican and even met with Pope Francis in May to tell him that while Kirill wouldn't be going to Kazakhstan and there would be a Russian Orthodox delegation in his stead.
While "any leader could be accused of not having done enough," Pope Francis could have probably been more outspoken at the international level, said Mario Aguilar, professor of religion and politics at St. Andrews Divinity School.
Aguilar, author of "Pope Francis: Journeys of a Peacemaker" and a political adviser for the Vatican, told RNS that the Vatican "is a finite institution" and its foreign policy is no stranger to failure. "I have seen Pope Francis say many times: 'Let's pray and let's try again.' But he's not bothered by failure," he said.
Francis' struggle to gain traction on the path toward dialogue was also evident when Xi, the Chinese president, reportedly refused to meet him while they were both in Kazakhstan. "I didn't see him," Francis said, vaguely answering questions by journalists while on the flight returning from Kazakhstan on Thursday.
In 2018, the Vatican and China signed a controversial and secretive deal on the appointment of bishops that is up for renewal in the coming weeks. One of the major critics of the deal, Cardinal Joseph Zen, a human rights activist and former bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested by Chinese authorities and put on criminal trial on Monday.
"Here at the Vatican, there is a dialogue commission that is doing well," Francis said during the in-flight news conference, but he added he doesn't "feel like qualifying China as antidemocratic because it's a such a complex country."
Francis has remained quiet on the persecution of Uyghur Muslims and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in order to support the Sino-Vatican deal, which promises to breach the historical rift between the state-recognized Catholic Church in China and the "underground church" approved by the Holy See.
William McGurn, former speechwriter to U.S. President George W. Bush, wrote an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal on Monday declaring "The Pope Abandons Cardinal Zen." Cardinal Gerhard Müller, formerly at the head of the Vatican's doctrinal department, criticized Rome's silence on Zen's arrest during a summit of cardinals at the Vatican in late August.
"Nobody has raised the grave question of our brother Zen," Müller told fellow cardinals and the pope. "I hope he won't be abandoned."
According to Gaetan, critics of the pope's diplomacy are part of "a campaign against Pope Francis' diplomatic approach with relations with Russia and China."
Gaetan pointed to the fact that a long-standing group studying Holy See-Chinese relations might soon move from Hong Kong to Beijing and that the Sino-Vatican agreement will likely be renewed in October.
"The pope and his diplomats will not change because of this criticism," Gaetan said. "Their mission is clear and has been practiced for centuries," he added, pointing to the fact that even the fiery St. John Paul II did not interrupt dialogue with Beijing after the events at Tiananmen Square.
Aguilar believes it's a mistake to expect a public pronouncement by Pope Francis on international diplomacy. "It will be the very ancient, slow cup of tea of Monsignor Paul Gallagher that will solve everything without a press conference," he said, referring to the Vatican's head of relations with states.
Instead of "a soft diplomacy," Aguilar added, the Vatican operates a "very hard diplomacy" by leveraging its numerous faithful in the world through its nuncios and the Vatican's foreign office.
In Catholic-majority Nicaragua, Pope Francis has not publicly denounced the oppressive government of President Daniel Ortega, which has been openly hostile toward the Catholic Church by arresting clergy members and banning feasts and processions.
But Aguilar foresees "a regime change, because in a very Catholic country, when you oppose the Catholic Church, you are opposing your people. If your people cannot celebrate Mass, go to processions or say prayers and celebrate the feasts, eventually they will not vote for you."
In countries where Catholics are a majority, like Nicaragua, the Vatican's efforts are more impactful. But in places such as China or Russia, where Catholic faithful represent but a tiny fraction of the population, it's much more difficult for the Vatican to promote its interests and create the basis for dialogue.
"People expect the Vatican, the oldest diplomacy, to act very rashly," Aguilar said. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pope Pius XII kept diplomatic relations with Japan, angering the Allied forces. Years later, the Catholic Church became instrumental in recovering English and American prisoners in the Eastern country.
"The basics of diplomacy at the Vatican is a continuity of at least one century," Aguilar said. "It looks very slow but only because it's not public."
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