Republicans are already accusing Democrats of anti-Catholic bias ahead of hearings to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Yet at the same time, the Trump administration is feuding with Pope Francis himself. Relations between the Vatican and the Trump administration hit a new low this week when the pope denied an audience to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while he was visiting Rome. Donald Trump’s relationship with the pope has long been rocky, dating back to the 2016 campaign when Pope Francis suggested that Trump is “not Christian.” Since then, Francis has expressed disdain for the administration’s policies, particularly on immigration and climate change. In this latest case, Francis’ moral authority in the dispute is a little more dubious.
Pompeo recently criticized the pope over the Vatican’s intention to renew a controversial 2018 deal with the Chinese government over the appointment of bishops. The last several popes have all sought—with little success—to improve relations with the Chinese government, home to around 10 million Catholics. (That’s not many people by Chinese standards, but larger than the Catholic population of most European countries.) The stumbling block has been control over the appointment of bishops. The Chinese government views bishops appointed by the church as an infringement on its sovereignty and has insisted on choosing them itself. Chinese Catholics are split between an illegal, underground church that’s loyal to the Vatican, and an official one with bishops appointed by the Catholic Patriotic Association, a state-controlled organization.
Under the 2018 agreement, the text of which has never been made public, the Vatican agreed to recognize seven Chinese bishops who had been appointed without papal approval in exchange for some say over the appointment of future bishops. Francis defended the deal as a way to fulfill the “heartfelt desire of Chinese Catholics to live their faith in full communion with the universal Church.” But critics including Joseph Zen, the former cardinal of Hong Kong, accused Francis of selling out Chinese Catholics to a repressive atheist regime.
If the hope was to soften the Chinese government’s stance on Catholicism, it does not appear to have worked. Since 2018, there have been reports of crosses being removed from church buildings throughout the country and regulations targeting religious education. In June, underground Bishop Augustine Cui Tai of Xuanhua, was detained and taken to an undisclosed location. Last November, police in Hong Kong entered a Catholic church to arrest protesters who had taken shelter there during anti-government demonstrations.
Francis, who has spoken out strongly in defense of human rights and against the abuse of religious minorities elsewhere in the world, has also been notably quiet when it comes to the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, Tibetan Buddhists, or, for that matter, Christians throughout China.
This is a natural priority for Pompeo, who is running a global campaign to pressure countries to spurn Chinese influence, and has not been shy about linking his faith (he’s a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) to his foreign policy goals. Prior to his planned trip to Rome this week, Pompeo published an essay in the Catholic magazine First Things, saying “it’s clear that the Sino-Vatican agreement has not shielded Catholics from the Party’s depredations” and urged the Catholic Church to take note of its “unique capacity and duty to focus the world’s attention on human rights violations, especially those perpetrated by totalitarian regimes like Beijing’s.”
The official reason for Francis’ refusal to meet with Pompeo is that he does not receive political figures ahead of elections—Pompeo did get a meeting with the Vatican’s secretary of state—but church officials were miffed that Pompeo published this criticism in a conservative magazine that has been strongly critical of Francis, rather than raising them in meetings with church officials, and suggested he was playing partisan politics.
Pompeo clearly knew his audience in writing the op-ed: This pope is not all that popular with Trump’s evangelical base or with many conservative Catholics. While he didn’t get to meet with Francis in Rome, Pompeo did attend an event on religious freedom organized by Callista Gingrich, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and wife of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, which was attended by a number of Francis’ critics, including Raymond Burke, the conservative American cardinal known for denying communion to Catholic Democrats like John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi. Pompeo called the accusation that he was playing partisan politics with his criticism “just crazy.”
Still, Pompeo’s hardly the only one who may be playing politics here. There’s an awful lot of cynicism to go around.