VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis’ impassioned praise of China this week is the strongest sign of the pontiff’s ambitious agenda to use his personal and political clout to transform the historically fraught relations between Beijing and the Holy See.
“For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom,” the pope said at the start of his interview with Asia Times, which was published Tuesday (Feb. 2).
It was his first extended interview on China, and his opening remarks set the tone for the exchange.
Francis has long been known to be an admirer of the world’s most populous country, telling journalists in September he would like to visit China.
But no pope has ever done so, and accomplishing that feat would take some doing.
Beijing and the Holy See cut off diplomatic relations shortly after China’s Communist Party came to power in 1949, and there are constant tensions over efforts by the Vatican to appoint bishops to the church that remains loyal to Rome -- the so-called "underground" church -- and China's insistence on overseeing a state-approved Catholic Church known as the "Patriotic Association."
Still, there have been signs of warming relations in recent years.
The pontiff was allowed to fly through Chinese airspace in 2014, en route to South Korea, a moment Francis remembered this week: “I confess that I felt very emotional, something that does not usually happen to me. I was moved to be flying over this great richness of culture and wisdom.”
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics didn’t miss that opportunity to send the customary telegram to the head of state, President Xi Jinping, and in this week’s interview extended his best wishes for the Chinese New Year to Xi and all the Chinese people.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said Wednesday that the government was aware of the pope’s recent remarks.
“China has always been sincere about improving Sino-Vatican ties, and have made many efforts in this regard," Lu said, according to Reuters.
"We are still willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican based on this principle, meeting each other half way, and keep pushing forward the development of the process of improving bilateral relations," he continued. "We also hope that the Vatican can take a flexible, pragmatic attitude to creating conditions for improving ties."
The relatively chilly response from Beijing stands at odds with the approach adopted by Francis, who backed dialogue enthusiastically and spoke of the Catholic Church’s duty to respect China “with a capital ‘R.’”
At first glance the Argentine pontiff appears to be going out on a limb to appease the Chinese authorities, given that he declined to criticize the country’s poor human rights record or the difficulties faced by Catholics in China.
A recent Amnesty International report said Chinese authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses and crucifixes, while those practicing banned religions face harassment, imprisonment and torture.
Yet the pope’s interview included no appeal for Christians in China, or Catholics specifically, despite similar statements he has frequently made about religious minorities suffering in other parts of the world.
Notably absent, also, was Francis’ ardent opposition to the death penalty, a point he brought up when addressing the U.S. Congress in September. Executions in China remain a state secret, although rights groups believe thousands of people are put to death annually.
The pontiff did praise China's decision to ease its controversial one-child policy, and he did warn against China and other world powers dividing up the world into competing spheres of influence as the Allies did at the Yalta conference near the end of World War II.
“Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me,” said the pope. "Dialogue means: Look, we have got to this point, I may or may not agree, but let us walk together; this is what it means to build. And the cake stays whole, walking together.”
But if the pope’s foray into the China debate may appear weak to some -- at worst a dramatic climbdown on his principles -- his olive-branch approach is in line with that of his predecessors, including St. John Paul II, who was hardly shy about taking on the Soviet Union.
Instead, this latest interview may be better viewed as a carefully crafted step in Francis’ own, more ambitious diplomatic strategy toward China.
For example, a Holy See delegation visited Beijing in October, a move to improve relations between the two states that was described as “very positive” by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state.
Now this week, in responding to pre-approved questions submitted by a friendly journal, the pope has been able to adopt a conciliatory tone that improves the chances of getting Holy See diplomats a lasting seat at the negotiating table, to push for concrete changes to relations between the two states.
Although speculation of a papal trip to China may seem highly unlikely at present, the pope’s diplomatic clout should not be underestimated.
He has already been credited with securing the historic U.S.-Cuba deal -- much to the world’s surprise -- while the pope also influenced a peace agreement signed between the Colombian government and FARC rebels.
With the pope’s term in office limited only by his longevity, Francis can afford to play the long game in the diplomatic arena.
(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)