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Pope defends deal with China, stresses importance of dialogue

Vatican diplomats following ‘small steps’ taken with Eastern European countries during Cold War

Pope Francis waves to crowd after delivering Angelus noon prayer from window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, July 18,...

Pope Francis waves to crowd after delivering Angelus noon prayer from window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, July 18,... (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — In an interview aired on Spanish radio on Wednesday (Aug. 31), Pope Francis justified the Vatican’s deal with Beijing on the appointment of Catholic bishops within China, saying uneasy dialogue is better than none at all.

The Vatican's policy toward China has been a sensitive issue for the Holy See in recent years. Wednesday’s interview with radio network COPE saw some of the Pope’s most comprehensive comments to date on the issue, according to a Reuters report.

The head of the Catholic Church likened the Vatican’s dialogue with China to those it had with Soviet countries in the latter half of the 20th century. The pope said this exchange eventually led to expanded freedoms for the faithful in those countries.

"China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up dialogue," he said.

In 2018, the Vatican signed an accord with Beijing that gives the pope final say over the appointment of Chinese bishops, a deal which was renewed last September.

This established an official exchange with Beijing where none had previously existed. In the decades following the communist takeover in China in 1949, the Catholic Church was essentially driven underground.

There have been many critics of the deal, particularly among conservative Catholic groups. Others have said the deal compromises the Pope’s moral authority, including the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, which tried to convince the Vatican to stop negotiating with Beijing.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Holy See last September to met with his counterparts, who were reportedly irritated by his criticism of the Vatican’s China policy.

“I know that the Catholic Church and the Vatican care about these [human rights violations and religious repression] issues deeply,” Pompeo said at the time. “We’ve urged them to take a stronger view, to express their moral witness against these depredations that are taking place there in China.”

"You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that... but it is the way. Closed-mindedness is never the way," Francis said about the accord with China on Wednesday. "What has been achieved so far in China was at least dialogue... some concrete things like the appointment of new bishops, slowly... but these are also steps that can be questionable," he stated.

The Bishop of Rome likened relations with Beijing to the "small steps" policy carried out by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, a veteran Vatican diplomat, with Eastern European nations during the Cold War.

Casaroli managed to forge agreements with communist countries that gave the Church some breathing space and sowed the seeds for official relations after the collapse of the USSR, he added. Those deals were also criticized at the time.

"Slowly, slowly, slowly, [Casaroli] was achieving reserves of diplomatic relations which in the end meant appointing new bishops and taking care of God's faithful people," the Pope said.

Closer ties with China have prompted analysts to speculate on the future of the Vatican's relationship with Taiwan. The Vatican City remains Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic ally in Europe. Given the Vatican’s outsized international influence, the bilateral relationship is considered to have great symbolic and moral significance for the democratic country.