ROME – Reporters covering the Vatican find ourselves in a frustrating bind right now, because we’ve got news we can’t fully report — in part because we’re bound by journalistic ethics, and in part because we don’t know ourselves what happened. That vacuum hasn’t stopped the left v. right ideological sausage grinders from swinging into action anyway, running the risk of making it less likely we’ll ever get the full story.
I realize that sounds terribly cryptic, so let me try to break it down.
On Sunday, Pope Francis was set to deliver his usual noontime Angelus address, which often features a brief comment or two on the international situation. As it always does, the Vatican circulated a draft of the address in advance to help reporters prepare, which comes with a strict embargo: We can’t refer to its contents before it’s delivered, and only what the pope actually says is considered official. Anything he skips, therefore, is regarded as having never existed.
Normally popes don’t veer terribly far from the prepared text, sometimes injecting a word or two here or there, skipping a random line for one reason or another, and so on.
However, it’s now a matter of public record that yesterday, Pope Francis omitted a sizeable chunk of text on Hong Kong. I can’t report what the text contained, because I’m bound to honor the conditions under which I received the information. I can report, however, that several Italian news sites have published the text or commented on why it was omitted, and there’s certainly no embargo on their content.
In a nutshell, commentators and news outlets known to be critical of Pope Francis are styling the omission as the latest chapter in what they see as the Vatican’s appeasement of China and its Communist leadership, generally linking it to a deal signed two years ago and shortly up for review that afforded Chinese authorities a role in the nomination of Catholic bishops.
Pundits and outlets known to be supportive of Francis, on the other hand, are defending the decision to drop the text as a sign of the pope’s commitment to dialogue and also a sign of his deft diplomatic and geopolitical instincts.
Here’s a sampling of what’s being said.
Marco Tossati, a veteran Vatican-watcher generally regarded as on the conservative side of things, asked the provocative question, “What strings is Beijing using to gag the pope?”
“This episode sheds even worse light – if that is possible – on the famous secret agreement signed between Beijing and the Holy See, whose consequences are being heavily felt in the lives of many Chinese Catholics, despite the propaganda of Vatican media,” Tosatti said. “It is an agreement that risks constituting one of the most sensational errors in the history of Vatican diplomacy, and also one of the worst decisions of the Pope who wanted it and endorsed it, unlike his predecessors.”
In a similar vein, Riccardo Casciloi, another conservative voice, insisted that the episode “shows submission by the Holy See to the Chinese government and Communist party.”
“It’s further proof that the secret deal between China and the Holy See on episcopal nominations, the renewal of which will soon be discussed, has been completely reduced to an instrument of control by the Communist party over the Catholic Church, a literal gag order for the Church,” Cascioli said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Riccardo Cristiano, a longtime Vatican journalist who’s generally supportive of Francis, detected a strategic masterstroke.
“We can rule out that the missing text was due to Chinese pressure. In such a brief arc of time, with the text given to the press less than an hour before the speech, it’s a hypothesis that doesn’t seem supported by the evidence,” he wrote.
“Given the global delicacy of the problem and the clear preoccupation to maintain dialogue and not extinguish any rays of hope, one can assume the idea was to make Rome’s thinking clear without, however, projecting it officially,” he said.
Cristiano clearly thought the pope showed good judgment.
“It’s another effort to support a perspective that will actually help the people of Hong Kong and all the Chinese, instead of using problems as a conflictual wedge against a regime with power that no one in Hong Kong can actually oppose,” Cristiano said.
The news outlet “Faro di Roma,” founded and led by longtime Vatican reporter Salvatore Izzo, also came to the pope’s defense.
“Right now, there’s an effort to attack Pope Francis for not thinking it’s a good moment to criticize Beijing,” the outlet said in an unsigned editorial. “The technique is always the same – it’s enough to repeat the same nonsense, day after day, for it to be believed … by the naive.”
In other words, it didn’t take long for the affair to become another talking point in the usual political crossfire.
Yet beyond the spin cycle, there are still such things as facts, and here are three about this situation:
- China matters, and the Vatican matters. How these two very different kinds of powers navigate their relationship therefore matters.
- Given that, the decision not to comment on Hong Kong on Sunday is of legitimate news interest.
- We don’t know why it happened. It may have been skittishness, it may have been part of a broader strategy, it may have been born of truly compelling motives, it may have been simply the result of internal miscommunication, and it could have been something else entirely. Until the principals offer an explanation, we’re left with guesswork that often reflects the guesser’s personal biases.
In itself, asking the obvious question – “Why did the pope not say it?” – does not signify taking a position in the broader debates over China, or Francis’s leadership, or anything else. In the days to come, one hopes reporters won’t be discouraged from doing their jobs out of a regrettably understandable anxiety that no matter how hard they try, someone will see it as partisan exercise.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.