As Pompeo arrives in Rome, we’re through the looking glass

By publishing a recent article warning Pope Francis and the Vatican that their moral authority is at risk should they renew a 2018 deal with China over bishops, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo injected a sense of a high-stakes showdown to his visit to the Vatican this week.

News Analysis

ROME – One has to say this for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: He’s certainly found a creative way to make what’s often a pro forma diplomatic courtesy call on the Vatican this week interesting.

By publishing a recent article in First Things warning Pope Francis and the Vatican that their moral authority is at risk should they renew their 2018 deal with China over the appointment of bishops, Pompeo injected a sense of a high-stakes showdown to his visit, which will see him meet Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Parolin’s top deputy for foreign relations.

Pompeo will also deliver opening remarks at a conference on diplomacy and religious freedom sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, where both Parolin and Gallagher are also scheduled to speak.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m moderating a couple of panels at that conference.)

Not that there’s any drama about whether the Vatican will renew the China deal – it’s been clear from the beginning that was the plan. As if anyone needed reminding, Vatican Editorial Director Andrea Tornielli published an article yesterday quoting Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, to the effect that difficulties aside, “it seems to me that a direction has been marked out that is worth continuing; then we will see.”

As the curtain lifts today on Pompeo’s Vatican swing, three notes are in order by way of background.

No permanent damage

While Pompeo probably isn’t going to win any popularity contests in the Vatican right now, let’s not exaggerate: There’s not going to be any permanent damage to the US/Vatican relationship over this.

Both the Vatican and the United States have too much invested to let that happen.

On the Vatican’s side, it wants to be a voice of conscience on the global stage and it can’t do that without being in conversation with the superpowers. (Ironically, it’s the same reason it’s so determined to reup its China deal as a down payment on full diplomatic relations.) Further, it needs help from the US on a number of its foreign policy priorities, from the Middle East to religious freedom around the world and beyond.

For the US, foreign policy has always had a clear moral streak. Americans aren’t like the Chinese, comfortable with saying out loud that we project power and cut deals with no ostensible motivation beyond realpolitik. Americans need to tell themselves that we seek not just victory but virtue, and being seen as partners of the world’s premier soft power is one way to accomplish that.

Moreover, Catholics are one-quarter of the American population, and religion is a potent factor in American politics. Detonating ties with the Vatican inevitably would alienate some share of those Catholics – and delight others, of course, but the political math says the chance for the occasional papal photo-op is still worth having.

Hardly the low ebb

The US and the Vatican have had full diplomatic relations since 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, and since then popes and presidents always have had rocky relationships.

In effect, it’s a “square peg/round hole” problem – America has two major political parties, one of which agrees with 50 percent of Catholic social teaching and rejects the other half, and another which embraces the 50 percent rejected by the first party but not the rest. By definition, presidents of any party, and popes of whatever agenda, are going to have issues.

While the recent dust-up over China is the most recent expression of those tensions, it’s hardly the most serious.

In the mid-1990s, for example, when the UN sponsored major conferences on women and population in which there was a push to recognize a “right” to abortion under international law, the White House and the Vatican were on opposite sides. In one indication of how testy things became, former US Ambassador to the Holy See Raymond Flynn would later describe how it took a full week just to arrange a phone call between John Paul II and President Bill Clinton.

In 2003, when the President George W. Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, the Vatican was the leading moral critic of that decision on the global stage. At one point, then-US Ambassador James Nicholson brought American Catholic intellectual Michael Novak to Rome to make the case for the war, and he was all but frozen out by senior Vatican officials – at least one of whom conveniently found a reason for being “out of town” while Novak was around.

Notably, those two conflicts occurred under a Democratic president and a Republican, respectively.

In other words, while it’ll be fun over the next two days to speculate about what Pompeo, Parolin and Gallagher may say behind closed doors, this is not really history in the making. It’s simply another bump in what’s always been a rocky road.

The politics of chiding the pope

Pompeo is undoubtedly sincere in his conviction that the Vatican is squandering its moral credibility – though in all honesty, Vatican officials have been generous in not pointing out that he serves an administration which cut its own massive trade deal with Beijing in January, to a chorus of criticism about mixed messages eerily similar to those voiced in Pompeo’s article.

Still, China’s human rights and religious freedom record is abysmal, it’s deteriorated further in the two years since the Vatican deal was signed, and that’s undoubtedly the primary reason Pompeo spoke out.

Yet with an election a month away, no senior administration official is likely to say or do anything without at least considering the political fallout. In that light, it’s revealing that the Trump administration apparently didn’t feel there would be any political price to pay for publicly chiding Pope Francis.

In all honesty, the kind of Catholic voter Trump is after probably doesn’t agree with Francis on China either, or a host of other things. For that reason, seeing his top diplomat go after the pope and the Vatican probably makes them more likely to vote for Trump, not less.

That’s a sadly predictable dynamic of the polarized situation we find ourselves in, but let the irony nevertheless not be lost: On the brink of an election in which polls show him trailing, and needing to run up the score with his religious base, an American president decides that rebuking the pope won’t hurt, and may help, with the “Catholic vote.”

In other words, welcome to the other side of the looking glass.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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