Secretary Pompeo Foments Conflict with the Holy See

On September 30, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was at the Holy See for its Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom through Diplomacy. There he delivered a speech entitled “Moral Witness and Religious Freedom” that provided great details about China’s abuses of religious freedom and called upon the Vatican (Pope Francis) to take action against the Chinese abuses. He thereby fomented conflict with the Holy See.

Pompeo’s Recent Speech [1]

Most of the first part of this speech appropriately concentrated on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the courageous resistance to the Nazi’s persecution of its Jewish citizens by Roman Catholic Father Bernhard Lichtenberg in  Berlin by his helping Jews with finances, advice and emigration assistance and by publicly  criticizing the Nazi regime after Kristallnacht.

“That life or death struggle [against the Nazis] was a crucible, a proving ground of moral witness.  Individual stories of valor were legion.  But I remember especially Father Bernhard Lichtenberg. . . .[He] was a priest in Berlin in the 1930s, who fervently resisted the Nazi regime, and helped Jews with finances, advice, emigration assistance as the Nazi fist tightened. In 1938, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, he began to speak up more loudly on their behalf, proclaiming at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, ‘Outside ‘the synagogue is burning, and that too, is a house of God.’ From then on, he fearlessly prayed each day publicly for the Jews and other victims of Nazi brutality.”

“Eventually, the Nazis arrested him in 1941. Rejecting a deal to go free in exchange [for] stopping his subversive peaching, he was given a two-year prison sentence.  When asked if he had anything to add when the sentence was read, he said, ‘I submit that no harm results to the state by citizens who pray for the Jews.’ Towards the end of his sentence, the Nazis realized they could never break his spirit.  They ordered him sent to Dachau concentration camp, but he died on the way before he reached that grim destination. Father Lichtenberg bore an incredible moral witness, and in 2004 he was honored by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a non-Jew who risked his life to save Jews from Nazis.”

“Today, as we think about that man, I urge all faith leaders to exhibit a similarly moral, bold witness for the sake of religious freedom, for human dignity, and for peace.(Emphasis added.)

Secretary Pompeo then shifted his remarks to say “the mission of defending human dignity – and religious freedom in particular – remains at the core of American foreign policy. That’s because it’s at the heart of the American experiment.  Our founders regarded religious freedom as an absolutely essential right of mankind and central to our founding.”

“Indeed, I would say it’s an integral part to what Pope John Paul II described as the ‘universal longing for freedom’ at the United Nations when he spoke in 1995.  Billions of people today . . . have always seeked to worship according to their conscience.”

But sadly, authoritarian regimes, terrorists, and even secularists, free societies are – in their different ways – trampling religious freedom all around the world. Vast swathes of humanity live in countries where religious freedom is restricted, from places like . . . Cuba, and beyond.” (Emphasis added.) Later in the speech he reiterated this contention: “Christian leaders have an obligation to speak up for their brothers and sisters in Iraq, in North Korea, and in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)[2]

Then he went into his excoriation of China.

“Nowhere, however – nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today. That’s because, as with all communist regimes, the Chinese Communist Party deems itself the ultimate moral authority. An increasingly repressive CCP, frightened by its own lack of democratic legitimacy, works day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom, on a horrifying scale.”

The Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang are “not the only victims.  The Chinese Communist Party has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more.”

“Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression: Catholic churches and shrines have been desecrated and destroyed. Catholic bishops like Augustine Cui Tai have been imprisoned, as have priests in Italy. And Catholic lay leaders in the human rights movement, not least in Hong Kong, have been arrested. Authorities order residents to replace pictures of Jesus with those of Chairman Mao and those of General Secretary Xi Jinping.”

“All of these believers are the heirs of those Pope John Paul celebrated in his speech to the UN, those who had ‘taken the risk of freedom, asking to be given a place in social, political, and economic life which is commensurate with their dignity as free human beings.’”

“We must support those demanding freedoms in our time, like Father Lichtenberg did.”

For the Church, “Earthly considerations shouldn’t discourage principled stances based on eternal truths.  And as history shows, Catholics have often deployed their principles in glorious, glorious service of human dignity.” These include Jacques Maritain,  the bishops of Poland and West Germany in the 1960s,  the bishops of Poland and West Germany, Pope John Paul II, who was unafraid, and Pope Emeritus Benedict. “And just like Pope Benedict, Pope Francis has spoken eloquently about the ‘human ecology’ essential to decent societies.” (Emphasis added.)

“Pope Francis has exhorted the Church to be ‘permanently in a state of mission.’  It’s a hope that resonates with this evangelical Protestant who believes, as the Holy Father does, that those of us given the gift of Christian faith have an obligation to do our best to bless others.” (Emphasis added.)

To be a Church ‘permanently in a state of mission’ has many meanings.  Surely, one of them is to be a Church permanently in defense of basic human rights. A Church permanently in opposition to tyrannical regimes. A Church permanently engaged in support of those who wish to take ‘the risk of freedom’ of which Pope John Paul II spoke, especially, most especially where religious freedom is denied, or limited, or even crushed.” (Emphasis added.)

“As Christians, we all know we live in a fallen world.  That means that those who have responsibility for the common good must sometimes deal with wicked men and indeed with wicked regimes.  But in doing so – in doing so, statesmen representing democracies must never lose sight of the moral truths and human dignity that make democracy itself possible.” (Emphasis added.)

So also should religious leaders.  Religious leaders should understand that being salt and light must often mean exercising a bold moral witness. And this call to witness extends to all faiths, not just to Christians and Catholics.  It’s for leaders of all faiths at – indeed, at every level.” (Emphasis added.)

I call on every faith leader to find the courage to confront religious persecution against their own communities, as well as Father Lichtenberg did against members of other faiths as well.” (Emphasis added.)

“Every man and woman of faith is called to exercise a moral witness against the persecution of believers.  Indeed – we’re here today to talk about religious freedom – the very future of religious freedom depends upon these acts of moral witness.”

Pope John Paul II bore witness to his flock’s suffering, and he challenged tyranny.  By doing so, he demonstrated how the Holy See can move our world in a more humane direction, like almost no other institution.” (Emphasis added.)

May the Church, and all those who know that we are ultimately accountable to God, be so bold in our time.  May we all be so bold in our time.” (Emphasis added.)

Pompeo’s Preceding Comments [3]

Just twelve days before his recent trip to the Holy See, Pompeo published an article in First Things, “a conservative Christian magazine that has called [Pope} Francis a failure as Pope.” https://www.firstthings.com/about

Entitled “China’s Catholics and the Church’s Moral Leadership,” Pompeo’s article vigorously attacked the 2018 agreement between the Holy See and China that recognized the validity of Chinese appointment of some of the Catholic bishops in the country and the current Holy See-China negotiations about renewal of that agreement. (Emphasis added.)

The next day, Pompeo issued the following tweet: “Two years ago, the Holy See reached an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party, hoping to help China’s Catholics. Yet the CCP’s abuse of the faithful has only gotten worse. The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to Pompeo’s Comments and Speech [4]

These Pompeo words were seen by an “indignant Vatican . . . as a calculated affront.” As a result, the Vatican denied Pompeo a requested meeting with Pope Francis. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who, as secretary of state, is the Vatican’s second-ranking official, told reporters that the Pope had not granted the meeting because Francis had “clearly said that he does not receive political figures ahead of the elections.”

Moreover, Pompeo’s subsequent speech at the Holy See can be seen as an indirect challenge to Pope Francis by Pompeo’s talking about the Chinese abuses at great length and the courage of previous popes and Father Lichtenberg, by calling on “every faith leader to find the courage to confront religious persecution against their own communities,” by his using Pope Francis’ own challenge to the Church to be “permanently in a state of mission” as a way to say Francis is not doing that and by Pompeo’s saying, “May the Church, and all those who know that we are ultimately accountable to God, be so bold in our time.”  

In addition,  Pompeo met with “prelates and others who are hostile to Pope Francis.” As a result of these developments, many observers believe “Pompeo’s [recent] visit is as much about the coming [U.S.] presidential election as about China policy. Mr. Pompeo dismissed that suggestion as absurd, but intended or not, his trip signals that President Trump is on the side of those conservative American Catholics who worry about the church’s direction under Francis and think he is soft on China.”

The New York Times also reports that the event at the Vatican where Pompeo gave his speech on September 30 was organized by Callista Gingrich, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and who received warm words from Pompeo at the start of his speech while she sat in the front row with her husband Newt Gingrich, the Republican former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.”

“Mr. Gingrich said that Mr. Pompeo’s piece in First Things has stirred support and ‘probably’ motivated Catholic voters who read it to vote for President Trump. ‘The reaction to his op-ed the other day was very strong.’ Mr. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism after his third marriage [to Calista] is a co-chair of Catholics for Trump [that] has attacked Mr. Biden over his ties to China and . . . supports Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, who has accused the pope of shielding child abusers and demanded that he step down.”

As he went to the podium for his Vatican speech, Pompeo “gave a pat on the shoulder to Cardinal Raymond Burke, a U.S. leader of the conservative opposition to Francis within the church hierarchy. Burke, who ruled out giving communion to John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, said he believed American voters ‘more and more so’ cared about the issues Mr. Pompeo raised. And when it came to China, he said ‘I know I do.’” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Leo_Burke)

“Thomas Williams, the Breitbart bureau chief in Rome and a consistent critic of Francis who attended the event, argued that there was a clear electoral angle to the nominally diplomatic trip. He said that while he believed Mr. Pompeo genuinely hoped to change the Vatican’s stance on China, any political benefit back home was ‘a welcome and I’m sure sought after side effect.’”

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University [and a supporter] of Francis, said these Pompeo actions are “an appeal to an electorate that is bigger than the Catholic vote, it’s also the evangelical vote. Being anti-pope helps with these Catholics but also evangelicals.”

“Alberto Melloni, the director of the Foundation for Religious Sciences John XXIII in Bologna, Italy, called Mr. Pompeo’s moves ‘a divisive operation targeted to the American electorate, not to the Holy See.’” Afterwards Pompeo, rejecting the suggestion that his speech was an attack on Pope Francis, said at a press conference, “I wrote that piece to honor the moral authority of the Catholic Church and its capacity to influence and make things better for people all across the world. They have historically stood with oppressed peoples all around the world. The piece was written and our policy has been all along to bring every actor who can benefit the people of China from — to take away the horrors of the authoritarian regime the Chinese Communist Party is inflicting on these people. That was our mission set, and it will remain our mission set. It’s been so long before the election; it will remain so after the election.”

This response was endorsed in a Wall Street Journal editorial with these words: “It is a welcome message from a U.S. Secretary of State, and the Vatican would do well to at least hear him out as it enters its latest negotiations with Beijing.”

All of this leaves this non-Catholic blogger from Minnesota bewildered. However, there should be more diplomatic ways to discuss and negotiate differences with the Holy See.

================================

[1] State Dep’t, Michael Pompeo Speech, Moral Witness and Religious Freedom (Sept. 30, 2020).

[2] In his 2019 speech at the Holy See, Pompeo said, “Because when the state rules absolutely, God becomes an absolute threat to authority.  That’s why Cuba cancelled National Catholic Youth Day back in August [of 2019].”  This statement was erroneous and misleading as discussed in a prior post. (Secretary of State Pompeo Delivers Speech at the Holy See, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 4, 2019).)  https://dwkcommentaries.com/2019/10/04/secretary-of-state-pompeo-delivers-speech-at-the-holy-see

[3] Pompeo, China’s Catholics and the Church’s Moral Witness, First Things (Sept. 18, 2020), https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/09/chinas-catholics-and-the-churchs-moral-witness; Pompeo, Tweet (Sept. 19, 2020), https://twitter.com/secpompeo/status/1307366983890018311?s=21.

[4] Horowitz & Jakes, Rebuffed by Vatican, Pompeo Assails China and Aligns With Pope’s Critics, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/world/europe/pompeo-pope-francis-china.html; Winfield, Pompeo urges Vatican to condemn human rights abuses in China, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2020), https://www.wsj.com/articles/pompeo-and-the-pope-11601507813?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=2; Morelio, Harlan & Shih, Pompeo and Vatican officials face off over negotiations with China, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2020), https://www.wsj.com/articles/pompeo-and-the-pope-11601507813?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=2; Winfield, Pompeo, Vatican talk China after tensions spill out publicly, Wash. Post (Oct. 1, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/pompeo-meets-with-vatican-after-us-china-tensions-spill-over/2020/10/01/1d9b1c16-03d4-11eb-b92e-029676f9ebec_story.html.

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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