"We know that the Pope does not receive politicians while electoral campaigns are ongoing," said Cardinal Parolin.
Before his European tour, Pompeo wrote an article for the US magazine First Things. In the article, the US secretary of State strongly criticized the Holy See confidential agreement with China for bishops' appointments. That piece and Pompeo’s speech at the Symposium set the tone of the Oct. 1 bilateral.
Pompeo maintained that if the Pope renewed the agreement, ignoring Beijing violations of religious freedom, he would jeopardize his moral authority.
The Vatican did not receive this criticism very well. The Vatican Secretariat of State is well aware of the trouble with the China agreement, so any criticism is welcome. However, questioning the Pope's moral authority seemed too much. Some of the bitterness of the early Vatican reactions owed itself to that.
The bitterness became a sort of clash at the Sep. 30 Symposium. In his speech, Pompeo emphasized his political vision. In his view, a Church permanently in a state of a mission should be a Church "permanently in defense of basic human rights" and "permanently in opposition to tyrannical regimes."
If Pompeo reiterated and clarified his position, the Holy See did as well. In his own intervention, Archbishop Gallagher said: "It should come as no surprise that the protection and promotion of religious liberty is one of the main ‘political priorities’ of the Holy See."
Archbishop Gallagher further noted that "the Holy See has been assiduously and constantly attentive to abuses to religious liberty, whether on the level of authoritarian/dictatorial State or non-State actors, most vividly witnessed in those instances where there are physical persecution and even murder of 'religious minorities,' or whether through the ever more common tendency, especially found in the West, which promotes ideologies and even national legislation that conflicts with the exercise of religious liberty."
He then added that "attacks against religious liberty are not only coming in the form of physical persecution but ever more through ideological trends and 'silencing,' through what has often been called "political correctness", which are taking ever larger liberties in the name of 'tolerance' and 'non-discrimination'."
The Vatican foreign minister also referred to the promotion of so-called ‘new rights’, among them sexual, reproductive, and gender-based rights, often attached to agendae that attack religious freedom.
So, Archbishop Gallagher, on the one hand, addressed the criticism to the Holy See, without mentioning specific cases like China. "The Holy See never does that," Archbishop Gallagher later explained to journalists.
On the other hand, Archbishop Gallagher focused on a broader view: he blamed the push for new rights, positioning the Holy See on the same page as the US. For example, President Trump made of the life issues one of the main points of his presidency and was also the first president to address a speech at the annual March for Life.
If Archbishop Gallagher broke the ice, Cardinal Parolin closed the conversation.
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In his remarks, Cardinal Parolin said that there is a negative and a positive approach in defending religious freedom. The negative approach, he said, "states simply that there should be no coercion in the practice of religion." On the other hand, the positive approach works to transform and correct the rationale behind the oppression of the faithful. This rationale consists in the radical autonomy of contemporary man. The Church combats this by showing people "the ultimate truth of their existence."
This way, Cardinal Parolin moved a mild criticism to the US approach, and at the same time made it clear that the Holy See not only is aware of the numerous violations of religious freedom, but also – in its own way – is on the front line in the fight to roll them back.
In a declaration informally delivered outside the official bulletin, the director of the Holy See Press Office stressed that "the parties presented their respective positions on the relations with the People's Republic of China, in a relaxed and cordial climate of respect." The meeting, the declaration went on, also zeroed in "on some conflict and crisis areas, particularly the Caucasian area, the Middle East and the East Mediterranean. The meeting lasted some 45 minutes."
Generally, the Holy See does not provide information about the bilateral meetings.
That a communication on the bilateral came out shows the Holy See considered the meeting relevant. Also, the Holy See aimed at smoothing any tension.
In the end, diplomacy is also a play, and all the actors involved have lines of dialogue to deliver, the script of which is determined broadly by national interest more or less informed by moral commitment. The Holy See has no particular interests. Its international agenda is the common good. This is the reason why the Holy See's diplomacy is so peculiar.