One of the biggest misinterpretations of Pope Francis is the assumption that he doesn’t carefully consider his actions, as opposed to his often careless, occasionally confused, language. Case in point:
China-watchers, friends of Tibet, and admirers of Pope Francis were amazed and disappointed last week when the Pope announced he would not be meeting the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan leader’s visit to Rome. The Dalai Lama was there with other winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, who—ironically—had gathered in Rome after a planned meeting in South Africa did not take place because Pretoria refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa. In the end, the pope declined to meet with any of the Laureates. In view of Francis’s extraordinary reputation for open-mindedness, how could this be?
The Dalai Lama has a long history of meeting with the head of the Catholic Church. He met with John Paul II on a number of different occasions and with Benedict XVI once, in a private meeting in 2006. But this time, the Vatican explained, there could be no such encounter because of the “delicate situation,” and because, the Dalai Lama was told, “it could cause problems.” It was plain that the statement referred to relations between the Holy See and Beijing. A spokesman for the Dalai Lama said he was “disappointed at not being able to call on His Holiness the Pope but he does not want to cause any inconvenience.”
Over the last few years, a growing number of world leaders, under pressure from China, have spurned or downgraded meetings with the Dalai Lama. In 2010, President Barack Obama received the Dalai Lama in the White House Map Room, making clear that he was meeting him not as a political leader but as a religious one—which the Dalai had already proclaimed was now his only role. That meeting, which ended with the Dalai Lama leaving the White House through a back entrance past a row of garbage cans, nevertheless infuriated the Chinese government, which condemned the White House for interfering in China’s internal affairs. In May 2012, after Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg met the Dalai Lama discreetly and briefly in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Chinese foreign Ministry stated:
We ask the British side to take the Chinese side’s solemn stance seriously, stop indulging and supporting “Tibet independence” anti-China forces, immediately take effective measures to undo the adverse effect, and take concrete action to safeguard the overall development of China-UK relations.
China’s reaction alarmed Cameron, who was planning a visit to Beijing with British business leaders, and the following year the trip took place only after officials in the Cameron government made clear that he had no plans for future meetings with the Dalai Lama.
What happened in Rome is wholly different. Unlike the US, Britain, Norway, and South Africa, among other countries, the Vatican has no economic ties with Beijing, nor does it hold security discussions with the Chinese. It is also usual for the Pope to meet the leaders of other world faiths on purely religious grounds.
What is plain is Francis’s anguish over the fate of the estimated twelve million Chinese who are Catholic and the more than three thousand Catholic priests active in China. About half of China’s Catholics are connected to one of the churches under the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which means their bishops are appointed by employees of CPCA, which was created by the Religious Affairs Bureau of the People’s Republic; the other half are unofficial “House Christians,” who recognize the pope as their leader. Along with China’s Protestants, both groups have at best uneasy relations with the Communist leadership. Earlier this year, Catholic and Protestant churches in some regions of China were designated as “illegal structures” and demolished; in other cases in recent months, Christian religious symbols, such as crosses, have sometimes been forcibly removed.
Go here to read the rest. Popes have often been cautious when facing adversaries who can harm Catholics. It is a fine line between not unnecessarily antagonizing dangerous enemies, and being pusillanimous. PopeWatch would give the Pope the benefit of the doubt in this case. Supporters and critics of this Pope would do well to remember this incident. Pope Francis would seem to be far away indeed from considerations of Realpolitik, but even Metternich would be appreciative of the Pope’s pragmatism shown in this incident. Yes, this is definitely something to recall when analyzing what the Pope does, as opposed to what the Pope says.