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While at a conference in Rome to honor previous Nobel Peace Prize winners, Jody Williams was dismayed to learn that Pope Francis had refused a meeting with her fellow Nobel laureate, the Dalai Lama—the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, a region which is now under Chinese domination.

 “His Holiness is a spiritual leader,” Williams said of Francis. “I hear unfortunate things that the spiritual leader of this capital is loathe to upset China. What does that say? Where is conviction?” “Where is morality,” she went on, “when the spiritual leader in Rome bows in one way or another” to a fiendish regime like the one in Beijing?

The Holy See struggled to defend its decision. A Vatican official, “who asked not to be identified,” said that the decision was “not taken out of fear but to avoid any suffering by those who have already suffered”—a reference to Catholics in China who are loyal to the pope.

No mention was made of Benedict XVI’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2006—when the situation for Catholics in China was just as grave—and not a word about the suffering of the Tibetan people under China’s Communist rule. Not surprisingly, many found the Vatican’s explanation unconvincing.

In fairness to the Holy See, this was not a decision without precedent. In 1951, China’s Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung cut ties with the Holy See, and ever since, a succession of popes have done what they could to maintain support for China’s beleaguered Catholics, now estimated to be 12 million. The problem is that half of these “Catholics” are members of the Communist-controlled “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association,” while the remaining believers belong to the underground Church, loyal to Rome.

China and the Vatican have long collided over China’s policy of appointing “patriotic” (i.e., Communist-compliant) bishops without the pope’s approval. But for years, numerous Vatican officials have believed that engaging in dialogue with China might lead to a resolution of the conflict, on terms acceptable to the Holy See. Others are far more skeptical, fearing that the Vatican is being used by the Communists, and that any such agreement would be quickly violated.

Controversy over papal diplomacy is as old as the Vatican itself. St. John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI were alternately praised and condemned for their efforts to negotiate with the Communist world, while St. John Paul II was and remains almost universally admired for his more confrontational—and highly successful—approach toward the Soviet Communist bloc. Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg address—which challenged Islamic extremism—has been both hailed for its intellectual courage and denounced for its religious insensitivity.

Nothing has provoked more controversy, however, than Vatican diplomacy toward Mussolini and Hitler. Both Pius XI and Pius XII strongly condemned the evils of racism and nationalism, and did much to help the persecuted under dictatorships; and yet both signed formal agreements, or Concordats, with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. They did so as a defense mechanism, against ruthless totalitarian states, in hopes of enabling Catholic leaders to uphold freedom and human dignity, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

But it didn’t always work out that way: Certain Catholics misread the Vatican’s strategy, and Catholic collaboration sometimes won out over Catholic resistance—even though the latter was impressive, and often took inspiration from the popes.

One of the most respected critics of the Vatican’s 1933 Concordat with Germany was Dietrich von Hildebrand, the great anti-Nazi Catholic philosopher, who wrote of it:

Many in the Vatican were against this Concordat. Even the Secretary of State Cardinal Pacelli [the future Pius XII] had many objections. But [German diplomat] Franz von Papen, known as a daily communicant . . . succeeded in convincing the Pope of the great advantages which this Concordat would bring the Church in Germany. . . .

“I personally regretted the Concordat for its psychological effect on the Catholics in Germany, and so did many others. But the Concordat did not contain any yielding to Nazism—and Germany at that time was still a military weak country. It was not yet the aggressive power that it became. . . . But as soon as Pope Pius XI saw that Hitler was not respecting the terms of the Concordat, and was trying to enslave the Church in Germany, he raised his voice in the magnificent encyclical Mit brennender Sorge. He did not speak in a conciliatory spirit, but he condemned with holy authority, like a St. Gregory VII.

Von Hildebrand reminds us that there is a fine line between prudence and moral appeasement, and that the Holy See is not immune to the latter. Francis, a pope who has admirably urged Christians to take risks and to boldly bear witness to the truth, should have found a way to meet with the Dalia Lama—even if that meant overruling his overly-cautious advisors.

Francis still has a chance to rebound, just as the wartime Church did after the initial confusion of the Concordat.  He can announce a future meeting with the Dalai Lama—regardless of any intimidation from Beijing—and follow that up by visiting Cuba, using both occasions to powerfully confront the evils of totalitarianism. That would prove that Vatican diplomacy can be more than just signing questionable documents, and can be consistent with the elevated moral teachings of the Church.   

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XIIHis previous articles can be found here.

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