Last week, Pope Francis hosted a Vatican summit on global warming where one of his cardinals called for a “full conversion of hearts and minds” to the fight against the “almost unfathomable” effects of fossil fuels on the environment. The pope will soon issue an encyclical on the subject, which—according to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon—will “convey to the world that protecting our environment is an urgent moral imperative and a sacred duty for all people of faith and people of conscience.”
This came shortly after the pope’s seeming endorsement of the proto-Iran deal, saying, “In hope we entrust to the merciful Lord the framework recently agreed to in Lausanne, that it may be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”
Late last year, President Obama thanked Pope Francis for his role in the Castro-lifeline Cuba deal; according to a “senior administration official” quoted in Time, “Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro . . . encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer friendship.”
Each of these forays (and others) into pontifical progressivism has disappointed conservatives, many of whom have been Francis enthusiasts. Each has gotten ample media attention. Another worrying papal maneuver, however, was mostly overlooked.
Last December, not long after the Cuba deal, the pope declined to meet with the Dalai Lama. Tibet’s spiritual leader-in-exile was visiting Rome and had requested an audience; the papal spokesman said the request was denied in light of the “delicate situation” of the Vatican’s relationship with China and China’s with Tibet.
Needless to say, no one will blame the pope for hoping to build influence with Communist China, whose rulers are world leaders in oppressing Christians. However, his efforts to curry favor with Beijing have, so far, failed: Over the last year, the situation for China’s Christians has grown dramatically worse. In 2013, according to the Texas-based China Aid Association, about 7,500 Chinese Christians were persecuted for their religious beliefs. In 2014, that number spiked to nearly 18,000. During 2014, 400 churches in the province of Zhejiang—just south of Shanghai—were defaced; some 35 were demolished. Perhaps the pope’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama was a response to this Kristallnachtian campaign. If so, it hasn’t worked. This month, two new Zhejiang churches were defaced, by order of Chinese authorities.
Separate from the issue of Chinese Christians, of course, is the issue of Tibet, whose people are on their last legs. Tibetan Buddhists may not be the pope’s constituency, but surely his remit includes defending downtrodden masses of every religion. And the Tibetans are about as downtrodden as you can get.
Pope John Paul II met with the Dalai Lama in 1980, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1996, and 1999, as did his successor, Benedict XVI, in 2006. In deference to the Chinese Christian situation, John Paul II was discreet on the subject of Tibetan independence—but he never kowtowed to the Communists. The Vatican has consistently refused to de-recognize Taiwan, as Beijing demands.
After rallying Catholics during his 1979 visit to Warsaw—John Paul II wrote a letter to Brezhnev, in 1980, that persuaded the Soviet dictator to stand down 20 Soviet divisions poised to invade Poland. Ultimately, John Paul II’s steel-spined approach to communism contributed to the liberation of all the Soviet bloc’s Christians, without a shot being fired. Sic semper tyrannis. History tells us appeasement would have had the opposite effect.
John Paul II was one of the great men of the 20th century. Certainly, Pope Francis is a good man, with good intentions. As Soviet Christians and the Soviet Union were defining issues of the tenure of John Paul II, the papacy of Francis may in part be defined by the plight of Chinese Christians, and everyone else under Communist China’s thumb. Or at least it ought to be. The Vicar of Christ has an awesome responsibility as a moral leader of Catholics and non-Catholics all over the world. Just as we hope American and European leaders remember the lessons of Reagan and Thatcher, we will have to hope Francis takes a page from his troublesome-priest predecessor.
Write your bishop.