Vatican: The Art of Stroking the Red Dragon Across the Scales

October 18, 2021

The meeting organized between Pope Francis and 22 leading religious leaders, who came to Rome to discuss ecology a few days before the opening of COP26, once again demonstrated how much the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China remains at the heart of the present pontificate.

Tienzin Gyatzo, the 14th Dalai Lama, was not among the 22 religious leaders gathered at the invitation of the host of St. Martha’s house to talk about ecology, a few days before the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12.

The news might seem anecdotal, but it reveals the mysteries of Vatican diplomacy. The newspaper Il Messagero of October 4 is not mistaken, publishing an article with the evocative title: “Pope’s new slap in the face of the Dalai Lama, rejected at the interfaith summit on the climate.”

Franca Giansoldati is surprised: “Although Tienzin Gyatzo is considered the most committed religious leader in the world for the protection of nature and the environment… he was missing, although a second-rate representative order of the great Buddhist family was present in the person of Shoten Minegisi.”

Since his arrival on the throne of Peter, the Argentinian pontiff has meticulously tried to avoid any contact with the Tibetan religious, indefinitely postponing the various requests for an audience from Dharamasala, India, where he lives in exile.

This attitude contrasts sharply with that of Benedict XVI, and even more with that of John Paul II, who had met Tienzin Gyatso eight times during his pontificate.

One of the secretaries of the Dalai Lama revealed the reason during an interview granted to La Repubblica a few years ago: “Pope Francis refuses to receive our leader, because he is negotiating with Beijing for the recognition of the bishops appointed by Rome in China.”

The Dalai Lama's absence in Rome on October 4 has sparked enough turmoil that Vatican diplomats have had to work to ease the tensions.

Asked by Reuters, Archbishop Richard Paul Gallagher, in charge of relations with states, replied that “His Holiness the Dalai Lama knows how much he is respected here by the Holy See, but he also takes into account that our relations (with China) are complicated and difficult and he always respected (this situation).”

And the Archbishop added: “This is something that we appreciate very much and therefore the dialogue continues with Buddhism on many levels.”

The anecdote has the merit of showing the importance of the issue, in the present pontificate, of the relationship between the Holy See and the Middle Kingdom.

This is also the case for the Uighur Muslim minority and Tibetan Buddhists: It is so true that the paradigms of religious freedom and conciliar ecumenism know how to make a clear place before reasons of State—even when you are the pope of ecology and migrants.