Vatican: An All-Encompassing Diplomatic Ballet

Source: FSSPX News

Li Hui and Cardinal Matteo Zuppi

Is it a success of papal diplomacy to be credited to a papabile in the race for the succession of Pope Francis, or approval given to Beijing in its policy of Sinicization of religions in the wake of an opening towards Moscow? If the analyses differ, one thing is certain: the Holy See’s diplomatic activity has reached a degree of rare intensity in this month of September 2023.

When it comes to diplomacy, the metaphor of the glass half full or half empty remains a valid means of interpretation. It is thus possible to interpret Cardinal Matteo Zuppi’s visit to China, on September 14, 2023, as a notable step forward by the Holy See in order to achieve the return of displaced Ukrainian children, and beyond that a cessation of hostilities between the Ukraine and Russia.

Without harboring any illusions: “Work for a just peace without imagining obtaining results before spring. The Pope's envoy did not take a pre-established plan with him to Beijing, but instead chose to weave the web of multilateralism.” This summary from La Repubblica is a faithful echo of what the Vatican wants us to remember about the Pope's envoy’s mission.

In this scenario, the president of the Italian Bishops' Conference had “a frank discussion with Li Hui, Xi Jinping's man in charge of the file (relations with Eurasia),” commented Cardinal Zuppi.

A sort of marriage of convenience between the Holy See and the Middle Kingdom: Beijing would feel “flattered,” would have “an interest in projecting the image of a responsible country bringing peace in order to reduce the growing rift between the East and the West,” and “would not be afraid to maintain contact with the Church, particularly on humanitarian issues.”

A Chinese approach which would fit into the views of the peace offensive desired by Francis, and which seems to have a positive echo on Moscow’s side, since the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs announced that the Vatican envoy was this time welcome to the banks of the Moskva.

A good sign, we want to believe on the part of St. Martha’s House and the Sant'Egidio community which is particularly involved in Cardinal Zuppi’s mission, and which hopes to reap the dividends at the right time, in particular in the event of a conclave.

But alongside a scenario which takes on the aspects of a success story, another story can be inserted: as Francesco Sisci, expert in Sino-Vatican relations, notes, “(Msgr.) Zuppi is neither the first nor the last cardinal to visit China. There were the missions by Cardinals Etchegaray, Ravasi, and Msgr. McCarthy... It is nevertheless an interesting trip because China recognizes that the Vatican plays a political and diplomatic role regarding the war in Ukraine.”

From this perspective, China is using the Holy See and its special envoy: “the Vatican is doing Beijing a favor here. The Holy See gives a certain weight to China, while Russia is not convinced of China having a determining role in restoring peace in Ukraine,” analyzes Sisci.

More worrying, Zuppi's China stopover probably chose to overlook the really vexing issues, notably the dramatic situation Chinese Catholics are currently experiencing and the repeated snags in the provisional Sino-Vatican agreement, so many issues exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Secretariat of State and its head, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

A high prelate himself occupied with Middle Eastern affairs since the time when Cardinal Zuppi was in Beijing, the Secretary of State was actively working to resolve the political impasse in which Lebanon has been entangled for many, long months.

There has been no official comment on Cardinal Zuppi's visit coming out of China. Government spokesperson Mao Ning has confined himself to asserting that the Chinese executive was “ready to work with all parties and continue to play a constructive role in promoting de-escalation and calming the situation.”

A form of satisfaction for the master of Beijing who can, in the meantime, calmly bring into line the Chinese clergy and Catholics who are reluctant to embrace the inculturation of the faith through the principles of the Little Red Book.