As the democratic world scrambles to devise adequate countermeasures to China’s increasing repression in Hong Kong and beyond, there is one currently disengaged actor that could play a productive role: the Vatican. In the past, under Pope John Paul II, the Holy See was uncompromising in defense of fundamental human rights. That approach is needed now — but would require an overdue recalibration of the Holy See’s recent policy toward China.
In recent times, Vatican diplomacy in China has begun from the premise that a smoother relationship on ecclesiastical issues will clear the path to what a generation of Vatican diplomats have sought: full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic. These diplomats imagine this will give the Vatican a place at the table where the great issues of world affairs are sorted out. The eagerness with which this putative grail has been pursued baffles many. The failed Vatican Ostpolitik in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1960s and 1970s succeeded only in disabling and demoralizing local Catholic communities, while the Vatican itself was deeply penetrated by communist intelligence services.