That papal diplomacy under Pope Francis has two speeds became evident once more when news broke of the arrival of the bishop of Shanghai, Joseph Shen Bin, in Rome. The bishop is in town to participate in an event to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Plenary Council of Chinese Catholics in Shanghai in 1924.

However, Shen Bin is not just any bishop.

His effectively unilateral appointment to Shanghai by the Chinese government  was a symbolic slap in the face for the Holy See, and an eloquent expression of Beijing’s take on the controversial Sino-Vatican agreement that is supposed to create a power-sharing framework for the appointment of bishops.

At the height of a series of tensions, also because Pope Francis had given a wide opening of credit to the Mongolian Buddhists linked to the Dalai Lama and Tibet, the Chinese authorities decided they could make a move: Appoint a bishop already ordained with the double approval of Rome and Beijing, to a high-profile diocese like Shanghai, where one bishop – Thaddeus Ma Daqin, had already been appointed. Ma Daquin, however, had remained under house arrest from that moment, punished by the authorities Chinese for leaving the ranks of the Patriotic Association.

After a few months of reflection, Pope Francis decided to “remedy” the nomination of Shen Bin as bishop of Shanghai and proceeded with the nomination. There is no news on a change of assignment for Ma Daqin, who remains under house arrest. Practically, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, had wanted to explain the Pope’s choice with an interview, highlighting how the Beijing government had gone beyond the spirit of the agreement.

Since then, the relationship with Beijing has relaxed somewhat, and the Sino-Vatican agreement has led to the appointment of three new bishops this year. However, Pope Francis simply decided to act as if nothing had happened—a decision appreciated by the Beijing authorities.

Calling Bishop Shen Bin to Rome then creates a precedent.

Although Shen Bin’s nomination was illicit and only subsequently remediated by the Pope, the Holy See decided to give the “new” Bishop of Shanghai  a major platform in the Vatican.  Shen Bin also happens to be the vice president of the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. In recent months, Shen Bin has repeatedly spoken of the loyalty of Chinese Catholics to the principles of China, supporting the government’s sinicization program. Now, his presence in the Vatican indirectly tells the Chinese government that the Holy See supports the Chinese government, even when it makes choices that may prove controversial.

But Shen Bin’s presence in Rome will have two other symbolic risks.

The first is that the conference is held on May 21st – three days before the annual pilgrimage of Chinese Catholics to the Madonna of Sheshan, celebrated on the day of Mary Help of Christians – and the May 24th Day of prayer for Christians in China, established by Benedict XVI in his letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007.

The second curious coincidence of timing is that it is rumored – but nothing is officially confirmed – that at the end of May, there will be a meeting in Rome between a Chinese and Vatican delegations to provide an update on the results of the Sino-Vatican agreement.

It would be the first time that a meeting of this kind takes place in Rome – the  Vatican delegation’s trip to China traditionally takes place between September and October – and could be the first step towards the establishment of a joint table, a bit like the one on Vietnam, which can help China and the Holy See to dialogue and take steps towards mutual diplomatic recognition.

It is here that the two speeds of Pope Francis’s diplomacy can be seen.

On the one hand, pontifical diplomacy always opens the door to strengthening diplomatic relations, the best way to defend Catholics who are in a country. It is no coincidence that Vatican diplomats, led by Cardinal Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, have always supported the need for an agreement on appointing bishops. The deal is, after all, part of the Vatican diplomatic tradition. There was a similar one with Hungary in 1956, and there is another little publicized one with Vietnam discussed in the mid-1990s.

The principle quietly at work in all such arrangements is that it is good to make deals,  especially with people you don’t trust.

Then, however, there is the application of the agreement’s principles. The Holy See’s diplomacy works on principles, issues formal protests, and tries to modify agreements so that there are no misunderstandings and everything fits into the complex architecture that supports the Church and legitimizes the work of the bishops.

Shen Bin’s appointment deserved a formal protest, not a  “remedial” ex post facto ratification by the Pope. After all, the Secretariat of State issued a rather harsh statement when China appointed an auxiliary bishop of a diocese established by them according to a distribution that does not reflect the Vatican.

Pope Francis, however, implements a more fluid diplomacy in which he counts the person and the objective rather than the principles. Sanitizing the appointment of Shen Bin was an act that, in Pope Francis’s intentions, should facilitate the relations and work of the bishops in China. Inviting Shen Bin means enhancing the dialogue between China and the Vatican, hoping this will lead to an opening.

In the face of such open credit, China is very open towards Pope Francis.

When in history will you find a Pope who is more open to considering Beijing’s actions benevolently, even when this creates a wound in the relationship between China and the Vatican? When, in history, could there again be a Pope so eager to become the first Pope to touch Chinese soil?

Thus, Pope Francis’s personal initiatives cancel the realpolitik of the Secretariat of State, which in some cases has bordered on Ostpolitik 2.0.

This has happened in China and on many other occasions. Pope Francis speaks and makes decisions without consultation, aiming for the goal and perhaps secretly convinced that diplomacy is like theology for ecumenism: a sort of obstacle. This attitude of the Pope can be greatly exalted. Pope Francis pursues his aim and does not look at geopolitical balances; he even included China in Cardinal Zuppi’s tour to find a solution to the Ukrainian crisis – a solution that has become instead a mere mechanism for the return home of Ukrainian children who are in Russia.

In the long term, two-speed diplomacy risks obtaining immediate objectives and creating dangerous precedents for the future.

As always in the Holy See, everything is oriented towards supporting the Pope and his ideas. But, as more and more often in these times, orientation requires a tricky balance, with the intention of not disputing the Pope’s words and at the same time not going back on some principles.

On June 21, Cardinal Pietro Parolin will present a book of unpublished works by Cardinal Celso Costantini, the promoter of the Great Plenary Council of China. His cause for beatification is underway. With this presence, Cardinal Parolin will want to try to balance the imbalance of the Holy See in favor of the Chinese side, hoping it won’t be too late.



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