Pope Francis is refusing to call China “undemocratic,” in what appears to be the latest controversial attempt by the Holy See to build diplomatic bridges with China’s authoritarian communist regime.
The perplexing comments, reported by Breitbart, came as the pope was returning from a trip to China’s neighbor Kazakhstan during which he sought an audience with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping.
The Chinese said Xi was too busy to make time for the pope, Reuters reported, while the two world leaders were both in Kazakhstan’s capital on Wednesday. That rejection did not stop Francis from speaking in flattering tones of Xi’s regime.
“I cannot get on board with calling China undemocratic; I won’t do that because it’s such a complex country,” the pope told reporters. “Sure, there are things that seem undemocratic to us, that is true.”
The pope emphasized the need for “dialogue” and said he would not put a label on a country that he said “takes a century” to understand. In turn, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs praised the pope’s “benevolence and cordiality.”
Francis has taken extraordinary measures to thaw relations with China that have attracted criticism. His critics include Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, who was arrested in May by Chinese authorities. The pope was evasive when asked about Zen’s show trial, which starts Monday.
“Cardinal Zen will go to trial these days, I think,” he said. “And he says what he feels and you can see that there are some limitations there.”
The pope’s comments will likely fuel accusations that his diplomatic outreach is a betrayal of Chinese Catholics, who have long faced state repression.
Francis has said he supports the renewal of a secretive 2018 agreement allowing China’s state-controlled Catholic authority to appoint bishops, saying it is “going well.”
“Diplomacy is the art of the possible and making what is possible become a reality,” he said.
In 2021, China issued new administrative guidelines that made no mention of the Vatican’s authority in appointing bishops.
The Holy See is also considering moving its “study mission” from Hong Kong to Beijing, although it has no plans to relocate its embassy from Taiwan’s capital Taipei, Catholic News Agency reported. Francis said last week that he is “always ready to go to China.”