On Sunday morning, journalists covering the Vatican beat got word from official Vatican communications channels, strongly suggesting Pope Francis would be using his remarks to the faithful at the Angelus to address the ongoing crisis in Hong Kong.
When he’d prayed the traditional noonday prayer of Marian devotion, however, mention of the troubled island city was conspicuous by its absence, and journalists were scrambling for an explanation. The omission is serious: either Pope Francis decided for some reason—on his own and at the very last minute—to skip the appeal, or someone convinced him not to pronounce on the situation in Hong Kong, where a security law mandated by Chinese authorities in Beijing went into effect last Tuesday.
The law punishes “secession, subversion and terrorism”—which critics say are codewords for speech critical of the government—with terms up to and including life imprisonment. The law came in the wake of a nearly 18-months’ agitation that began when Hong Kong’s security bureau proposed modifications to extradition laws that would allow suspected criminals to be taken to the Chinese mainland for trial.
That bill was eventually scrapped, but agitation continued. Protests were occasionally violent. There were attacks on persons and institutions. In late May, mainland authorities announced they would impose security legislation, which passed a week later and went into effect last week.
Beijing maintains that the law is necessary. Critics of the law say it violates the spirit, at least, of the 50-year “one country, two systems” arrangement that was part of the UK’s cession of the city to Chinese authorities in 1997. On Sunday, news reports said authorities had confiscated books from public libraries “for review” to see whether they conform to the new law. Pro-democracy advocates have resigned or stepped back from their leading roles.
It wasn’t just chatter in Vatican hallways that led the corps to expect remarks from Pope Francis, either. That would have been fairly easy to overlook. There was a draft text distributed to journalists under embargo. Word from inside the Vatican’s communications department is that Vatican News was set to publish its own report on the Angelus appeal for Hong Kong, separate from both the main Angelus writeup and their other separate report on the other appeal Pope Francis made on Sunday, backing a UN call for an immediate global ceasefire to allow governments to face the coronavirus emergency.
When the statement on Hong Kong didn’t come, it left journalists in a tight spot.
Technically, embargoed texts don’t exist until the Pope pronounces them. So, how does one report on something that didn’t happen? Pretending it was never going to happen was out of the question. The issue is too momentous to treat it as just another of the audibles that have become almost run-of-the-mill during this pontificate. A request the Catholic Herald sent to the Vatican’s press office for further information has gone so far without reply.
When it comes to the substance of what journalists were expecting, suffice it to say we were waiting for what would have been a pretty anodyne statement. Still, it was not nothing—and more than we’ve heard from Pope Francis on the crisis in Hong Kong. The only time he has spoken directly to the crisis was in response to a query from a journalist during the in-flight presser en route to Rome from Japan in November of last year.
Then, Pope Francis lumped the already long-running unrest in Hong Kong with several other tense situations and trouble-spots:
It is not only about Hong Kong. Think about Chile, think about France, the democratic France in the year of the yellow vests, think about other Latin American countries, like Brazil, that have similar problems, (think) also about some European country. It is a general issue. And what does the Holy See do? It calls for dialogue, for peace. It is not just Hong Kong. There are many countries with problems, and in this moment I am not able to assess them. I respect the peace and I call for peace in all of these countries with problems. There are also problems with Spain, problems like these—it is convenient to relativize the issues and call for the dialogue and the peace to solve the problems.
The trouble with that approach is that Hong Kong is not just any other trouble spot. If Beijing is willing to run roughshod over the “one nation, two systems” arrangement, then that speaks directly to the readiness of mainland Chinese authorities to honour whatever terms they’ve reached with the Vatican in the “provisional agreement” of September 2018. The fact of that deal was highly publicized, and its significance much touted by the Vatican. The terms of it, however, remain a closely guarded secret.
There are defensible reasons for accepting an imperfect deal, and there are defensible reasons for keeping the terms of an arrangement under wraps. An imperfect deal may well be better than none at all, especially if one’s goals are modest. Not publishing the terms means leeway for the parties to figure out how their arrangement works in practice, without having to call each other out publicly for violations. Right now, however, it is tough to say what the Vatican’s China policy is, hence almost impossible to understand this omission in light of it.
The critics of the Vatican’s deal with China say it puts the Vatican in a supine position: it gives away the store. A more cautious view of the business would have it that the Vatican’s objectives are not to usher in a golden age of religious liberty on the mainland, but to stave off full-fledged, Diocletian-level persecution of the Catholic Church by a 21st century surveillance state. The unexplained omission makes it harder to defend the deal, and measurably more difficult to defend the Vatican—as this journalist has done—against accusations they’ve bent the knee to Beijing.
The questions journalists have now, are: “What made Pope Francis not say the thing?” and “What does this tell us about both the Vatican’s China policy and who has the Pope’s ear in these and other regards?” Pope Francis’s silence on Hong Kong has long been the subject of speculation, as has the question regarding those from whom he is taking advice in these and other regards. This episode has pushed those questions to the fore. They are not likely to fade into the background over the course of a news cycle or two.