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Russian President Vladimir Putin on his visit to Vatican in July 2019.Fabio Frustaci/The Associated Press

Michael W. Higgins is a Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto and a senior fellow at Massey College.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once observed of the papacy that it is not much more than “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” It has already survived that empire by centuries and will for many more because it negotiates with the larger powers in the interests of its constituents and mission. That skill of surviving, even flourishing, sometimes comes at a great cost. The Vatican’s current approach to Beijing and to Moscow provides a stark illustration of the limitations of diplomacy when it threatens to compromise mission.

Although Stalin’s derisive query “How many divisions does the pope have?” underscores the practical limitations of the papacy’s political power (platoons of Swiss Guards coursing up the Moskva River are not imminent), the soft power exercised by the Vatican is considerable.

The “holy alliance” composed of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, and the papacy’s John Paul II was undoubtedly critical in facilitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Other recent events showcasing the efficacious professionalism of Vatican politics include Pope Francis’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings resulting in the Barack Obama-Raul Castro rapprochement. Unfortunately, although Pope Francis had done his work effectively, that critical breakthrough normalizing American and Cuban relations fell apart under Mr. Obama’s successor. Still, there was the opening, and it is for such openings that Francis and his team of seasoned political churchmen – Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary of Relations with States, Paul Gallagher – have diligently applied the formidable expertise and resources of the Vatican’s diplomatic machinery.

But with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, Francis’s stalwart commitment to dialogue under any circumstances may be doomed. In fact, the Vatican’s perceived failure to pass harsh judgment on totalitarian regimes gathered greater momentum recently when Italophile, novelist and professor Tim Parks observed, of the silence of Pope Pius XII regarding the Jews during the Nazis’ “thousand-year reich,” that his record is likely to continue to be a fight between his defenders and critics “especially in light of the present pope’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Mr. Parks’s judgment is unfair, even reckless. There is no parallel between Pope Pius and Pope Francis, given the striking dissimilarity of their historical contexts.

Still, Mr. Parks is dead right in seeing the dangers inherent in a false moral equivalence. Calling for dialogue with a ruthless aggressor like Russia may appear to ensure papal neutrality in a time of catastrophic belligerence, but for Ukraine, the invaded nation experiencing thousands upon thousands of deaths, dialogue is an illusion, and the Vatican will pay a steep price as a consequence. Francis, however, persists in seeing the papacy as a counterweight to the rabid and holy patriotism of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who shares Mr. Putin’s abhorrence of the political and cultural West.

Ukrainian Catholics are, by contrast, offended by the Pope’s peacemaking initiatives and understandably puzzled by the Vatican’s overtures to the Kremlin to serve as a mediating force for peace. But from Francis’s perspective, dialogue is the only way forward to avoid greater carnage because the demonizing of adversaries is counterproductive. Only out of dialogue comes encounter, and then mutual understanding.

If Francis has got it wrong on the Ukraine-Russia question, his position on China has been an equally anguished puzzler for many of his supporters. Francis’s determination to build bridges with China has been a constant during his pontificate. The Holy See signed an agreement with the People’s Republic of China in 2018, which was renewed in 2020 and then most recently in October of this year. The agreement assures the Vatican the right to nominate its own bishops and allows it to merge the two discrete Catholic churches hitherto operating in China: one loyal to Rome and underground, and the other compliant with Beijing. In return, China has some say in the appointment of bishops but insists on the Sinicization of religion, guaranteeing that Catholicism consequently will have a Chinese face.

The chancellor of Oxford University, Christopher Patten, was the final governor of Hong Kong and he negotiated with great skill in 1997 its transfer of power from Britain to mainland China. Lord Patten is a veteran in political matters and a committed Catholic of progressive persuasion who has served Francis as a communications adviser, but he has taken a very public stance against what he calls the Pope’s policy of appeasement with Beijing. Lord Patten told the BBC that “when the Pope said, you know, you have to take a long-term view in China, well, that’s a cop-out frankly. When things are wicked, when things which are done are wicked, we should call them out as wicked.” Lord Patten said that the Vatican’s decision to negotiate with China, when atrocities have been committed against Chinese Christians, the human rights of Muslim Uyghurs viciously suppressed and Hong Kongers hung out to dry, is delusional at best and, “to be blunt, unsavoury.”

Pope Francis knows that realpolitik has its value. But in the end, he is the successor of Peter and not Henry Kissinger on the Tiber. Pope Francis and his church statesmen might want to recalibrate their political priorities.

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