The Vatican has accused the US of trying to exploit the image of the Pope, and said it is “surprised” at US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attacks on its agreement with China.

– Vatican Secretary for Relations with States ignores diplomatic protocol to show displeasure with US

Asked by journalists Wednesday morning whether the US was attempting to use the Pope for political ends in the context of Pompeo’s participation in a forum on religious freedom organised by the US Embassy to the Holy See in Rome today, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher said: “Yes, and this is precisely one of the reasons why the Pope will not meet with [Pompeo]”.

Pompeo’s visit to Rome – in the course of a trip to Europe more broadly – comes at a difficult time for the US, in the midst of widespread social upheaval and just one month out from presidential elections.

The Secretary of State may have hoped to meet with Francis to bolster President Donald Trump’s chances of re-election, and also to lobby the pontiff against a renewal of the 2018 Vatican provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops.

However, the Holy See shut down any chance of the Pope granting an audience to Pompeo, concerned that a meeting between the two could be interpreted as a violation of strict papal political neutrality.

Archbishop Gallagher today went a step further than that diplomatic Vatican ‘no’ to the Secretary of State, manifesting the Holy See’s displeasure with the US’ aggressive foreign policy.

– Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin: Pompeo’s attacks “a surprise” because talks in Rome on China were “already planned”

In a September 19 article in the ultra-conservative magazine First Things, Pompeo blasted the Vatican-China agreement, and in a subsequent tweet warned that the Holy See “endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal”.

Along with Archbishop Gallagher, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin also referred this morning to Pompeo’s belligerence, and said of the Vatican’s reaction that “I would not say irritation.. [but] surprise yes”.

“We did not expect” such direct criticism from the US Secretary of State “even though we have known well for a long time the position of Trump and Secretary Pompeo in particular”, Parolin explained.

The cardinal reiterated that Pompeo’s article in First Things was a “surprise”.

“Because a visit to Rome was already planned in which Pompeo would meet with the Holy See’s leaders, and that seemed to us the most advisable and appropriate place to talk about these things and we will: we will meet tomorrow and there will be an opportunity to discuss these issues”, Parolin said, referring to the meeting scheduled Thursday between the cardinal, Pompeo and Gallagher.

Parolin confirmed that Pompeo “had asked to see the Pope, but the Pope had made it clear that audiences are not granted to political figures in the election campaign”.

– Despite Pompeo’s pressure, Vatican set to renew non-political, “genuinely pastoral” agreement

In the forum on religious freedom in Rome today, Pompeo again warned that “nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China”.

Gallagher and Parolin were in the audience for the US Secretary of State’s remarks, but in their own speeches did not mention China.

Despite Pompeo’s best efforts, the Vatican looks set to renew its agreement with Beijing, the terms of which are secret but which allow for the Pope to confirm names of potential bishops proposed by the Chinese government in association with the government-run “Patriotic Catholic Association”.

Quoted by Vatican News, Cardinal Parolin said with regard to the agreement that “it seems to me that a direction has been marked out that is worth continuing; then we will see”.

Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli also explained that the goal of the provisional agreement with Beijing “has never been merely diplomatic, much less, political”, but instead “was always genuinely pastoral”.

“Its objective is to permit the Catholic faithful to have bishops in full communion with the Successor of Peter who are at the same time recognized by the authorities of the People’s Republic of China”, Tornielli clarified.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.