ROME — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently published a sharp letter excoriating the Vatican’s plans to renew an agreement with the Chinese government on Church operations in China. He promoted the article in a tweet, concluding, “The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal.”
An indignant Vatican took the article more as a calculated affront than a diplomatic gesture. The friction broke into the open on Wednesday as Mr. Pompeo arrived in Rome and met with prelates and others who are hostile to Pope Francis, while the Vatican denied him a meeting with the pontiff and rebuffed his efforts to derail the deal with China.
“Pompeo asked to meet” the pope, who turned him down because Francis had “clearly said that he does not receive political figures ahead of the elections,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who, as secretary of state, is the Vatican’s second-ranking official, told reporters.
But to some observers on both sides of the tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the Trump administration, Mr. Pompeo’s visit is as much about the coming presidential election as about China policy. Mr. Pompeo dismissed that suggestion as absurd, but intended or not, his trip signals that President Trump is on the side of those conservative American Catholics who worry about the church’s direction under Francis and think he is soft on China.
Francis and Mr. Trump, who have exchanged sharp words in the past, present starkly different visions on issues ranging from the environment to immigration to the threat of populism. In appealing to the Vatican’s support for religious freedom as a reason to drop its China agreement, Mr. Pompeo seemed to seek common ground, but in a way that upset the pope’s chief allies and delighted his chief critics.
Cardinal Parolin said Mr. Pompeo’s article had caused “surprise” at the Vatican, because this visit to Rome by the secretary and the meetings with high officials at the Holy See had already been in the works and would have been a “more opportune” forum for airing grievances. He added that Mr. Pompeo’s choice to publish in First Things, a conservative Christian magazine that has called Francis a failure as Pope, also mattered.
“We know that the interpretation doesn’t only come from the text, but also from the context,” he said. “The venue,” he added, “already says something about the intention of those who wrote this article.”
Mr. Pompeo declined to respond to the remarks of Cardinal Parolin, whom he will meet at the Vatican on Thursday.
For decades, China’s Communist government operated a Catholic Church that it controlled, insisting that Beijing, not the Vatican, had the power to appoint bishops, while persecuting priests and parishioners who answer to the Holy See. Under a 2018 agreement, China recognized some papal authority and the Church accepted the legitimacy of bishops chosen by Beijing — a shameful retreat, according to Francis’s critics.
It is that deal that the two sides are trying to renew, and Cardinal Parolin said delicate negotiations over the future appointment of bishops would “go ahead.”
Mr. Pompeo, who consistently promotes religious freedom and verbally thrashes China’s leadership, talked to reporters on Wednesday afternoon about bringing the Vatican’s moral authority to bear on China. He said American policy was “to bring every actor who can benefit the people of China to take away the horrors of the authoritarian regime.”
He has not been bashful about using religious backdrops for political messages. He addressed the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem, speaking against China with holy sites visible over his shoulder. Earlier this month, at a Baptist megachurch in Plano, Texas, he described China’s abuse of Uighur Muslims as “a war on faith,” then urged the congregation to vote on Nov. 3.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, was asked whether Mr. Pompeo had sought to manipulate the Vatican for political purposes. “Well, that’s one of the reasons that the Holy Father is not receiving the secretary of state,” he said.
Cardinal Parolin said he had no evidence that Mr. Pompeo’s article and visit were meant to aid the president’s re-election, “but it is a thought that can be made.”
Mr. Pompeo at least found a welcome reception among the critics of Pope Francis who attended an event on religious freedom organized by Callista Gingrich, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Upon his arrival, Mr. Pompeo gave a pat on the shoulder to Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leader of the conservative opposition to Francis within the church hierarchy.
The secretary had warm words for Mrs. Gingrich. Her husband, Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House, sat in the front row as Mr. Pompeo spoke against China’s record on religious freedom.
Mr. Trump won the white Catholic vote in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, but a survey this summer appeared to show his support slipping, and Joe Biden, himself Catholic, has made an appeal for Catholic support.
Mr. Pompeo dismissed the notion that his pressure on the Vatican was intended to motivate voters ahead of the presidential election.
“That’s just crazy,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We’ve been working on human rights in China the entire time I’ve been part of this administration.”
But even some of members of his audience saw political intent, while others hoped for a political result.
Thomas Williams, the Breitbart bureau chief in Rome and a consistent critic of Francis who attended the event, argued that there was a clear electoral angle to the nominally diplomatic trip. He said that while he believed Mr. Pompeo genuinely hoped to change the Vatican’s stance on China, any political benefit back home was “a welcome and I’m sure sought after side effect.”
Cardinal Burke, who ruled out giving communion to John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, said he believed American voters “more and more so” cared about the issues Mr. Pompeo raised. And when it came to China, he said “I know I do.”
Mr. Gingrich said that Mr. Pompeo’s piece in First Things has stirred support and “probably” motivated Catholic voters who read it to vote for President Trump. “The reaction to his op-ed the other day was very strong.”
Mr. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism after his third marriage, is a co-chair of Catholics for Trump. That group has attacked Mr. Biden over his ties to China and it supports Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, who has accused the pope of shielding child abusers and demanded that he step down..
Outside the circle of Trump supporters and Francis opponents, the view of Mr. Pompeo’s actions was more conclusive.
“It’s to an appeal to an electorate that is bigger than the Catholic vote, it’s also the evangelical vote,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, who is supportive of Francis. “Being anti-pope helps with these Catholics but also evangelicals.”
Few people are likely to read Mr. Pompeo’s First Things article, he said, but his message on China and the Church will receive ample coverage on right-wing media like Fox News, including specifically Catholic media like EWTN, an Alabama-based broadcaster.
Alberto Melloni, the director of the Foundation for Religious Sciences John XXIII in Bologna, Italy, called Mr. Pompeo’s moves “a divisive operation targeted to the American electorate, not to the Holy See.”
Using Pope Francis’ name before his election, he said, “the message is ‘We embody a traditional, conservative, anti-Bergoglio religion and that’s why you should vote for us,” he said, referring to the pope’s last name.
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.