Calling Upon Pope Francis: Renew Papal Solidarity With the Dalai Lama

06/28/2013 02:37 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2013

Despite the continued global success of the Dalai Lama's teachings and message, the international community and Western governments in recent years have slowly and quietly tempered their love affair with the Tibetan freedom movement. The increasing economic and political influence of China in the international arena, and the continued fervor of China's leaders against the Dalai Lama and the "Dalai Clique," has successfully quelled open support for the Dalai Lama, the Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration, and the Tibetan exile community in many circles.

While the Dalai Lama still continues to travel widely, giving talks and lectures at universities and institutes, and while the Sikyong is still entertained at parliaments and senates, the open and wide support that the Tibetan exile community enjoyed decades ago no longer goes unchallenged by growing Chinese influence. Such examples include the denial of a South African visa for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to attend the 80th birthday celebrations of Desmond Tutu in 2011, the silence of foreign dignitaries in light of potential trade agreements, and the failure of the G8 to mention China's abuses in Tibet during their latest gathering in 2013. Despite the CTA's efforts to remind the world of the Dalai Lama's renunciation of his political leadership of the Tibetan people, the international community still bows to Chinese fantasy. These events reveal the growing constraints on the Tibetan freedom movement and the increasing complacency of the international community.

Unfortunately, spiritual leaders have also succumbed to the growing influence of China and have failed to stand in solidarity with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. The most notable and tragic example is Pope Benedict XVI who, while meeting with the Dalai Lama privately during his papacy, did not meet with the Dalai Lama publicly and even denied a meeting with the Dalai Lama at a politically inauspicious time during one of his visits to Italy. Benedict XVI trailed far from the track record of his predecessor, John Paul II, who met publicly with the Dalai Lama several times and openly declared support for the Tibetan people in interreligious solidarity.

While it is understandable that Pope Benedict XVI was quite cautious in managing his relations with China, given the strenuous situation of Chinese Catholics and the frequent slander of papal authority on behalf of Chinese authorities, and while he sought to deter potential Chinese retaliation against Christians in China and the patchwork Sino-Papal relations, his approach did not speak to the depths of spiritual and moral authority that are often expected of those who hold the papal throne. Such an approach reveals the questionable state of contemporary moral authority, especially in international platforms and on international crises such as Tibet. Contemporary moral and spiritual leadership must take a renewed approach to the Tibetan situation, and I look to and call upon Ratzinger's successor, Pope Francis of Argentina, as a source of hope.

Francis must take a different approach than his predecessor, and must meet openly and publicly with the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Francis must not allow the whims and demands of the Chinese state, notorious for its abuses of religious freedom, dictate the statements and choices of the papal office. Francis has proclaimed elsewhere his open commitment to a renewed Church community in the 21st century, particularly in his challenge to global consumerism and his commitment to poverty alleviation. In living up to his namesake and Jesuit heritage, Francis should commit to radical new visions of justice and moral authority for the Church in the 21st century. Taking an open stand of solidarity with the Dalai Lama as a fellow spiritual leader, with the Tibetans and all in China who suffer from religious and economic oppression, and in resistance to China's global reach is one profound way of embodying this radical vision as pontiff.

Francis has the opportunity to stand where the rest of the international community has fallen, and to proclaim a stance of justice and solidarity in the face of oppression, greed, and injustice, where many voices have fallen silent. Many before have noted the need and potential power of interreligious, international support of the Tibetan people, including the Catholic monastic Wayne Teasdale and the Dalai Lama himself. This is the opportunity for Pope Francis to also take a firm stand on the abuse of Christians in China.

Rather than tending to the Chinese establishment in the hope that they will ease the situation of Chinese Christians, Pope Francis I should recognize that the destiny of Christians in China is intimately connected with the destiny of the Tibetan people, the Uyghur people, followers of Falun Gong, and all oppressed religious and non-religious communities in China. The interconnected destiny of religious communities across China cannot be ignored. All are suffering from the same structures of oppression that must be challenged and transformed. To remain silent on these interwoven situations of suffering would be a severe lack of contextual and moral leadership from Rome.

I have argued elsewhere that there needs to be a renewed interreligious solidarity campaign for religious freedom for all peoples in China and Tibet, and the Tibetan community must indeed take steps of their own to widen the scope and breadth of their struggle for freedom. Pope Francis, as the visionary new leader of the global Church, has the potential to ignite sincere international support once again; spearheading the fight for religious freedom not only in China and Tibet, but around the world.

The Dalai Lama has called on Pope Francis, declaring that he is excited and prepared to meet the Pontiff. This is the opportunity for the Pope to stand as a true leader and express sincere solidarity. Francis must not succumb to the same global cult of greed that he has condemned, and not bow to Chinese intimidation in the face of severe oppression. I urge His Holiness Pope Francis, and I urge Catholics around the world to call upon the Pope, to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a fellow spiritual leader and as a leader of the Tibetan people. In expressing such interreligious solidarity for religious freedom, with the recognition of the mutual struggle of all religious communities in China, the world may come to realize that the struggle for freedom in China and around the world is not to be won exclusively by Christians or Tibetan Buddhists, but by a united stand for justice and freedom in all corners and at all times.