WASHINGTON – For all the hoopla about the two mighty men who visited the United States last week and met with President Barack Obama, the most intriguing meeting amidst all this Washington summitry — the one between Pope Francis and Xi Jinping — never happened.
No one has to regret that more than these two men themselves.
There aren’t two leaders on Earth today who face such similar challenges in running their two organizations. The Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party are both faith-based enterprises whose doctrines increasingly collide with societal realities.
Both leaders are involved in high-stakes battles within their top echelons, one playing out inside the Vatican, the other inside the Politburo.
The parallels between the two men are astounding — and extend well beyond the two most obvious, but still amazing numbers-based parallels.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio took over the reins of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013, exactly one day before Xi Jinping took over as president of the People’s Republic of China.
Both men took charge of two gigantic flocks — each consisting of 1 billion plus people.
Both China’s Communist Party and the Catholic Church are heavily male-dominated, top-down organizations that pursue their respective faiths with an absolutist claim.
In both men’s flocks, the inclination to steer clear of the constraining doctrine is becoming ever more pronounced.
At and near the top of their respective organizational hierarchies, they both have to contend with embarrassing cases of “bad apples.” What is the sexual molestation of boys in one institution are plentiful sex scandals involving mistresses, call girls and prostitutes in the other. Both Xi and Francis have made it plain that they want to end the ostentatiousness and luxury worship that was condoned under their predecessors.
Xi is seeking to root out fancy banquets and expensive gifts to senior party leaders and Communist Party officials at all levels. With regard to the pope, the name he took for his reign says it all. St. Francis of Assisi is revered for his concern about the well being of the poor.
The biggest challenge both men face is strong resistance to any serious reforms from a lot of the vested interests in the top rungs of their hierarchies. To accomplish real reforms means cutting off avenues to self-enrichment that a lot of insiders have relied upon for a long time.
No wonder then that powerful people on the inside — especially those who have their fingers in the honey pot — are dead set against any real reforms being carried out.
This applies equally to the Italian “mafia” inside the Roman Curia and the top apparatchiks — via their relatives — inside the CCP’s top echelons.
While they are all prepared to pay lip service to the reform cause, that’s as far as they are willing to go.
Both leaders still have to make definitive headway to combat the impression that their two institutions still condone corruption, money laundering and capital flight.
Despite all the proclamations about reform, a real sense of shame and a true understanding of the need for internal hygiene are still in short supply inside both organizations.
Xi Jinping and Pope Francis are also similar in that they each represent a curious mix of being a modernizer and a traditionalist.
The pope is still wedded to a lot of traditional views of the church regarding such issues as the ordination of women and celibacy for priests, but he is also pushing ahead with significant liberalizing moves on other issues previously considered untouchable.
Meanwhile, Xi pursues his own mix of reform-mindedness and sticking with old doctrines.
To regain the confidence of his flock, the pope has gone where none of his predecessors has gone.
His request in the autumn of 2013 to the national bishops’ conferences around the world to conduct a poll of Catholics about their opinions of some of the church’s core teachings (on such sensitive matters as contraception, same-sex marriage and divorce) shows an unprecedented readiness to enhance the church’s focus on its “customers.”
The Chinese leadership, in its own way, is going after the same goal. The constant monitoring of discussion threads on micro-blogging sites provides the political leadership with direct feedback from the population on the performance of CCP managers at all levels of society.
While the outside world thus has reasons aplenty to be fascinated by the parallel developments inside the Vatican and the CCP, no two people on Earth have a keener interest to compare notes than Francis and Xi.
Alas, as far as we know, no such meeting is ever likely to happen — certainly not while they are both in Washington’s ambit.
Stephan Richter is publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine on the global economy, politics and culture, and president of The Globalist Research Center.
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