The Dalai Lama, who is in Rome for a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize winners, had requested a private meeting with the pontiff, but said Thursday that the request had been rejected.
"The Vatican administration says it is not possible because it could cause problems," he said.
On Friday, the Vatican's spokesman said the pope won't meet Tibet's spiritual leader "for obvious reasons concerning the delicate situation." He said the pope "holds the Dalai Lama in very high regard," adding Francis wouldn't meet any of the Nobel winners.
The Vatican hasn't had formal relations with China since 1949. The very fact that Beijing had allowed the pontiff to use its airspace in August was seen as a thaw in relations. But the Dalai Lama did meet the current pope's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2006.
China views the Dalai Lama as a troublemaker. He fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against China.
China has around 12 million Catholics. Many attend underground churches. There is a branch of the church that is recognized by the government. It is called the Patriotic Association, and it answers to the Communist Party not the Vatican.