By Stacy Hsu / Staff reporter
Although China has since 2016 had success converting Taiwan’s diplomatic allies with pledges of handsome aid and loan packages, the nation’s Catholic community believes that the Vatican is an exception.
Fears that Taiwan would lose its sole European diplomatic ally have waxed and waned since China and the city-state began dialogue in the 1980s to iron out their decades-long differences over the appointment of Catholic bishops, which has split China’s 10 million Catholics between state-sanctioned churches and underground congregations loyal to the pope.
Concern spiked each time rumors emerged that they were coming close to signing a deal over the matter, which many analysts believe is the one roadblock stopping them from resuming diplomatic relations after ties were cut in 1951.
That is why since news broke on Sept. 22 that Beijing and the Holy See inked a historic provisional agreement to solve the issue, Taiwanese have been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
However, Otfried Chan （陳科）, secretary-general of Taiwan bishops’ conference, looks at the matter differently, saying that one must take off their secular glasses to sensibly grasp the situation.
“Diplomatic relations are a different concept to the Vatican. Unlike other countries in the world, the Holy See does not value commercial exchanges, nor does it engage in arms trade,” Chan said. “To put it differently, what normally attracts secular nations does not have the same appeal for the Vatican.”
Chan said that it is too much of a leap to assume the provisional agreement, under which Chinese authorities are thought to be able to propose future bishops with final approval from the pope, would automatically lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican.
Comparing the deal to a marriage, Chan said an engagement does not guarantee the long-term success of a union, because it hinges on compatibility and whether the couple have common interests.
“At the moment, China and the Vatican have nothing in common. How are they going to live together? They have not even agreed on who is going to be the breadwinner and who is going to cook dinner,” Chan said.
In contrast, Taipei and the Holy See share much in common in religious terms, he said.
Chan cited the first inter-religious meeting between Buddhist and Catholic nuns in Kaohsiung last month — which was attended by Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue — as an example of robust religious exchanges between the two sides.
Chan said it was not a concern that the Holy See on Oct. 18 declined Vice President Chen Chien-jen’s （陳建仁） invitation for Pope Francis to visit Taiwan, with a statement issued on the matter just two days after Chen returned from the canonization ceremony for pope Paul VI and six others in the Vatican.
“The Vatican only said that the Pope currently has no plans to visit Taiwan. It does not mean never,” Chan said, adding that many countries with a Catholic history longer than Taiwan’s have yet to be visited by the pontiff, due to his busy schedule.
Chiayi Bishop Thomas Chung （鍾安住）, who represented Taiwanese bishops at the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican that concluded on Sunday last week, also rejected the idea that the Vatican-China deal would negatively affect relations with Taiwan.
Chung said that Pope Francis phoned Taiwan’s embassy in the Vatican to express his condolences shortly after the derailment of Puyuma Express No. 6432 on Oct. 21, which killed 18 people and injured more than 200.
Chung said he believes “the pope cares about China, but it stems mostly from [his hopes to] promote evangelism, church affairs, peace and benevolence.”
As for the Vatican declining Chen’s invitation, Chung said that the vice president merely reiterated an invitation extended by Taiwan’s seven bishops to Pope Francis during an ad limina visit to the Vatican in May — their first in a decade — to attend the Eucharistic Congress of Taiwan in March next year.
Ad limina visits are usually made once every five to seven years by residential bishops to meet with the pope to share issues and concerns from their region.
“Although the pope does not plan to visit Taiwan, we believe he will send his regards through other means,” Chung said.
While Chan and Chung refused to read too much into the Vatican’s decision not to visit Taiwan, former ambassador to the Holy See Tou Chou-seng （杜筑生） said there are political factors at play.
The “China factor” has long been a thorn in Taiwan’s relations with the Holy See, which is why no presidents were able to visit the Vatican before 2005, when then-president Chen Shui-bian （陳水扁） became the first Taiwanese leader to visit the European state to attend pope John Paul II’s funeral.
“If the Vatican allowed a state visit by a Taiwanese president, it could prompt China to step up its religious persecution of Catholics in China. That was something neither the Holy See nor we want to see happen,” Tou said.
Tou said that given Beijing’s habit of playing a two-handed strategy, it is yet to be seen whether it would actually honor its deal with the Vatican and loosen its grip on Christianity, or continue to tear down crosses.
While acknowledging China’s adherence to its commitment in good faith could one day lead to a diplomatic switch by the Vatican, Tou said Beijing’s long history of suppressing religion means it would not be able to turn things around overnight.
“I do not see them taking that step [establishing diplomatic relations] any time soon,” he said.
A Republic of China flag flies outside a window of the Taiwanese embassy to the Holy See in Rome on Sept. 12. Photo: EPA