Michael Reilly is a former British diplomat; from 2009–2015 he was a senior representative of UK defense company BAE Systems.
On February 2, 2018 a Catholic priest, currently based in Rome but with several years’ experience of working in China, posted on his Facebook page: “There are strange and potentially wonderful things happening in China around the relationship with the Vatican. Be aware that we have gotten close before … but there is a different feel to it this time.” This post came just three days after a newspaper article reported that the Vatican was accused by its own former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, of ‘selling out’ the Catholic Church to China. Are these possible signs that yet another of Taiwan’s diminishing band of ‘diplomatic allies’ is about to switch recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Taipei’s archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan (洪山川) dismissed such speculation, saying stories suggesting the Vatican and China are about to establish relations recur regularly but always turn out to be false.
Yet, such repeated speculation about a rapprochement between the Holy See and the PRC only reinforces the perception that the establishment of links between the Vatican and Beijing is not a matter of ‘whether’ but ‘when.’ To put it bluntly, the long-term direction of the Vatican policy is to create improved relations with China, as a way for the Church to communicate its message to a quarter of the world’s population. In these circumstances the main question for Taiwan is perhaps whether it is doing enough to prepare for the inevitable. On its part, the Holy See has long sought increasing relations with the PRC where Christianity, including Catholicism, is growing strongly despite considerable restrictions and controls imposed by the government, and the Vatican has made no secret about its intentions. The Holy See is eager to better support and meet the needs of the estimated 12 million Chinese believers, to nurture the growing interest in the Church, and to help reconcile the “underground” Church with the state-sanctioned ‘patriotic association.’
After the communist takeover in China in 1949, the Vatican had originally kept its mission in Beijing, but it was then expelled in 1951, and hence moved to Taipei. Moreover, after the UN switched its recognition from the ROC to the PRC in 1971, the Vatican downgraded its representative in Taipei from the rank of Ambassador to that of Chargé d’Affaires. Irregular contacts between China and the Vatican have been going on since the 1980s, but until now China has always insisted that the Vatican must first break all its ties with Taiwan as a prelude to any formal relations. Vatican diplomats have been justifiably wary of cutting all official ties with Taiwan before even the outline of a possible agreement with the PRC has been reached.
Pope Francis has added a degree of urgency into these hitherto irregular contacts, and negotiations that are more formal have been underway since 2014 between the Holy See and China. Last year saw a significant agreement between the two countries, in regards to the appointment of bishops, one of the main sticking points for Beijing. Crucially, from the Vatican’s perspective, Beijing appears to recognize the Pope’s ultimate right to veto the appointment of bishops, while allowing Beijing a say in their nomination, a situation not unique to China. Therefore, the latest news only seems to confirm what has already been agreed upon—although it may well mask agreements in other areas too.
Considering all of these events, has Taiwan done enough to sustain and maintain such a key relationship with the Holy See? The Vatican is Taiwan’s oldest diplomatic ally. The year 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the ROC and the Holy See, created in 1942 when Taiwan was still under Japanese rule and the ROC was the government of most of China, not just Taiwan. Less formal contacts go back even further, as a Vatican delegation attended the funeral of Sun Yat-sen in 1925. Moreover, the Vatican, with its more than one billion followers, is Taiwan’s most influential remaining ally by far.
Well aware of this, Taiwan has always given great emphasis to the formality and protocol required to maintain the relationship. Former President Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II; former President Ma joined the inauguration of Pope Francis; and, Vice President Chen Chien-jen, the most prominent lay Catholic in Taiwan, participated in the September 2016 canonization ceremony at the Vatican for Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But on a more day to day level, Taiwan’s engagement with the Catholic church, while good, can hardly be described as ‘strong.’ The term that could better describe this relation is ‘ambivalent.’ The physical presence of the Church is hard to miss. Fu-jen and Wenzao Ursuline universities are both Catholic run, the former by the Jesuits, and there are more than 1100 churches around the island, often in remote small towns or villages. Nevertheless, Catholics are very much in the minority in Taiwan, with a congregation of fewer than 300,000 followers, less than 1.5 percent of the population, whose majority of members are part of an older generation, in contrast with Chinese Christians, growing numbers of whom are young Chinese.
Although the Church’s roots in Taiwan can be traced back 500 years, to a time before the Chinese colonisation when the island was a Portuguese missionary territory, its position today reflects much more the communist takeover of China in 1949, when most of the Catholic hierarchy and large numbers of priests were expelled or fled with Chiang Kai-Shek from the mainland. Parishioners were often exiled too and for many years the Church was represented by and preached mainly to this group of “mainlanders.” The language of the church was overwhelmingly Mandarin and its outlook Sinocentric. Perhaps for this reason it has not been successful in reaching out to younger Taiwanese, who are less likely to align themselves with China. Moreover, with the current almost total absence of domestic vocations, the Church in Taiwan relies heavily on foreign missionary priests who are mostly from an older generation and who increasingly tend to the needs of migrant workers from South East Asia, who form a growing proportion of regular church-goers. While former President Ma Ying-Jeou is known to have been baptised a Catholic, he is not known to have visited any Catholic church during his time in office.
Ironically, the Aboriginal community is the one segment of the population in which the Church has had a real impact. Typically, the percentage of Catholics in the wider population in Taiwan’s dioceses is around 1 percent. In Taipei and Tainan it is 0.6 percent or less. But in the Hualien diocese, which embraces much of the mountain areas, it is over 10 percent. Yet, until earlier this century, there were no priests on the island who could speak any of the Aboriginal languages. Moreover, there are nearly eight times as many priests per head of congregation in Taipei as there are in the Hualien diocese. This suggests that Aborigines have been neglected by both the Church and the successive governments in Taipei.
Instead of rueing missed opportunities or engaging in recriminations, Taiwan needs to urgently plan its future relationship with the Vatican in the advent of the time the Holy See switches recognition to Beijing. For this is not a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ relationship with some micro-state. The Vatican itself will wish to maintain a relationship if only to ensure continuing pastoral support for, and access to, its congregation in Taiwan. Catholic educational and social facilities in the country serve all Taiwanese, not just Catholics, and it is surely in the government’s own interests to keep them flourishing. Taiwan will also continue to serve as a center for the formation and training of priests to work in China, where restrictions on this are likely to remain for some time. With careful preparation Taiwan can still ensure a productive and valuable relationship with the Vatican, even in the absence of diplomatic relations. Without doubt, the loss of such a long-standing diplomatic ally as the Vatican will be a psychological blow to Taiwan. But, by preparing for it now and looking to a less formal but more active future relationship, instead of engaging in recriminations and blame, Taiwan can limit any loss of influence and wider fall out.
The main point: The relationship between Taiwan and the Vatican is not a typical diplomatic one. While it would be tragic for Taiwan to lose its relation with the Vatican, the Holy See will not desert Taiwan’s Catholics. So, it is very important that Taiwan maintains a continuing productive, but informal relationship with the Vatican.