Are diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing on the horizon?

Flags of China and Vatican City Credit FreshStock Shutterstock CNA The flags of the People’s Republic of China and of Vatican City. | FreshStock/Shutterstock.

According to Vatican sources, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing is not on the horizon, despite what some recent appointments might suggest.

On Jan. 31, the Vatican said that Msgr. Arnaldo Catalan, its chargé d’affaires in Taiwan, was being posted to Rwanda, where he will serve as apostolic nuncio.

Days later on Feb. 5, Msgr. Javier Herrera Corona, head of the Holy See Study Mission in Hong Kong, was named apostolic nuncio to the Republic of the Congo and Gabon.

The appointments leave two Vatican diplomatic missions that deal closely with China with no top officials, prompting the question of whether the Holy See is changing its diplomatic strategy.

The Holy See did have a nunciature in Beijing. But in 1949, when Mao Zedong took power, China and the Holy See broke off relations. The apostolic internuncio Archbishop Antonio Riberi took refuge in 1951 in Hong Kong, then a British protectorate, and from 1952 in Taiwan.

In 1966, the internunciature was elevated to a nunciature, which was officially known as the apostolic nunciature of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan.

In 1971, the United Nations decided to replace the representatives of Taiwan with those of the People’s Republic of China. Since then, the Holy See has no longer appointed nuncios to Taipei. The nunciature has always been led instead by a chargé d’affaires, who is one rung lower than a nuncio. (Msgr. Catalan was, therefore, the highest-ranking Vatican diplomat in Taipei.)

Vatican diplomacy also observes China from a “study mission” based in Hong Kong, linked to the nunciature to the Philippines. In 2016, the Pontifical Yearbook reported in a footnote the address and telephone number of this mission for the first time.

Therefore, the departure of Catalan and Herrera Corona seemed to suggest that change was afoot in both Vatican-Taipei and Vatican-Beijing relations. For if the Holy See were to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing, it would first have to disavow Taiwan, which for the People’s Republic of China is only a rebellious province. (The Holy See is one of just 14 states that still recognize Taiwan.)

But according to a source familiar with papal diplomacy, it is “rather unlikely” that formal diplomatic relations with Beijing will soon be established.

First of all, both Catalan and Herrera Corona “have been running for a promotion for some time.” Their almost simultaneous nomination as apostolic nuncios is “unfortunate, but not part of any kind of plot or plan,” the source maintained.

It is indeed necessary for the pope to appoint new nuncios, and several more moves can be expected in the coming months. For example, before the appointments of Catalan as nuncio to Rwanda and Herrera Corona to Congo and Gabon, there were 14 nunciatures without a nuncio to lead them. Now, 12 vacant nunciatures remain. Some are very important, such as Mexico, Venezuela, and the European Union.

The Vatican has 180 diplomatic missions abroad. Of these, 106 are resident missions. In addition, the Holy See has nuncios accredited for multiple countries. The Vatican often also opens an office of the nunciature in countries where a permanent representative is needed. (The last one was opened in Armenia, although the nuncio is resident in Georgia and represents the Holy See both in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the Armenian capital, Yerevan).

Roughly 10% of resident missions are currently vacant. So it is not surprising that there will be further moves in the coming months because they are planned and necessary shifts.

The nunciature in Taipei and the study mission in Hong Kong will have new leaders. But that doesn’t mean that they are vacant at the moment. The chargé d’affaires left Taiwan, but Msgr. Pavol Talapka, the first secretary of the nunciature, remained. In Hong Kong, the Argentine Msgr. Alvaro Izurieta y Sea arrived in 2020 as deputy head of mission and remains there.

The Vatican source maintains that currently China would have no interest either in having diplomatic relations with the Holy See or having the Vatican break off ties with Taiwan.

This is because, the source explains, “despite China being very harsh in public with Taiwan, there is a large amount of trade between Tapei and Beijing. About one million Taiwanese move towards mainland China to work and then return to Taiwan.”

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Should the Holy See break off relations with Taiwan, China would be “forced to give some follow-up to the threats against Taiwan, thus also putting its commercial partnerships at risk.”

Furthermore, the priority in Vatican-Beijing talks is to renegotiate the deal on the appointment of bishops first agreed in 2018 and then renewed for another two years in 2020 on an experimental basis. After that, China and the Holy See will have to decide whether to confirm the agreement, modify it, or drop it.

Since the agreement was signed, there have been five bishops appointed by the Holy See with the approval of both Rome and Beijing. But the new bishops’ names have not yet been included in the Pontifical Yearbook, although the bulletin of the Holy See press office publishes the obituaries of China’s bishops.

According to the Pontifical Yearbook, China is divided into 150 archdioceses, dioceses, and apostolic prefectures spread over 20 ecclesiastical provinces. But this picture dates back to 1950 because, since Mao Zedong seized power, papal yearbooks have not been updated. Chinese dioceses were considered vacant, except those of Macao and Hong Kong, which were in different political situations.

The division of dioceses is different as far as the Chinese authorities are concerned. In a March 2021 interview with Radio Hong Kong, Bishop Fang Jianping of Hebei, vice president of the Chinese bishops’ conference, noted that China has 97 dioceses and 40 were then without a bishop. Therefore, he called on the country’s dioceses to seize the moment, using the trust of Pope Francis to nurture possible bishops and then ordain them before the agreement expires.

The Hebei bishop also said he was “optimistic” about the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing.

But the issue of diplomatic relations seems, for now, to be off the table. A wing of diplomats in the Vatican does, however, support diplomatic relations with China, even if it means leaving Taiwan.

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For its part, Taiwan is seizing every opportunity to demonstrate its closeness to the Holy See. Its new slogan is “Friendly Taiwan - Fratelli Tutti,” referring to Pope Francis’ latest encyclical.

In recent years, the Taiwanese Embassy to the Holy See has been especially committed to supporting the institutions of the Holy See and the Catholic Church through humanitarian aid. Last October, for example, Ambassador Matthew Lee delivered 300 high-quality, multi-purpose sleeping bags manufactured in Taiwan to the director of Caritas Italy, in a ceremony attended by an official from the migrants and refugees section of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The Holy See has also sent many indirect signals of closeness to Taiwan. In 2017, the international congress of the Apostleship of the Sea was held in the country. In 2018, a Taoist delegation from Taiwan visited Pope Francis. Also in 2017, the sixth Buddhist-Christian conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue took place in Taiwan.

On Oct. 5, 2017, at a conference organized at the Pontifical Urbaniana University to celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Taiwan, Vatican “foreign minister” Archbishop Paul Gallagher told Ambassador Lee that “the Holy See will continue to be your committed companion in the family of peoples, supporting every initiative that contributes to dialogue, promotes a true culture of encounter, and builds bridges of brotherhood and peace for the good of all.”

It is now a question of waiting for the new appointments for the nunciature in Taipei and study mission in Hong Kong, as well as monitoring the signals that will eventually lead to a renewal of the agreement between China and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops. If anything were to change, it would be seen from these events.

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