A lot has been written about the end of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Republic of China. Nevertheless the Catholic Church in Taiwan has not issued any "official" word; neither has the Bishops Conference nor the Nunciature (the Vatican embassy).
To analyze the diplomatic relations between the two, we must first stress the differences in the way this relationship is viewed by the two sides.
From the Vatican's viewpoint, the aim is to keep the relationship very low profile. Since 1971, the Vatican's representative to the ROC has been at the lowest level possible, "Charge affaires ad interim" -- that is a "caretaker for the time being." Switching recognition would in fact simply be the breaking of the last razor-thin political thread connecting the Vatican and the ROC.
On the ROC's side, the diplomatic representation is high profile since it has too few allies to undervalue one, even if it as small as the Vatican. Since 1959 all the representatives have been at the ambassador level and the First Lady visited the Pope not too long ago.
In the past the ROC government considered itself the true government of the Chinese people (on both sides of the strait). The Catholic Church in the ROC (a great number of bishops, clergy, religious and lay people fled with Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949) also considered itself the true representative of China's Catholics (on both sides of the Taiwan Strait). It was not until 1999 that the Bishops Conference changed its name from the "Chinese Regional Bishops" Conference to something like "Taiwan Area Bishops" Conference.
As in the Gospels, we can say that the end of diplomatic relations between the ROC and the Vatican is something known only by the Father and those he wants to reveal it to.
Some very prestigious people say the break is far from imminent. Others say that it has already been signed and that the last trip to the Vatican by former Foreign Minister Jason Hu was to request a delay in announcing the switch so that the change would not have an impact on the March presidential election.
Either way it looks like we will know something after the election. And there are facts to support each view.
The recent ordination of Catholic bishops in China without the Vatican's approval would appear to reinforce the first view. However, some Catholic priests, nuns and lay people who have visited China from Taiwan say the Catholic Church in China is preparing, perhaps even has already prepared, for a switch of diplomatic relations at any moment. They say the Beijing government is trying to bridge the gulf between the underground and the official Catholic Church as much as possible.
What would a diplomatic switch mean for Catholics in Taiwan?
Politically, less than nothing. Spiritually, just remember the Church says of itself that it is both Holy and Sinner -- maybe this "Vatican Statehood" is the consequence of the sinful part of the Church.
Ethically at least one question remains -- how can the Catholic Church switch relations from a democratic government (chosen by and so representative of its people) and a dictatorship (a government not representative of its people)?
What would it mean in practice? My hope is that in practice it will mean everything. Like Father Jac Kuepers said in One Spirit magazine when summarizing the "China-Vatican, Taiwan-Vatican Relations Seminar": Catholics in Taiwan have to identify with Taiwan's society and so find their own identity; the Church in Taiwan is not just part of the Church in China, not just part of the Universal Church, its identity is first of all to be found in Taiwan society.
Kuepers said the local Taiwan Catholic Church has to represent the aspirations, sufferings and ideals of the people of Taiwan before God and also in the Catholic communion of churches with the Bishop of Rome as first among equals.
Taiwan is a society in search of its identity: the Church's task is to accompany and support this search with the light of the Gospel.
Although it has not been advertised in Taiwan, there was a letter sent from a Catholic representative group in Taiwan to the Vatican, trying to press the Pope not to break relations with Taiwan when establishing them with China. The letter caused quite a big disturbance.
Is it just, right, or fair to send Taiwanese Catholics to the land of oblivion for the sake of putting Chinese Catholics under the Vatican's wings?
Only time can tell what will happen and when it will happen. Until then, we should not worry. Maybe the greatest opportunity for the Catholic Church in Taiwan is to find its true identity is waiting around the corner in the form of a switch of diplomatic relations. Let's switch it on!.
Francisco Carin Garcia is a Claretian missionary living in Taipei County.
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