The Vatican has been talking to the People's Republic of China (PRC) about normalizing relations, at least as much as "normal" relations are possible with the communist state.
That would mean trading Vatican recognition of Taiwan for Beijing's acceptance of the operations of the Catholic Church in the PRC. A deal seemed to be in the works, though no one knew when it would be sealed. Then, twice in four days, Beijing consecrated a bishop without the Vatican's approval, demonstrating the PRC's determination to retain control over the spiritual decisions of its citizens.
"This threatens to destroy the dialogue between China and the Vatican," warned Bernardo Cervellera, head of the AsiaNews service in Rome.
Is anyone really surprised?
There has been no official contact between Beijing and the Vatican since the PRC expelled the Papal Nuncio in 1951. Since then the Catholic Church has recognized the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan as China's legitimate government. And the Chinese government has attempted to control Catholics who resisted its atheistic teachings through the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, thought to represent roughly one-third of the estimated 10 million to 12 million Catholics now in China.
Despite persistent persecution against unofficial and underground congregations, the Vatican has retained the allegiance of most Chinese Catholics. Nevertheless, normalization would offer an enormous boon.
It would allow the Vatican to shape the rapidly growing fellowship in the world's most populous nation. It would also provide believers with some measure of legal protection.
But the negatives are equally obvious. One is to downgrade Taiwan's status in the world. Although it is a democratic and capitalist state, this nation of 23 million is recognized by only a couple dozen countries. Beijing continually attempts to force an embrace and even the US doesn't appear to be an entirely reliable friend of Taipei -- denying permission to President Chen Shui-bian (
A shift in Vatican recognition would exacerbate Taipei's isolation. That might not be the main consideration of the Catholic Church. But it should be an important one.
Moreover, it is evident that China will attempt to constrict the Church's operations regardless of any agreement that it signs. In February, Pope Benedict XVI, who after his installation last year indicated his interest in approving relations with Beijing, nominated as Cardinal Joseph Zen (
Zen was reviled in Beijing for supporting Hong Kong democracy advocates. Chinese officials warned the Vatican against interference in their internal affairs and worried that Zen was issuing a challenge similar to that of Pope John Paul II to the Soviet empire after his elevation.
In fact, that challenge offers a good model for the Vatican.
In seeking to reach an accommodation with Beijing, the Catholic Church's first responsibility is to promote God's Kingdom. That means winning space for evangelism and protecting believers as they worship. It also means the proverbial speaking truth to power, challenging dictators who routinely violate the basic rights and essential dignity of the human person.
After the latest controversy, the conventional wisdom is that the Vatican will break off discussions with Beijing. But eventually the two sides are likely to come to terms. If so, the Catholic Church must never forget the stakes: The future of more than 1.3 billion Chinese and Taiwanese.