Pope Francis is in no position to compromise on this.
The Vatican learned horrific lessons in the past century about compromise with totalitarian states on the naming of bishops. Pope Francis himself, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, stoutly rebuffed the dictates of the Argentine government and its strong-willed president on matters of morality.
He experienced the evils of the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. Although, indeed, the Vatican has a concordat with the government of Argentina which gives civil authorities “right of consultation” in the appointment of bishops. “Consultation” is already part of the Holy See’s modus vivendi with Beijing.
China’s Bureau of Religious Affairs has on occasion reached informal agreement with Rome on suitable bishops of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. However, Beijing judges that the Vatican has no leverage in the matter.
If the Catholic Church ever wants to flourish in Communist China, it will have to relinquish its control of bishops to the Chinese government. Pope Francis comprehends this more acutely than any other pope. A Jesuit knows well not to fritter away bargaining power.
Without its Apostolic Nunciature in Taipei, the Holy See has no leverage in Beijing. If Pope Francis were to give up Taipei, Beijing would pocket the concession and there would be no incentive for further negotiation.
Consequently there is little chance that the Holy See will give up its Taipei nunciature without Beijing’s prior guarantees of the church’s freedom in China, and there is no prospect of that at all.
On March 19, Pope Francis received President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) happily and “with every honor” as the head of state of the Republic of China for the inaugural Papal Mass.
Ma was seated among 47 other heads of state and government in the company of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice President Joseph Biden, a reminder that Taiwan remains central in the Holy See’s Asian diplomacy.
Similarly, the Vatican is central to Taiwan’s diplomacy in Europe, a centrality that would dissolve if Taipei were to relinquish its sovereignty in an accommodation with Beijing.
Not until 30 years after Xavier’s death, in 1583, was a permanent Jesuit mission under Matteo Ricci permitted into China. Jesuits remained in China for another 200 years, through a dynastic succession, the collapse of empire and the rise of the Republic.
The Catholic Church in China has flourished in toleration and persecution through five centuries since Francis Xavier’s death on Sanchoao.
Pope Francis now approaches the challenge of the Catholic Church in China in the context of that history.
John Tkacik is the director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.