President George W. Bush's nominee for US ambassador to the Vatican has said that one of his top priorities if confirmed by the Senate would be to look into recent Vatican actions and comments that indicate the Holy See is seeking to re-establish ties with Beijing at the expense of relations with Taipei.
Francis Rooney, an Oklahoma businessman and big campaign contributor to Bush, said a priority for him when he reached the Vatican would be "to go speak with them and find out what they mean by these recent comments."
He would also "make sure they have a sensitivity to our feelings in the matter."
Rooney made his statements during a confirmation hearing before the European affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The hearing was chaired by George Allen, a Virginia senator who is also a founding co-chairman of the Senate Taiwan Caucus.
Allen noted in questioning Rooney that there have been reports "that the Vatican may be prepared to resume diplomatic relations with China and sever ties with Taiwan," and asked Rooney how the administration would respond if the Vatican did so.
The senator said that "I don't think they should sever ties with Taiwan, but I don't have the influence that you might or the administration does with the Vatican, should they look at that approach."
Rooney noted that there had been some comments from the Vatican about patching up relations with China, but said he could not say how the situation might end up.
Talk of a resumption of Vatican-Beijing relations, severed in 1951, was stoked by a recent invitation by Pope Benedict XVI to two bishops from the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Church to attend a synod of world bishops to be held next month.
The Pope also invited two bishops from the underground church, plus Taiwan's Bishop Paul Shan Kuo-shi (單國璽) and Bishop Zen Ze-kiun (陳日君) of Hong Kong.
The official Chinese church immediately rejected the invitation in view of the presence of Shan on the list and the Vatican's continued recognition of Taiwan.
Nevertheless, Father Bernardo Cervellera, the head of the missionary Catholic news agency, AsiaNews, held out the hope that Chinese President Hu Jintao (
Cervellera was quoted by the Catholic News Service as saying that the invitations to the four Chinese bishops show that "for the Pope, the church in China is one. The Pope understands the importance of China and the importance of the church in China."
Speculation over a reconciliation between the Vatican and Beijing began to surface after the death of Pope John Paul II this spring. Zen was the first to raise the possibility right after John Paul II died. But China reacted strongly when President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) traveled to the Vatican for the pope's funeral, and no Chinese bishop attended the ceremonies. And since John Paul's death, China has arrested a number of Catholic priests and even bishops.
In May, however, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan (
"We are sincere about establishing ties with the Vatican," he reportedly said.
And in June the Vatican's equivalent of a foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, said there were "no insurmountable problems" in establishing relations with Beijing.