Skip to content

Taiwan says Vatican relations ‘open and smooth’ despite reports of China pressure

A government official in Taiwan has said that diplomatic relations with the Holy See remain open and normal, after Italian media reported that the Vatican is under pressure from Beijing to sever ties with Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade Chinese province.

"The friendly relations between Taiwan and the Vatican remain solid, and two-way communication channels remain open and smooth," said Joanne Ou, spokesperson for the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry, during a press conference Monday.

Taiwanese flag being raised in Taipei. Credit: Olaer/Elmer Anthony

The Vatican is the only European government, and the most senior international diplomatic power to maintain bilateral relations with Taiwan.

Ou spoke in response to a report in the Roman newspaper Corriere della Sera on Sunday in which an unnamed Vatican diplomat said China was demanding the Vatican drop diplomatic relations with Taipei in exchange for more formal ties with Beijing.

The Holy See has maintained an embassy in Taipei since the 1940s but has had no official diplomatic presence in Beijing since 1951, when the Church was officially expelled from the mainland by the Communist government.

Since then, reopening formal diplomatic relations with China has been a central aim of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, along with attempting to normalize the situation of Chinese Catholics, even as the Communist government has pursued campaigns of genocide against the Uighurs of Xinxiang province and cracked down on civil rights in Hong Kong.

In 2018, the Vatican signed a controversial agreement with the Communist government, handing the state a role in the appointment of bishops for Chinese dioceses and acceding to the principle of state registration of clergy in return for the integration of the underground Catholic Church in the China with the schismatic state controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

However, The Pillar has previously reported that the consecration of the most recent two bishops organized under the terms of the agreement had been carried out and announced by the CPCA without consultation in Rome.

In the run-up to the renewal of that Vatican-China agreement last year, government figures and Church leaders in Taiwan both acknowledged speculation that ending formal relations with Taiwan would be a necessary condition for the Vatican to re-establish a formal diplomatic presence in Beijing.

Last July, the South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed Vatican official saying “Taiwan should not be offended if the embassy in Taipei is moved back to its original address in Beijing.”

While the Vatican was Taiwan’s only diplomatic partner not to appeal for it to be allowed to participate in the World Health Organization’s assembly meetings on the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis did appoint the former Taiwanese vice president and minister for health to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences earlier this year.

International attention has refocused on the tense relationship between China and Taiwan in recent weeks.

President Xi Xinping has long made reunification of Taiwan with the mainland a key priority and measure of success for his time in power, and foriegn policy experts have noted an escalation in Chinese military maneuvers around Taiwan and the testing of new weapons systems seen as a deterrent to international intervention in the event of an attempted annexation.

Chinese interest in annexing Taiwan, and its ongoing assessment of the likely response of the diplomatic community to any attempt, comes after the imposition of the National Security Law on the province of Hong Kong, which had previously been held out as a template for a “post reunification” Taiwan.

That law, which came into force in July 2020, criminalized many forms of free speech and curtailed basic civil rights.

Last year, Cardinal John Tong Hon warned priests in the diocese to steer clear of politics in their homilies. In a letter sent to all clergy, the cardinal warned that “the homily is not meant to convey the preacher’s personal views (such as his own view on a social or political issue) but God’s message.”

Catholic schools in the diocese have also been told to ensure that teachers “foster the correct values on national identity” and ensure respect for Chinese national symbols in Catholic schools,  including the Chinese flag and national anthem.

The Vatican has made no public statements on the situation in Hong Kong.

In June, the Holy See’s chief diplomat, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said that while“obviously Hong Kong is the object of concern for us,” and “one can say a lot of, shall we say, appropriate words that would be appreciated by the international press and by many countries of the world,” “I — and, I think, many of my colleagues — have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever.”