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What’s in store for the Vatican’s Year of the Tiger?

Monsignor Araldo Catalan. Credit: Archdiocese of Manila.

The Holy See’s daily bulletin of resignations and appointments contained on Monday morning only one announcement: a new apostolic nuncio for Rwanda.

Msgr. Araldo Catalan, a 20-year veteran of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, will become Pope Francis’ new envoy to the central African nation. But the significance of Catalan’s move isn’t his new job, it’s the posting he’s leaving, listed simply as “China (Taipei),” in the bollettino.

Catalan is now the former chargé d'affaires, normally a diplomatic second-in-command, at the Holy See’s apostolic nunciature in Taiwan, one of a very few diplomatic missions in Taiwan with full embassy status.

But his job was actually bigger than that, and his reassignment will likely prove a key move in the delicate chess game underway between the Holy See and China — a game which looks likely to get tense in the coming year.

While the Holy See has officially preserved its full bilateral relations with Taiwan, in spite both of mainland pressure and its own diplomatic ambitions for an embassy in Beijing, there has not been an ambassador, or nuncio, to Taiwan since the 1970s — Catalan held a lesser diplomatic and ecclesiastical rank on paper, but functioned practically as the Vatican’s ambassador to Taiwan.

The priest’s departure was announced without any indication of when — or if — a successor will be appointed, leaving the Taipei nunciature devoid of a senior diplomat.

The significance of Catalan’s departure has gone widely unnoticed among Catholic and wider media, and there is some indication the Holy See wanted it that way: Ordinarily, the Vatican’s daily news bulletin is issued in several languages, and at a minimum in Italian and English. But the Jan. 31 announcement of Catalan’s departure appears only in Italian. The English-language Vatican bollettino page has no entry at all for that day, with entries picking back up as normal on Feb.1.

While Rome might have been concerned to limit media attention on Catalan’s transfer, the ultimate significance of the move will depend a great deal on what happens next, and why.

It’s possible the Holy See intends to leave its Taiwan embassy vacant indefinitely, reducing its diplomatic recognition to a paper commitment, as a kind of soft step away from escalating tensions between Beijing and Taipei.

It’s equally plausible that the Vatican Secretariat of State intends to hold back appointing a new chargé d'affaires, keeping the announcement of a senior diplomat to Taiwan as a kind of ace up the sleeve during negotiations with the mainland, as bargaining continues on the appointment of Chinese mainland bishops.

While the controversial Vatican-China deal grants the Chinese Communist Party a say in the appointment of Catholic bishops, who must now be members of the state-sponsored church, suspicion has grown in recent years that China has resumed the selection and consecration of bishops of its own choosing, essentially daring the Vatican to refuse to recognize them after the fact. The Vatican might hope the threat of naming a diplomat to Taiwan is enough to stop that trend.

But, whatever the long game really is, it is impossible to separate Catalan’s departure from Taipei from what’s happening for the Church across China, and especially, what’s happening for the Church in Hong Kong:

Last week, Hong Kong paper Ta Kung Pao published four separate articles savaging Hong Kong’s emeritus bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who, even in retirement and into his ninth decade, has remained a totemic figure for persecuted Chinese Catholics and pro-democracy advocates. Ta Kung Pao is owned by CCP’s Liaison Office — basically the government department charged with overseeing the Hong Kong government.

The fulmination against Zen in a state paper is, maybe, nothing especially new — though the sheer and sudden volume of it is remarkable. What is new is the government newspaper’s association of Zen with Jimmy Lai, the jailed Catholic newspaper publisher, and the accusation that Zen uses his status as a clergyman to “disrupt” life in Hong Kong while lamenting that “it is difficult for the government to regulate or eliminate these religious groups or individuals, despite the fact that they have committed many crimes.”

Seasoned China-watchers have noted that this appears to be a fairly pointed shot at religious freedom in Hong Kong. They have also noted that blistering state-sponsored editorials are often the first sign of a coming government action.

Any move to put the 90-year-old cardinal on trial in Hong Kong would likely trigger a diplomatic incident, and generate more heat than the CCP might be looking for, but it isn’t out of the question.

More likely, the editorials are a warning shot directed at Zen’s successor, Hong Kong’s newly-installed Bishop Stephen Chow who, in a recent interview, declared that it is “unacceptable when human dignity is ignored, trampled upon or discarded.”

In the interview, published this week, Chow also noted that “culture can be subversive,” and he touted the importance of the Church’s education mission and work in schools — which have already come under government pressure following the 2020 National Security Law.

Beijing was not likely pleased about the new bishop’s outspokenness, and the editorials about Zen are largely seen as a warning.

There is another sign that Vatican officials might be expecting things to become more difficult for the Church in China in months to come.

The Vatican’s embassy in Taiwan has, for years, maintained a not-very-secret shadow mission in Hong Kong. In 2020, two Chinese religious sisters who worked at the mission were arrested during a visit to the mainland, detained for several weeks, and barred from returning to Hong Kong.

The mission has also been the subject of numerous cyber attacks.

More than a year ago, Church officials took a precaution against the possibility of future aggression: The shadow mission’s archives were moved out of Hong Kong and sent to the Philippines, sources close to the Secretariat of State have told The Pillar.

On its own, it might not seem like much that the Vatican quietly moved its only senior diplomat out of Taiwan.

Nor might it seem especially significant that a government-owned newspaper is beating up on a nonagenarian cardinal in Hong Kong.

And it might seem unimportant that an unofficial diplomatic mission in Hong Kong has moved its archives off-site and out-of-country.

But taken together, the signs are that Beijing and Rome are entering the Year of the Tiger on a very tense footing. Who will make the next move, and what kind of response it will trigger, remains to be seen. What does seem clear is who will be caught in the middle — in Taipei and in Hong Kong — Chinese priests, bishops, religious, and Catholic laity.

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