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Taiwan, Vatican ties face the test of time

Taiwan-Vatican diplomatic relations marked eight decades and will continue to remain a good model of cooperation
Pope Francis greets Taiwanese ambassador to the Holy See Matthew S.M. Lee during the International Conference on Pastoral Orientation on Human Trafficking in the Vatican in this undated image.

Pope Francis greets Taiwanese ambassador to the Holy See Matthew S.M. Lee during the International Conference on Pastoral Orientation on Human Trafficking in the Vatican in this undated image. (Photo: Taiwan Embassy to the Holy See)

Published: October 16, 2023 11:42 AM GMT
Updated: October 16, 2023 11:44 AM GMT

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has maintained formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican since Oct. 23, 1942. The 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations fell in 2022 but the pandemic forced any form of celebrations over it. 

A flurry of events marked the anniversary this year, which included an official reception at the apostolic nunciature in Taipei, a symposium to reflect on the nature and meaning of bilateral relations, and an exhibition at the Taiwanese embassy at the Vatican.

On Sept. 23, the Chinese Regional Bishops' Conference (the official name of the Taiwan Catholic Bishops' Conference) and the Institute of Catholic Academic Research at Fu Jen Catholic University organized a symposium to mark the anniversary.

The day's presentations and discussions were moderated by Archbishop Stefano Mazzotti, the Holy See's chargé d'affaires in Taipei, Bishop Peter Liu Cheng-chung, the President of Fu Jen Catholic University, and Vincent Chiang Han-sun, the university's rector. A retrospective of the last 80 years was drawn up to discuss current relations and the deepening of future cooperation in the service of bilateral commitment to the ecumenical Church.

Confident diplomacy, a guarantee of stability between Taipei and the Holy See

In addition to the symposium organized by the bishops' conference, the apostolic nunciature in Taipei hosted a reception to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis' pontificate, as well as the anniversary of bilateral relations. The event was attended by Taiwanese Prime Minister Chen Chien-jen, a Catholic, the Director of European Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vincent Yao, and foreign representatives based in Taipei.

Archbishop Stefano Mazzotti underlined the excellent bilateral relations between the Vatican and Taiwan over the past 80 years. In particular, he stressed that "official relations between the Holy See and Taiwan are of the same substance as all other diplomatic relations between two sovereign countries. We mutually recognize each others' role and legitimacy on the international stage."

Archbishop Mazzotti also pointed to the profound significance of bilateral ties, which consist of "the communion of the universal Catholic Church and Taiwanese Catholics," the latter actively contributing to the strengthening of mutual exchanges thanks to the richness, diversity and plurality of their identity origins.

Taiwan supports the Church's efforts vis-à-vis China

The attempted reconciliation between the Holy See and Beijing in 2018 with the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, which has since been renewed twice despite the dialogue difficulties, has revived the issue of relations between Taiwan and the Vatican on the international stage. Pope Francis has outstretched a hand to the Chinese authorities on several occasions. Last month, during his visit to Mongolia, the Pope also greeted the Chinese people and urged Catholics in China to live "as good Christians and good citizens".

In Taiwan, it's not a reaction of concern that the authorities are displaying. Taiwan has even declared its support for the Holy See's efforts to engage in dialogue with China to defend and "improve the situation of religious freedom and human rights".

Taiwanese diplomatic spokesman Jeff Liu recalled that Taiwan shares the same values with the Vatican, and that "faithful to its values of religious freedom and the defense of human rights, Taiwan has consistently supported this peaceful path of dialogue to resolve differences on religious issues."

In addition to this positive attitude, Jeff Liu added that Taiwan supports active aid by working alongside its partner to promote and deepen cooperation in the fields of humanitarian aid worldwide, healthcare and education, within the framework of bilateral exchanges over the past eight decades.

Finally, the Taiwanese government has reiterated, as if to allay any possible concerns, that the Vatican's desire for dialogue does not include any political dimension, but remains strictly within the sphere of religious affairs, in the same way as the agreement on the appointment of bishops. However, Beijing has already reiterated on several occasions that a breakthrough in Sino-Vatican relations could only take place on condition that the Vatican first severed its official ties and exchanges with Taiwan, which the Holy See refuses to do.

Catholics calm in the face of tensions in the Taiwan Strait

When asked about the risk of conflict or isolation for the island, the Taiwanese are generally more pragmatic, concerned primarily with economic issues, and see war with China as unlikely. For the majority of the Catholics, who make up around 1 percent of Taiwan's population, the heightened tensions between the two shores of the Taiwan Strait are neither new nor a cause for major concern. They separate the diplomatic level of Taiwan-Vatican relations from the confessional level of local Church life.

Father Jeffrey Chang, rector of the Saint Robert Bellarmine Faculty of Theology, says that “the life of the local Church is not dependent on the question of diplomatic recognition between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Vatican State.” On a day-to-day basis, most Catholics live their faith independently of these political issues. Diplomatic recognition or otherwise does not dictate their religious practice.

At the same time, Christian communities in Taiwan regularly pray for peace in the Strait and around the world, at Sunday services which are also an opportunity to pray for Chinese Christians and those persecuted for their beliefs. Spiritual ties are more important than tensions or concerns. However, Father Chang concedes that it is true that in the event of an eventual diplomatic break with Beijing, even without abandoning Taipei and all that, some would experience this with a feeling - if not of abandonment - at least of a poor image in terms of trust, and of counter-witness in terms of dialogue and moral authority.

Active participation of the local Church in the life of the Universal Church

Bishop Norbert Pu of Chiayi in southwestern Taiwan, who was appointed bishop in 2002 by Pope Francis, embodies the active participation of the Taiwanese Catholics in the life of the Church and in the activities of the Holy See, starting with the training given to new bishops under the aegis of the Dicastery for Evangelization, in which he took part at the beginning of September. Among the bishops of Taiwan's seven dioceses, Bishop Norbert Pu is also taking part this month in the Plenary Assembly of the Synod, which has just opened at the Vatican.

In addition to the clergy, the Taiwanese laypeople are also active in the life of the Church. More than 300 young Taiwanese Catholics joined the recent World Youth Day in Lisbon.

All these are signs of hope for the Church which faces challenges amid diplomatic and political uncertainties as well as a declining number of believers due to an ageing population.

In all probabilities, Taiwan-Vatican diplomatic relations will continue and remain a great model of cooperation.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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