TAIPEI – A top official in the Taiwanese Catholic Church has voiced doubt that a controversial secret agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops actually exists on paper, suggesting that the deal was more of an exchange of words rather than formalities.

Father Otfried Chan – Secretary General of the Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference, which covers Taiwan – also touched on whether the agreement could put the Holy See’s diplomatic relationship with Taipei at risk, saying he thinks the status of relations could eventually change, but is convinced that the Vatican will not “abandon” Catholics in Taiwan.

Though he insisted he does not speak for anyone other than himself, Chan told journalists Oct. 24 that he has heard “speculation” that the Vatican’s deal with China on bishop appointments “doesn’t exist, only in the mind of the people, not on paper.”

Last September the Vatican announced a “provisional agreement” with China on the appointment of bishops, but the terms of the secret deal have never been made public. It is widely believed that it allows Chinese officials to propose bishops for the pope to approve.

The only term made public at the announcement of the agreement was Pope Francis’s decision to lift the excommunication of seven bishops ordained by Chinese authorities without the approval of the pope, meaning they had been serving illicitly until the deal was struck.

Noting the controversy surrounding the decision to keep the agreement secret, Chan said he thinks that “maybe there is some truth” to the rumors that there is no formal paper deal, “because if Beijing has signed anything written in a document, they wouldn’t be persecuting Christians now.”

Chan referred to stories coming out of China recounting how authorities have routinely cracked down on religious life in the country, including taking down crosses from churches and destroying statues of the Virgin Mary.

What is in the news, he said, is not “a dialogue” but “a monologue” in which many Vatican officials have come out in defense of the deal, while other Catholic officials have criticized it, but there has been no word from China.

“But Beijing speaks with actions, not with words (or) documents,” Chan said. “So what’s happening (is) they are reinforcing religious oppression very much…they are not sincere, they are not interested in building diplomatic ties with the Vatican, and I think the Holy See understands that now.”

If there were a written accord, Beijing would be held to it, he said, voicing his belief that the agreement was primarily made with the intention “to make some illicit bishops licit, to legalize their status, to create unity between the underground Church and the official Church. I think that’s the goal of the agreement, but how it looks, nobody knows.”

Speaking to journalists from the headquarters of the Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference, Chan acknowledged that the pope, as a spiritual leader, has a responsibility to care for Catholics all over the world, and because of this, “he must take care of his flock in China and the unity between the official Church and the Vatican Church.”

“It’s his duty, not the politician’s duty,” he said, “but to do this, he needs to dialogue with Beijing. But it failed. It’s not successful, that’s a fact.”

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Asked why the Vatican’s Ostpolitik strategy of engaging communism, which appears to have been more effective in Europe, is not working with China, Chan said part of the reason is cultural, as Europe has deeper Christian roots, whereas the concept of Christianity is still relatively new to Chinese culture.

Originally, Ostpolitik was a term in the late 1960s to describe normalization of relations between the two Germanys. Later, it also came to refer to efforts under Paul VI to engage Eastern European communist regimes through compromise and agreements with the aim of building on small gains over time.

The same basic approach has been employed by every pope since with China, up to and including Francis – with the exception, perhaps, of John Paul I, whose 33 days in office didn’t allow him much time for international affairs.

Noting how there have been vocal critics of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik approach to China, including archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, Chan said that while he does not always agree with Zen’s methods, he thinks the cardinal’s positions are “prophetic.”

Speaking of fears that the Holy See would drop diplomatic relations with Taipei should Beijing open the door to establishing formal ties, Chan said he expects that the status of relations could change but is confident the Vatican will not leave Taiwan behind.

The Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1942 when a diplomatic minister was assigned, arriving in Rome in 1943.

After the Chinese civil war, then-President Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 fled to the island of Taiwan with his government, while the communists established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.

Under the subsequent “One China” policy, governments have forged diplomatic relations with either Taipei or Beijing, but not both, as no country has formally recognized Taiwan as an independent country.

By the 1970s, most Western countries switched their embassies to Beijing. Currently, there are just 15 nations that hold formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. The Vatican is the only country in Europe to do so.

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During a May 2018 meeting with Francis as part of their ad limina visit to Rome, a trip that happens roughly every five years in which bishops meet with the pope and various Vatican departments to discuss the status of their local church, the Taiwanese bishops touched on this issue.

According to Chan, who served as translator during the meeting, both the pope and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin insisted that “the Church never, ever abandons its sheep.”

Even if the Holy See opts to forge formal ties with Beijing, the message was that “it doesn’t mean that we forget Taiwan and give up Taiwan,” Chan said.

“I don’t exclude that the status of Taiwan (might) change. I can imagine that, but never ever a withdrawal and then Taiwan will be abandoned to itself. No, impossible,” he said, voicing his confidence that however things look down the line, Taiwan will not be forgotten.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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