As the late pope was on his deathbed, the outline of a deal was being hammered out between the Vatican and the Chinese government. Hours after John Paul II quit this vale of tears, the results of those negotiations were made public. The Vatican would be willing to derecognize Taiwan in exchange for the license to operate openly in China. Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was quoted in the London Daily Telegraph as saying, "The Holy See has been thinking of giving up Taiwan. This is a difficult [decision], but it has decided to do it. If the Holy See does not establish [diplomatic] ties with China, Catholics there will not have real freedom."
Sometimes my church is so breathtakingly cynical that even I am taken aback by it all. Here you had an ailing pope whose last, explicitly political book went on at length about the right of peoples to establish their own autonomous political communities, a pope who in 2000 had offended the sensibilities of Beijing by canonizing over 100 martyrs killed in the Boxer rebellion, a pope who was kept out of China because of his anti-Communism and his insistence that Rome should determine the rules and leaders of the local arm of the Catholic Church.
Only hours after John Paul II's death, the Vatican announced its willingness to do an about-face on its policy in re: China and Taiwan. And even that wasn't enough to placate the Chinese. Beijing refused to send a representative to Rome to protest the Vatican's decision to allow Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to attend the pope's funeral.
According to the Telegraph, the deal might still be killed by strident Chinese nationalism and the Vatican's stubborn insistence that it will have the final say in matters of church governance. Bishop Zen tried to put the best possible face on the Vatican's non-negotiables:
"The Pope appoints bishops everywhere and nobody is offended," he said. "We hope the Chinese government can understand this. The Holy See just wants religious peace for its people. It has no political ambitions whatsoever."
But that didn't go over so well with his negotiating partners:
Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, reacted with scepticism, claiming that the country's state-approved Catholics "had chosen to run their church independently amid a struggle against colonialism, imperialism and slavery".
He said that China's constitution banned religious groups and affairs from being controlled by foreign forces.
The Telegraph hinted at a possible compromise, in which Beijing proposes and Rome disposes, but that's pretty much the way things work now. A piece in the latest issue of Newsweek does a good job of laying out the organization and contradictions of the Chinese Catholic Church.
On one level, you have an underground church, recognized by Rome and very grudgingly tolerated (i.e., not crushed to a pulp) by the Chinese government. On another level, you have the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which has undergone a significant shift in the last 15 years:
The most important compromise has been over the appointment of Chinese bishops. Until the early 1990s, the official Chinese church simply appointed them unilaterally to create a structure outside papal supervision. Yet since then the process has been quietly altered. Before consecration, official candidates now are given time to quietly seek papal approval via intermediaries in Hong Kong. Ren [Yanli], the [Chinese Academy of Social Sciences] scholar, confirmed the practice for the first time in an interview with Newsweek. "We have only nine bishops who are not recognized by the pope [out of 71 altogether]," he said.
The Vatican would like for the underground church to be able to see the light of day and -- near as I can tell -- it would like to merge that church with the state-approved church, and control them both. It is willing to withdraw its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in order to take this gamble.