What does the Year of the Tiger have in store for us at the Vatican?

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Monsignor Araldo Catalan. Credit: Archdiocese of Manila.

The daily bulletin of resignations and appointments of the Holy See on Monday morning contained 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 job he’s leaving, listed simply as ‘China (Taipei)’, in the bollettino.

The Catalan is now the former Chargé d’Affaires, normally a diplomatic second-in-command, at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in Taiwan, one of the very few diplomatic missions in Taiwan with full embassy status. .

But his job was actually more important than that, and his reassignment will likely prove a key element in the ongoing delicate chess game between the Holy See and China – a game that is expected to become tense over the course of the year. coming year.

While the Holy See has officially preserved its full bilateral relations with Taiwan, despite both mainland pressure and its own diplomatic ambitions for an embassy in Beijing, there has been no ambassador or nuncio to Taiwan since. the 1970s – the Catalan held a lesser diplomatic and ecclesiastical rank on paper, but practically functioned as the Vatican’s ambassador to Taiwan.

The priest’s departure was announced with no indication of when – or if – a successor will be appointed, leaving the Taipei nunciature bereft of a senior diplomat.

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The significance of the departure from Catalan went largely unnoticed among the Catholic and wider media, and it seems the Holy See intended it that way: ordinarily, the Vatican’s daily news bulletin is published in multiple languages , and at least in Italian and English. But the announcement of Catalan’s departure on January 31 only appears in Italian. The English-speaking Vatican bollettino the page has no entries for that day, with entries normally resuming on February 1.

Although Roma may have been keen to limit media attention on the Catalan’s transfer, the ultimate significance of this decision will very much depend on what happens next and why.

It is possible that the Holy See intends to leave its embassy in Taiwan vacant indefinitely, reducing its diplomatic recognition to a paper pledge, as a kind of step forward against escalating tensions between Beijing and Taipei.

It is equally plausible that the Vatican Secretariat of State intends to delay the appointment of a new charge d’affaires, keeping the announcement of a senior diplomat in Taiwan as something of an ace in the sleeve. during negotiations with the mainland, as negotiations continue on the appointment of mainland Chinese bishops.

As 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 taken over the selection and consecration of bishops of its own choosing, essentially challenging the Vatican to refuse to recognize them after the fact. The Vatican might hope that the threat of appointing a diplomat to Taiwan will be enough to stop this trend.

But, no matter the long term, it is impossible to separate Catalan’s departure from Taipei from what is happening to the Church across China, and especially from what is happening to the Church in Hong Kong:

Last week, the Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao published four separate articles about the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who, even in retirement and in his ninth decade, has remained a totemic figure for Chinese Catholics. persecuted and defenders of democracy. Ta Kung Pao belongs to the CCP Liaison Office – basically the government department responsible for overseeing the Hong Kong government.

The fulmination against Zen in a state-run newspaper is perhaps nothing particularly new – though the raw and sudden volume of it is remarkable. What is new is the government newspaper’s association of Zen with imprisoned Catholic newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, and the accusation that Zen is using his clerical status to ‘disrupt’ life in Hong Kong. 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 direct attack on religious freedom in Hong Kong. They also noted that state-sponsored searing editorials are often the first sign of government action to come.

Any move to try the 90-year-old cardinal in Hong Kong would likely trigger a diplomatic incident and generate more heat than the CCP wants, but it’s not out of the question.

More likely, the editorials are a warning shot directed at Zen’s successor, newly installed Hong Kong Bishop Stephen Chow, who in a recent interview said it is “unacceptable that human dignity be ignored , flouted or rejected”.

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

Beijing was probably not happy with the outspokenness of the new bishop, and the editorials on Zen are widely seen as a warning.

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There is another sign that Vatican officials might expect things to get tougher for the Church in China in the months ahead.

The Vatican Embassy in Taiwan has, for years, maintained a not-so-secret shadow mission in Hong Kong. In 2020, two Chinese nuns who worked at the mission were arrested while visiting the mainland, detained for several weeks, and banned from returning to Hong Kong.

The mission has also been the subject of numerous cyberattacks.

More than a year ago, Church officials took precautions against the possibility of future assault: Ghost mission records were moved out of Hong Kong and sent to the Philippines, sources say close to the Secretariat of State. The pillar.

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

Nor does it seem particularly significant that a government-owned newspaper is hitting a nonagenarian cardinal in Hong Kong.

And it may seem irrelevant that an unofficial diplomatic mission in Hong Kong moved its archives offsite and out of the country.

But taken together, the signs show that Beijing and Rome are entering the Year of the Tiger on very tense grounds. Who will take the next step, and what kind of response it will trigger, remains to be seen. What seems clear is who will be caught in the middle – in Taipei and Hong Kong – of Chinese Catholic priests, bishops, religious and laity.

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