WASHINGTON -- Much could change with the death of Pope John Paul II. He was a unique individual chosen at a dangerous moment in time that, thankfully, has passed. No successor, even one as close to him as was the now Pope Benedict XVI, is likely to govern the church or become a spiritual symbol in the same way.
But there is one commitment of John Paul II's that should stand: Vatican recognition of Taiwan.
The exchange of ambassadors between secular governments and the Catholic Church always has been a bit odd. While the Pontiff's spiritual influence is enormous, the Holy See has -- appropriately -- little temporal sway. Nevertheless, it routinely swaps ambassadors with countries.
Recognition of Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, essentially followed after the communist revolutionary government expelled the Papal Nuncio, or Vatican representative, in 1951. Since then all but 25 nations have dropped Taipei for the People's Republic of China, which demands exclusive relations.
Occasionally the teams change. Macedonia wandered from PRC to ROC and back to PRC between 1993 and 2001. Beijing's abandonment of Maoism and growing economic success have given it a decided edge. In Europe only the Holy See recognizes Taiwan.
But after Pope John Paul II's death, Bishop Joseph Zen, head of Hong Kong's Catholic Church, opined that the Vatican was "ready to renounce diplomatic ties with Taiwan." He suggested that the latter would understand if the move improved freedom for believers in China.
Beijing had offered its best wishes during the Pope's final illness. After Zen's remarks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao indicated his government's interest in bettering relations.
There was a large "but," however: "In order to realize the normalization of ties between China and the Vatican, the Vatican should give up interfering in China's religious affairs and cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan."
Taipei professes to be unconcerned and Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended John Paul II's funeral. The papal embassy in Taiwan noted that ties remained unchanged. An unnamed employee was quoted as saying: "many people think Pope John Paul II was responsible for retaining ties with Taiwan, but this is simply not true."
In fact, Pope John Paul II sought to improve relations between the Catholic Church and China in order to expand freedom to worship in the PRC. In 2001 he apologized for "errors" committed by missionaries and declared: "the normalization of relations between the People's Republic of China and the Holy See would undoubtedly have positive repercussions for humanity's progress."
Nothing came of the move and Beijing remains hostile to Catholics. In fact, the PRC fears all Christians, since they are loyal to something beyond to communism and China. An official paper from the State Council of the PRC denounces past "domination," "aggression," "colonialism," and "imperialism" as practiced by Protestants as well as Catholics.
But China is particularly antagonistic to Catholicism, a truly transnational organization. Complained the PRC, "the Vatican took repeated political actions of hostility against New China." Indeed, "After the founding of the New China in 1949 the Vatican issued papal encyclicals several times instigating hatred against the new people's political power among the converts."
Nevertheless, the PRC might use the death of Pope John Paul II as an opportunity for proffering a deal. Give us recognition and we will relax our religious restrictions a bit.
It would be a bad bargain.
In most cases diplomatic relations with the Holy See matter little. But here change in recognition would have enormous symbolic consequences.
China has ruled Taiwan for just a few years over the last century. Japan seized control of what was then known as Formosa in 1895; the Chinese civil war severed the relationship between mainland and the island reestablished only in 1945.
Juridically, Beijing has a claim to Taiwan. But native Taiwanese always chafed under mainland rule. Over the last half century they have created an independent nation.
More important, they have created a democratic state and market economy. What sane Taiwan resident would want to submit to rule by the PRC?
Because diplomatic relations among major countries really do matter, the U.S. had little choice but to prefer China, especially in the midst of Cold War, when Beijing was an important counterweight to the Soviet Union. Even now, to recognize Taiwan while daring the PRC to close America's embassy would be a risky game of chicken, especially given China's increasingly important role on the international stage.
In contrast, Vatican recognition offers symbolic sanction. The PRC doesn't deserve that kind of approval until it genuinely respects religious liberty.
Of course, explains the PRC State Council, "China is always open to foreign religious organizations and individuals who are friendly to China, respect China's sovereignty and Chinese religions' principle of independence and self-administration." This means that the Catholic Church isn't even supposed to canonize Chinese martyrs without Beijing's approval. What authoritarian state wouldn't welcome that kind of relationship?
Moreover, by recognizing Taiwan the Holy See is offering important support for 23 million people who don't want to be forcibly absorbed by the mainland. Among nations, Taiwan represents the poor and downtrodden whom John Paul II so eloquently championed.
Taipei needs advocates on the international stage. The Papacy is one.
The Vatican's spiritual obligations are far more important than its temporal duties. But its latter role matters in this case by implicitly acknowledging the right of the Taiwanese people to organize their society, free from threats by China. That should not change with the installation of a new Pope.