One of the more intriguing outcomes from the Pope’s visit to Australia last week, was the announcement of a new Australian embassy to the Holy See. Previously all Vatican related matters have been handled as a minor item by the Australian embassy in Ireland. Labor crossed the political divide and appointed former National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer to the post. Fischer will take up the position early next year. According to media reports, the creation of the position goes against the specific advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who see no need for it. There is also criticism of the fact the new embassy will cost $5 million to set up and an additional $3 million a year to support.
But Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was not worried by these issues as he announced the decision last week in the wake of the papal Sydney visit for World Youth Day. As he farewelled Pope Benedict XVI, Rudd announced that Fischer would become Australia's first resident ambassador to the Vatican. Australia will now join 69 other nations with resident ambassadors to the Holy See, the world’s smallest official sovereign nation. The Age’s foreign affairs writer Daniel Fitton described the decision to open the embassy as bizarre. He found it hard to see how a “deeper engagement” with the Pope fits in Australia’s key foreign priorities of South East Asia, the US and the UN.
Some have pointed to the possible opening of relations between Vatican and China as a pointer to Australia’s decision. Greg Sheridan believes that Rudd’s establishment of the Vatican embassy is a “brilliant and far-sighted act” because of a likely thaw in the Vatican-China relationship. Sheridan says the Vatican is a world power despite being a small state. “It has agencies all over the world, an immense amount of global knowledge and huge influence,” he said. He believes the Vatican will move its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in the next few years. In return, Rome will appoint Catholic bishops, rather than having them appointed by the Chinese Government.
Currently, the Vatican is the only European “nation” that maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which it established at the height of World War II in 1942 (with what was then Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist China). Earlier this month, the Taiwanese ambassador was forced to hose down rumours that the Vatican was switching its allegiance to Beijing. Tu Chou-shen said there were many issues to resolve before that would happen. “I cannot say the Vatican will never forge formal ties with China,” he said. “But such relations will not happen until Beijing commits to respecting basic human rights and the public’s freedom to worship.”
Animosity between the sides goes back over half a century. The Vatican broke off official relations with the newly founded People’s Republic of China in 1951. While the two sides have been making overtures to each other for many years, matters took a turn for the worse in 2006 when Beijing appointed its own bishops ignoring Catholic Church procedure. A Vatican spokesman announced that the pope was “profoundly displeased” to hear of the news and said ordaining new bishops without papal approval seriously harms the unity of the church, leading to "severe canonical sanctions."
The appointments are part of a power play between the Vatican and the Communist Party for control of Catholicism in China. While there are an estimated 13 million Catholics in China (one percent of the total population), they are split across Vatican and Beijing sponsored organising bodies. The official Church organ in China is the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). The CPCA is the only brand of Catholicism tolerated by the government and has an estimated five million members. It was established in 1957 by the country’s Religious Affairs Bureau for the purpose of introducing party ideals into the Catholic Church.
Since then the Vatican has maintained an ambiguous relationship with the CPCA. The Vatican’s hand is strengthened by the fact that it has the support of the majority of Chinese Catholics. While five million Chinese Catholics profess to belong to the CPCA, the other eight million follow the illegal underground church which remains loyal to Rome. In a letter to Chinese Catholics last year, Pope Benedict offered “guidelines” about how to evangelise non-Catholics (presumably including CPCA members). He also acknowledged the difficulty of episcopal appointments which he described as a “delicate problem”. Solving this issue will open the door to diplomatic relations. Australia will be there among the neighbours to welcome them.