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Transcript of CNA interview with Matthew S. M. Lee, R.O.C. (Taiwan) Ambassador to the Holy See
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Background Information
Sept. 19, 2018

Transcript of CNA interview with Matthew S. M. Lee, R.O.C. (Taiwan) Ambassador to the Holy See

The Republic of China (Taiwan) Embassy to the Holy See on Sept. 18 released the following transcript of the Central News Agency’s Sept. 17 interview with Amb. Matthew S. M. Lee:
Interview with the Central News Agency

Matthew S. M. Lee
R.O.C. (Taiwan) Ambassador to the Holy See

Q1: There have been many international news reports recently that an agreement on bishop appointments between the Holy See and China is imminent. Could you please comment on this issue?

The media have on many occasions speculated that the Holy See and China are on the verge of signing an agreement on the appointment of bishops. We are seeking verification on this matter with the Holy See Secretariat of State. Such an accord, regardless of when signed, would mark the first step taken by the Holy See to address ecclesiastical issues that are long unresolved. Through this move, the Vatican hopes that Catholic believers in China will be able to make their faith a part of their daily life and that China will begin to uphold freedom of religion.

Q2: The Wall Street Journal reported that an agreement on bishop appointments between the Vatican and China would indicate that China recognizes the Pope as head of China’s Catholic Church. Could you comment on this?

Personally I believe that for many years, the Holy See has endured great adversity in its talks with China while firmly adhering to its ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Wall Street Journal, which holds its news coverage to strict standards, recently published an article stating that “China would recognize the Pope as head of China’s Catholics.” This is based on comments by two anonymous high-ranking sources in the Vatican and China. The possible scenario resulting from an agreement on bishop appointments is that the Pope would have the last word on the appointment, approval, and veto of bishops in China. The implication is that China would recognize the Pope as head of the Chinese Catholic Church. Chinese official media and government spokespersons are usually quick to refute unfavorable reports about China, but have yet to respond to the WSJ article published four days ago. This indicates tacit agreement on the part of China and adds credence to the report. Some news media have noted that such an accord would indicate both a major concession by China and a major breakthrough by the Vatican in its dialogue with China.

Q3: Has not China consistently maintained that external forces should not intervene in its internal affairs and that Chinese religious groups should not be subordinate to foreign religious groups and vice versa?

Renowned Italian scholar Francesco Sisci wrote an in-depth commentary on this issue on September 15. He maintains a good rapport with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), teaches classes on Catholicism at Renmin University of China, and often expresses support for China’s position. In his commentary, he observed that a Vatican-China agreement would certainly indicate that “practical Chinese have opened the ideological armor for the sake of improving dreary social harmony, just like 40 years ago [it] opened to market reforms to mend dismal economic performance.”

As one quotation stated, “In the universe great acts are made up of small deeds” (Tao Te Ching, Ch. 63). We must understand the CCP’s political operations and authoritarian party-state regime. In response to radical leftists and fundamentalists, it must sometimes say one thing and do another. On many occasions, China has contradicted its persistent stance that foreign forces should not intervene in its internal affairs. Its trade talks with the United States and its agreement on bishop appointments are obvious examples. We hold that there must be some truth behind Professor Sisci’s commentary and that China’s long march toward political democracy and freedom must begin with small steps, such as those resulting from its agreement with the Vatican.

Q4: Since February, China has increasingly tightened its control over all religions, especially the Catholic Church. It has been suggested that the level of religious freedom and human rights protection in China is at its lowest since the Cultural Revolution. By signing an agreement on bishop appointments with China, wouldn’t the Vatican be subjecting itself to criticism?

We all know that Pope Francis is firmly committed to protecting Catholic believers suffering in Mainland China. He stated that he “would prefer risk rather than the certain defeat that comes with not holding dialogue.” A Holy See official has suggested that the cage in which underground Catholics are living in China should be made bigger and that a poor agreement is better than no agreement. The Holy See understands that Beijing’s recent acts of suppression could lead to the end of the Catholic Church in China. We believe that, with this move, the Vatican aims to uphold its ecclesiastical hierarchy, afford people in Mainland China the chance to live a normal life of faith, and alleviate pressure on the Catholic community. This in turn would allow the Chinese Catholic Church to form an integral part of the international Catholic community and enhance religious freedom throughout China.

Q5: International media have again claimed that such an agreement would lead to the termination of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the Holy See. How do you interpret this possible development?

In our communication with the Holy See, high-ranking officials in its Secretariat of State have sincerely assured us that this agreement on bishop appointments is “aimed at handling Catholic religious affairs in China and carries no political or diplomatic connotations.” We remain committed to promoting our diplomatic efforts and advancing the partnership between Taiwan and the Holy See. We hope that society will not overinterpret this development.