A new phase in relations between the Holy See and mainland China could begin with a new vacancy in the apostolic nunciature now based in Taiwan.

The presence of an apostolic nunciature in Taiwan dates back to the Chinese Civil War; it has been a hurdle for diplomatic relations for decades.

The People’s Republic of China (mainland China) has never acknowledged the existence of Taiwan as the Republic of China. It considers Taiwan a rebel province that should be re-absorbed by its homeland.

Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China enjoyed a mild thaw in November 2015, when mainland China president Xi Jinping and Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore.

In recent decades, the nunciature has no longer been headed by a nuncio. Rather, its head is a lower-ranked diplomat, a chargé d’affairs. The most recent chargé d’affairs in Taiwan was Monsignor Paul Fitzpatrick Russell, a U.S. citizen who is 57 and who hails from Greenfield, Mass.

On March 19 the Holy See announced that Msgr. Russell had been appointed apostolic nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan.   The appointment leaves a vacancy in Taiwan. The fact that he has been moved to a new post may signal some developments in Holy See — mainland Chinese relations. This could mean that the Holy See wants to leave the post vacant, while in the process of normalizing relations with People’s Republic of China.   Pope Francis has showed great interest in restoring relations with mainland China, and it is no secret that one of his dreams would be a visit to Beijing.   Under Xi, the Holy See’s relations with mainland China improved at a diplomatic level. It is noteworthy that Pope Francis has been the first Pope allowed to fly through the country's airspace, during his flights to South Korea and the Philippines.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, recently said that relations with mainland China “have been and are part of a long path with different phases. This path is not concluded yet, and we will finalize it according to God’s will.”   Cardinal Parolin told the Italian magazine San Francesco Rivista that mainland China-Holy See relations “are living a positive phase, as there had been signals from both side that there is the wish to keep on talking in order to find together solutions to the problems of the presence of the Catholic Church in that huge country.”

The cardinal granted that “perspectives are promising.” He hoped that “the blossom will flourish and bear good fruits, for the good of the same China and of all the world.” The interview was published May 4 on the occasion of the translation of the San Francesco Rivista into Mandarin Chinese.

In order to harvest the fruits of this diplomatic thaw, it is possible that the nunciature in Taiwan will be left without a high-ranking papal representative for a time.   This does not mean that the nunciature will be closed. A source familiar with the Chinese environment notes the possibility that the Vatican may decrease the rank of the nunciature to China to that of an inter-nunciature, which is not considered a diplomatic delegation. The news outlet China Post predicted this outcome some months ago.

Surprisingly, the inter-nunciature model can be compared to U.S.-Holy See relations before both states stablished full diplomatic relations in 1984.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII had established a nunciature at a “non-diplomatic level” as a reference point between the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy in the United States.

This approach contrasts with the so-called “Vietnam solution.” Vietnam lacks diplomatic ties to the Vatican, but it is engaged in a series of bilateral meetings with the Holy See.

In 2011 it accepted a Holy See “non-resident representative.” However, this position implies a diplomatic role. At present the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See are not going to establish any kind of diplomatic ties.

The Holy See could move the headquarters of the nunciature from Taipei to Beijing. Xi might accept this if the Holy See also asks Taiwan to close its embassy to the Holy See.   The steps toward some kind of official relations between the two States should come together with an unspoken agreement on the appointment of bishops; the Chinese government has not always acknowledged the Holy See’s episcopal appointments.   Some experts have said the Church-State controversies in China should be seen in a different light.

Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication and involved in the Holy See-China dialogue from the 1980s, spoke on this topic during a book presentation in December 2015. He said the narrative insisting on a dichotomy between an “underground Church” and an “official Church” in China should be replaced, and that it is more correct to speak about the Church in China as being partially acknowledged by the government and partially not.   One idea to help the so-called underground Church out of the catacombs is to have the Pope appoint bishops from a roster proposed by (or at least acceptable to) the Beijing administration.   This procedure would smooth the process to get the twofold approval of the Holy See and the mainland Chinese government for bishops’ appointments. It would make easier the regularization of bishops who are still considered “clandestine” by the mainland Chinese government.

The Holy See established relations with China in 1922, though at a minor level. In 1946 the Holy See established an inter-nunciature to China. The Holy See’s diplomats left Beijing in 1951, ousted by the new government of the People’s Republic of China after the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek to Taipei.

The inter-nunciature was elevated to the rank of nunciature in 1966. It maintained its name of the Apostolic Nunciature to China, amid the disputed claims of the two governments.   Advances in mainland Chinese-Vatican relations in no way mean that the Holy See wants to forget Catholics in Taiwan.   In fact, Msgr. Russell has done remarkable work in Taiwan, which Ma acknowledged in his April 7 farewell to the Vatican diplomat.   The president, probably fearing weakening ties with the Vatican, noted that Taiwan-Holy See diplomatic relations had entered its 74th year. He emphasized some of the breakthroughs in relations achieved since 2008.   These include: a bilateral agreement for higher education on the recognition of studies, qualifications, diplomas and degrees; the concert of the Sistine Chapel Choir in Taipei in 2014; the 2015 exhibition “Treasures from Heaven” that took place in Taipei, displaying works of art from the Vatican; and the Taiwanese delegation led by Ma that took part in Pope Francis’ installation Mass in 2013.   While relations with the People’s Republic of China tend to improve, and a papal trip to China seems to be less of a dream and more of a possibility, Taiwan wanted to claim its long term link with China.   Time will tell if there will be a new chargé d’affairs in Taiwan or if Msgr. Russell’s tenure marks the end of an era. At the moment, he has been simply moved to Turkey, with the mission to improve and strengthen relations with the country that has become a gateway to Europe.