The Church’s Fight for Survival in China

An exclusive interview with Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen

Hong Kong remains Asia’s most modern city, bursting with people and rising materialism. Nestled within the island’s network of winding roads, steep escalators, and soaring skyscrapers is a small building that houses a community of modest Salesians who serve the poor and educate the young after the example of St. John Bosco. It is difficult to imagine when first arriving at this unassuming community that it is the home of China’s most prominent and outspoken Catholic prelate, Cardinal Joseph Zen, SDB.

After being granted a private interview, Father Paul Mariani, SJ and I awaited His Eminence downstairs in his residence at the Salesian House of Studies. Cardinal Zen joined us, adjusted the air conditioning, and informed us that he was feeling “a bit unwell” that day. Despite his illness, he was generous with his time, and lived up to his reputation of honesty and candor regarding the situation of the Church in China.

Zen served as bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, and was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. When asked in a previous interview whether he intended to rest in his retirement, he answered: “I am retiring, but I’m not going to stop working for the Chinese Church.” It is clear that Cardinal Zen is a deeply pious laborer in the vineyard of the Lord, and that his heart is unflinchingly committed to improving the status of China’s long-suffering Catholic community. He is perhaps the most informed man alive today regarding what transpires among the Christians who live within the Great Wall.

Our discussion began with a reflection on Tertullian’s statement that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. We asked Cardinal Zen why it is that China has produced a comparatively large number of Christian martyrs in its history, and why persecution against Catholics persists so strongly today. He responded, “When we talk about the situation in China, we are talking about the persecution under the Communist regime.” He noted that while Communism is in principle the same everywhere, it has different characteristics depending on the country in which it exists. “China is fundamentally a place where Christians are the minority,” and in China the Christian mission “has been considered imperialist,” according to Zen. Thus, the Communist persecution of Christians in China has been “cruel and pitiless.” Also, since “China’s Communist regime is an ‘improved edition’ of Communism,” control there over religion is particularly tight.

We asked why it is that while the Chinese government wants the Catholic community to be indigenous, it nonetheless suppresses the veneration of the Chinese saints canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Zen noted that “you never know what’s in the mind of the Communist government in China”; it is “very secretive” about its proceedings. But, he said, after the Vatican’s announcement that the canonizations would take place, the authorities asked Catholics “to sign a document against the Pope.” He also recalled that the decision to hold the canonization ceremony on October 1, China’s national day, “was, of course, a big mistake.” Choosing the day that China celebrates the beginning of its Communist government to canonize Catholic saints was viewed by the Party as an intentional insult. And due to the government’s control over the Church’s activities, “very few Chinese Catholics are aware of the 120 canonized martyrs,” Zen stated.

Another problem China’s Church faces is rising nationalism. Cardinal Zen insists that Chinese Catholics remain Chinese, “just like before.” The Church, he said, does not threaten Chinese identity.

Regarding the Mainland’s escalating nationalism, Zen maintains that the first thing to bear in mind is that Chinese and Western cultures are in fact quite different. “The missionary coming here brings his own nationality, and in spite of all the efforts he makes he is still a foreigner. You should not be scandalized by this.” Nonetheless, “The missionaries brought the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas with them when they came to China. What’s wrong with this? They brought the best of the Church with them.” While nationalism grows more extreme, the cardinal maintains that Westerners and Chinese are in the end different, and that both should honor each other’s gifts.

When asked why the canonized Chinese martyr-saints date only as recent as 1930, Cardinal Zen responded that perhaps the Vatican “did not want to irritate the Communist government.” But Zen wondered, “Why should we not publicize all those martyrs who died under the Communists?” And he added, “People here don’t dare to publish. They say, ‘We wait for better times.’ But I would say, ‘When would there be “better times”? Now is the better time.”’ Zen calls on Catholics who suffered through the anti-Christian cruelties of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to recount their stories. And he also exhorts scholars to write histories of what happened. Zen suggested that it is a pity that Catholics do not publish now, while persecution is still rampant in China; “now is when people need encouragement.”

“Martyrdom means ‘witness,’” he said, and China’s martyrs—those who are canonized and those whose stories are not yet known—must be written about and discussed in order to strengthen the faith of those who suffer today under mistreatment.

We asked Cardinal Zen about the current situation of the “underground” and “above-ground” Catholic communities; while some have said that the line between them is disappearing, many Chinese priests and bishops today assert the opposite—that the division between them is growing more intense. Zen said:

Between 1989 and 1996 I was living in China six months a year teaching in the seminaries of the open Church, and my conclusion as I taught at the Shanghai seminary was that they are Catholics, just like the Catholics anywhere else in the world. And so I told people that they should not think that the underground is loyal and the open Patriotic Church has betrayed the faith. No, not at all.

At a synod I told the bishops that there is only one Church in China, because in their hearts [Chinese Catholics] have the same faith. But if you look from the structural point of view, how they are run, it is clear that you have two separate Churches. The underground Church is beyond the law. It has a kind of freedom, and it doesn’t accept the control of the government. But the open Church is still held tightly under the government’s power. So, surely you cannot say that the line is disappearing. Some people say that the underground should surface. That’s absolutely wrong. It’s not in the letter of the Holy Father [to the Catholics of China, published in 2007], and this view has been clarified in the footnotes of the [letter’s] compendium [published in 2009]. The Holy Father was talking about a reconciliation of hearts, not a merger into one system.

If the government’s control of the open Church is so imposing, Zen asked, “Why should the underground surrender to the open Church?” After all, he stated, “They have suffered for so long, and to suddenly surrender is not at all a fair expectation.”

Cardinal Zen’s directness is often disparaged, but he says that he is not concerned with popularity; he is, like Pope Benedict XVI, a man committed to the truth. “When in China, if anybody talks against the underground I will defend the underground, and if anybody talks against the open Church I will defend the open Church, because they are all under persecution.” Unfortunately, Zen suggested, “The Holy Father’s generosity in legitimizing the bishops of the open Church has not born the fruits it was supposed to produce.”

“This was a compromise from both sides,” Zen explained. “The Holy Father recognized and approved [these government-selected bishops] without demanding any acts of rebellion against the government, and on the other hand, the government accepted this without punishing the bishops who were endorsed by the Pope.”

So, Zen asks, why do the two communities remain so divided? “A solution can be found…so it is really beyond my understanding why it is still the same. I blame those bishops in China who are not following the will of the Church’s leaders, but rather only wish to follow their own advantage.”

Another problem is that many of those bishops approved by the Pope are not strong. And, Zen states, “Even some who are in communion with Rome will say in their speeches, ‘I want an independent Church.’ How can they say they are in communion with the Holy Father? This is incredible.” Cardinal Zen, himself deeply committed to the Vatican, calls upon his fellow bishops in China to be undivided, to follow Rome without equivocation. This, he insists, is what it means to be an “authentic bishop in the Catholic Church.”

We asked Cardinal Zen whether he felt that the Pope’s letter to China actually removed the underground Church’s raison d’être, in light of the Pope’s suggestion that being “underground” is not the normal way the Church functions. Has the Pope’s statement somehow created new confusions in the Chinese Church? Zen says no, asserting that in China, “Catholics are scandalized that official bishops who have been recognized by the Pope are still on the side of the government.” He stated that the Pope has not in fact asked the underground Church to surface and join the Patriotic Church, but rather has highlighted the extremity of China’s abnormal situation. The cardinal proposes that the underground community has good cause to be suspicious of the sanctioned Church, though this view has received some criticisms. To his critics he says:

People say, “Who are you, Cardinal Zen? You live in a peaceful environment and you push your brothers to martyrdom.” I don’t push anyone to martyrdom; martyrdom is a special grace from God. But I think that if you are a bishop you must be coherent with your faith. The most important thing to the Communists is control, and they have found a way to control the Church in China through the Patriotic Association.

When asked to elaborate on how the Patriotic Church is controlled in China, Cardinal Zen pointed to Liu Bainian, the current vice chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Zen affirms that Liu is perhaps one of the most significant factors in the government’s efforts to control China’s Catholics.

“For many years [Liu] has been head of the whole Chinese Church, and the bishops are really just his slaves,” Zen expalined. “At dinners with Mr. Liu and the bishops, Liu is the only one who talks. But when he goes away everyone can speak; this is very humiliating. Some, however, consider him a saint. What can we do? It’s amazing.”

When asked about detractors who claim that Liu and Zen are two extremes who keep the Chinese Church divided, the cardinal responded:

They are not wrong. We really are two extremes. He [desires] the whole Chinese Church to remain in a state of separation from Rome; he has pushed for the illicit ordination of bishops, and he pushed for the 50-year celebration of the Patriotic Association. We even have evidence that many things he does go beyond what the government orders. When the government calls for five bishops to attend a Chinese synod, Liu sends a sixth. The government cannot be happy about this.

Cardinal Zen stated that it would help the situation in China if the bishops would simply begin to honor the Holy Father’s recent letter to the Chinese Church. “I cannot understand how it is that so many people do not take his letter seriously; some even give the letter a distorted interpretation.”

Despite the serious problems facing the Church in China, the number of Catholics continues to rise. One wonders what the Church there is doing right.

“It is no surprise,” Zen says, “that people find consolation in Christianity when China is in such a disordered state.” He also asks the world to bear in mind that “Chinese Christians are still a very small minority,” and that people “should not be overly demanding of the Chinese Church at this time.” He says, “The Chinese Church today has to fight for survival, unlike the Church in other parts of the world. But despite its need to fight for survival it manages to evangelize and offer charitable services.”

Finally, we asked Cardinal Zen what Catholics outside of China can do for the Chinese Church. His answer was quite simple:

I think the first thing is to get to know the Church in China. The pity today is that there are many people who know about what is happening in China but do not talk, and many people who do talk about China’s Catholics but do not really know anything. People must know the reality—the true reality of the situation. Today there’s too much confusion—too much confusion.

Cardinal Zen also noted, “The Holy Father today is very clear in his ideas regarding the Church in China, and we are lucky to have such a Pope.”

As we completed our discussion we recalled again the words of Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. We reflected on how China’s history of Catholic persecution continues to inspire Chinese Catholics toward deeper commitment to their faith. Cardinal Zen ended with a prayer to Our Lady, Help of Christians, “to bless all those who are suffering for their faith, and also the people who are trying to help them.” As we stood to leave, Cardinal Zen said, “Well, I need to rush off so I can offer my daily Mass.” He blessed for us a number of images of Our Lady of China, and left the room.

Zen is a man of the Church, profoundly concerned for the faith and freedom of his fellow Chinese. And it is clear that he will not rest until the Communist government of China gives the Church complete independence from its control. As Zen said, “The final word should not be exclusively on the side of an atheistic government.” It appears that Cardinal Zen intends to get little respite in his retirement years, for he has set himself to no less a task than contending with a government that he describes as “cruel and pitiless.” Despite China’s struggles, Zen is a man of hope; as he has said, “Winter has passed and spring will come.”


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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 55 Articles
Anthony E. Clark, PhD, FRHistS, FRAS, is Professor of Chinese History at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, and the author of several books on Catholicism in China and related topics, including China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911, Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi, and Catholicism and Buddhism: The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom. In 2021, he was elected a Fellow of the London Royal Historical Society. Visit him online here.