I would like the express my gratitude to Cardinal Zen for agreeing to answer a few questions for Catholic World Report at this crucial moment in the history of the Catholic Church in China.
Over the past several days we corresponded about pressing issues related to the current Sino-Vatican negotiations that are underway. I first met Cardinal Zen several years ago at his humble residence with the Salesians in Hong Kong, where we spent more than an hour discussing the state of China’s Church. Since then, Catholics in China have encountered new pressures from state authorities. Their situation has become even more unpredictable, as the Holy See appears to be redirecting its strategy in China in directions that have left much of China’s Church confused and wondering if Rome is about to strike a deal with a government that has proven itself hostile to religious belief. Time and again China’s government has employed dishonesty and manipulation to attain its ends. The communist intellectual Leon Trotsky once wrote, “Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.” In light of the apparently quickly-shifting sands of Sino-Vatican negotiations, His Eminence Cardinal Zen has offered some insightful remarks about the present status of China’s Church.
Cardinal Zen, in other recent interviews, has suggested that Pope Francis is not well-informed regarding the actual circumstances of the Church in China. And so I asked him directly: “Do you think that your recent visit with Pope Francis and the letter you gave him has influenced the current negotiations between the Holy See and Beijing?”
Cardinal Zen appeared pessimistic that his message to the Holy Father has actually been considered; he noted, “It is understandable—Pope Francis does not have very wide and strong experience with communist regimes, and all the time I am trying desperately to give him some insight.”
What is concerning most Catholics—both inside and outside of China—is how the unregistered Chinese faithful are interpreting such recent developments as unregistered (“underground”) bishops being asked by the Holy See to step down and guarantee their obedience to state-supported, and excommunicated, bishops, in order to appease China’s authorities. When asked if the “underground” Catholic community in China feels betrayed by the Vatican’s overtures to Beijing, Cardinal Zen answered simply, “Definitely.”
I told His Eminence that I recently returned from a month living in Beijing, and that I had gathered from discussions with registered clergy that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is interested in an agreement with the Holy See in order to facilitate a papal visit to China. To this, he remarked, “Obviously, the people in the Patriotic Association feel happy that their illegitimate position shall be legitimized, and they surely would also welcome a possible visit by the Pope. But the visit will be manipulated by the Government and it will cause much sadness in the people of the underground community, who will not be able to see the Pope (just as what happened in Cuba).”
Given Cardinal Zen’s view the current Holy See has adopted an adverse approach to dealing with China’s authorities, I asked if the current Vatican Ostpolitik with China is undermining the work done previously by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. More to the point, I asked if the current pontificate is contradicting the aims expressed in Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to the Chinese Church.
“Even under Pope Benedict XVI the Roman Curia wasted his many efforts to help the Church in China,” replied Cardinal Zen. “The difference is in that while Pope Benedict XVI knew very well the situation, the people in the Vatican did not follow his directives, and now while Pope Francis does not know much about the Chinese communists and is so optimistic, the people around him are pushing him further in his optimism, and avoiding informing him about the very negative side of the present reality.”
American Catholics have recently seen photographs of Party officials destroying the crosses and bell towers of a Xinjiang church. I asked: Does it appear to you that the previous sacrifices of China’s faithful Catholics and their current struggles are being adequately acknowledged by the Holy See?
“Tearing down the crosses and demolishing churches are only the more visible episodes,” he insisted, “the continuous harassments and humiliations [endured by China’s Catholics] would take volumes to be narrated.”
In the end, one discerns that Cardinal Zen is calling for a more informed, measured, and cautious approach by Pope Francis and his advisors in the Roman Curia. Much is at stake for those in both communities of the Chinese Church. For the registered community, a Sino-Vatican agreement could mean a sense of legitimacy and Vatican endorsement, while for the unregistered community such an agreement could potentially mean estrangement, fear, and more tears.
The Russian Orthodox author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who understood communism well, once wrote: “The communist regime in the East could stand and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship and refused to see communism’s crimes. When they no longer could do so, they tried to justify them.” Cardinal Zen has spent much of his life as a priest and bishop in mainland China and Hong Kong witnessing and hearing about the continued suffering of the Chinese Church since 1949, and it is clear that he is expressing his views with such adamancy today because he is attempting to insert a voice of warning into a dialogue that appears to have forgotten what communism had done, and is doing, to the Church in China.
Related reading: “The Catholic Church in China: Historical context and the current situation” by Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | March 9, 2018