The most striking thing about the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, SDB, in Hong Kong on Wednesday is the anodyne statement from the Vatican regarding the news. At least, the muted response from Holy See press office director Matteo Bruni was the most striking thing, until the Cardinal-Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, offered what in other circumstances would have been obiter dicta perhaps worthy of mention on a slow news day.
Cardinal Zen is Bishop-emeritus of Hong Kong. His name is well known even to casual consumers of Church news, but may be familiar also to general readers of news in big national and international papers. Zen is an outspoken critic of both the Communist government on the Chinese mainland and of the Holy See’s provisional accord with the China’s repressive totalitarian regime.
National security police took Cardinal Zen in for questioning on Wednesday in Hong Kong, reportedly along with at least three other people with whom he had worked at the defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, a charitable outfit that offered financial support for legal defense to democracy advocates on the island. The police released Cardinal Zen and the others later on Wednesday, after several hours’ detention. Authorities confiscated their passports.
Vatican News said the other persons were lawyer Margaret Ng, activist and pop singer Denise Ho, and former academic Hui Po-keung. Police said they were arrested on charges of “collusion with foreign forces.” That is a crime under the far-reaching “national security” legislation the mainland imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, in an effort to quash democracy agitation after the mainland practically abandoned its “one country, two systems” policy and undertook a crackdown on the island that has garnered international condemnation.
“The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest,” Bruni told journalists late Wednesday afternoon, hours after journalists had confirmed the arrest. Bruni said the Holy See “is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”
Not even a “not the done thing” from the Third Loggia or any other Vatican quarter. “Extreme attention” is stronger than “some attention” but isn’t quite the expression of alarm or indignation one may reasonably expect under the circumstances. To paraphrase an old Vatican hand with whom I spoke shortly after the statement’s release: One could imagine stronger words from the Holy See were an Italian cardinal denied service in a Roman eatery.
Mind the setting
The backdrop to the arrest is the Holy See’s much-controverted, frequently maligned, and fairly doubtful (even within the walls of Vatican City, albeit quietly so) 2018 accord with the Chinese government, which had the twofold purpose of repairing a decades-long schism that split the government-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association from Rome and from the Chinese bishops and faithful who remained loyal to Rome. Neither side has published the terms of the deal, but the broad strokes of it are that both the Communist government on the mainland and the pope get a say in the appointment of bishops.
The Chinese like that, and Rome apparently decided it can tolerate that, in exchange for visible – if minimal – Church unity and better treatment of Catholics in China. “Better” raises the question: “Better than what?” It has long been clear that the deal was bad, and fair to surmise that the deal has helped Catholics even less than its architects modestly hoped.
What about now?
On Thursday, Cardinal Parolin was in Croatia to mark the 30th anniversary of that nation’s independence and the 25th anniversary of the Holy See’s official treaties with the country. Speaking in general terms, Parolin said such instruments are “useful for regulating the life of the Church and guaranteeing its independence in the face of the desire to interfere in its organization.”
They certainly can be.
The Vatican News piece that carried the story of Cardinal Parolin’s speech said that the Secretary of State was speaking specifically of the agreement with China when he offered the following: “The important thing is not the concordat but the concord,” because the value of agreements lies “in promoting harmony and coexistence in today’s societies.” Vatican News notes that Parolin was quoting Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Secretary of State from 1979 until 1991 and the architect of Pope St. Paul VI’s so-called Ostpolitik (basically the Vatican’s version of détente).
[Don’t] rock the boat
Unless the Cardinal Secretary of State is completely checked out, he read the line on purpose. Assuming he isn’t checked out, there are two possible reads: the Vatican is willing to let this play out and won’t make too much fuss because they don’t want to rock the boat; or, Cardinal Parolin is recalling his Chinese counterparts to the spirit of their little arrangement – gently, so as not to rock the boat.
One may be forgiven for thinking of Cardinal Parolin muttering, à la Lando Calrissian, “This deal is getting worse all the time.” It is harder to imagine him turning on his erstwhile imperial partners – and that is something of a problem.
How much is too much? The Chinese now know they can arrest a Prince of the Church, confiscate his passport, and hold him for a few hours’ close questioning, without eliciting the naked ire of the Vatican.
Also on Thursday, the Diocese of Hong Kong issued a statement saying that they are “extremely concerned about the condition and safety of Cardinal Joseph Zen,” adding that the faithful there are “offering our special prayers for him.”
“We have always upheld the rule of law,” the statement continues. “We trust that in the future we will continue enjoying religious freedom,” and “urge the Hong Kong Police and the judicial authorities to handle Cardinal Zen’s case in accordance with justice, taking into consideration our concrete human situation.”
The statement closes with a quotation – antiphonal, one supposes – from the 22nd (23rd) Psalm: “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.” The clear implication is that Cardinal Zen and Chinese Catholics are walking through the valley of death. A more subtle implication may be that the faithful there aren’t even looking to Parolin or anyone else in Rome for protection.
Of late, press outfits sympathetic to the pro-Beijing regime in Hong Kong have pilloried Zen, who has also criticized the Vatican for its management of the China business. There’s no love lost between Cardinals Zen and Parolin, either. In 2018, Zen called Parolin a liar and accused him of acting in bad faith when it comes to the China business,
The details of that extraordinary exchange are pertinent, quite apart from the salacious imagery of two Princes of the Church embroiled in a knock-down, drag-out.
Cardinal Parolin gave a speech in Milan, in which he said – among other things – that Pope Benedict XVI had approved “the draft agreement on the appointment of bishops in China.” Cardinal Zen wasn’t buying it. “Parolin knows he himself is lying,” Zen wrote. “He [Parolin] knows that I know he is a liar. He knows that I will tell everyone that he is a liar. He is not just shameless but also daring.”
“What will he not dare to do now?” Cardinal Zen wondered. “I think he is not even afraid of his conscience.”
Those were some of the quotable quotes from the epistolary defiance. The real meat was in Cardinal Zen’s response to the insult he perceived Parolin to have given to Churchmen who were heroes of the faith in the 20th century under Communism. “[W]hen you look for bishops, you don’t look for ‘gladiators,’ who systematically oppose the government and who like to show themselves off on the political stage,” Zen quoted Parolin as having said in another speech celebrating, you guessed it, the aforementioned Cardinal Casaroli.
“I wrote to him,” Cardinal Zen continued, “asking if he intended to describe Cardinal Wyszynski, Cardinal Mindszenty and Cardinal Beran.” Zen said Parolin “replied without denying,” offering only that, “if I was displeased with his speech, he apologized.”
Cardinal Zen also went a round in the press with Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re in 2020 over the same broad questions. So, if this is a game of “good cop, bad cop” then it is fair to say Zen has been happy to play the bad cop. Cardinal Pietro Parolin would be the good cop. Only, what happens when the players are too far gone in their roles?
That’s one question this affair raises.
History is teacher
To put this business in context, it is worth recalling the lives of two great 20th–century heroes of the faith, who were also victims of Communist prevarication. One of them was among those Cardinal Zen invoked in his brave letter to Cardinal Parolin.
Cardinal Józef Mindszenty was Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and Primate of Hungary when he was arrested on charges of treason, tried in a Communist kangaroo court, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison on February 8th, 1949. In an editorial, l’Osservatore Romano declared Mindszenty “morally and civilly innocent,” and deplored the travesty of justice he received. “Cardinal Mindszenty,” l’Osservatore opined, “acted as a man, as a citizen, as a Bishop, and as a Prince of the Church in such manner that Catholics and free men can look to him without blushing.”
Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận had been coadjutor of Saigon for less than a week when the South Vietnamese capital fell to Communist forces in 1975. His reputation for steadfast faith and his family ties to South Vietnam’s slain first president, Ngô Đình Diệm, made him a person of interest to the Communists, who arrested him and sent him to a re-education camp. He spent more than a dozen years in captivity – without trial – nine of which he spent in solitary confinement. Vietnam released then-Bishop Văn Thuận in 1988, and he made his way to Rome in 1991. He served in various posts while retaining his title as Coadjutor of Saigon (by then renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and eventually became the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
He received the red hat in 2001, and died of cancer in September of the next year.
When Cardinal Nguyen died, Pope St. John Paul II eulogized him as an “heroic herald of Christ’s Gospel” and “a shining example of Christian loyalty to the point of martyrdom.” Nguyen is on the path to sainthood now, and Pope Francis celebrated him as a “son of the East” in 2013 remarks to some 500 people who attended a Vatican ceremony to mark the closing of the diocesan – local – phase of his cause for canonization. That phrasing was part of a delicate diplomatic balancing act, seeking to maintain and strengthen relations with Vietnam’s Communist government in Hanoi while also giving God, His people in Vietnam, and a great 20th century hero of the faith their due.
If anything, the China business is more delicate, with higher stakes and more unwieldy freight.
On the mainland
Cardinal Zen’s arrest was not a terrible surprise as he has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government for years. Cardinal Zen’s parrhesia toward the Chinese Communist leadership has not gone unnoticed. While it is too much to say that his arrest was inevitable, it nevertheless shouldn’t be cause for amazement. Still, Zen’s arrest is “complicated politics for the mainland,” according to Whitworth University sinologist Anthony Clark, who talked briefly with me on Wednesday.
One can see why.
Even if the Vatican doesn’t make a fuss, it isn’t a great look for the Communist overlords on the mainland, who would like to maintain even a gossamer veneer of plausibility for their “nothing to see here” attitude toward Hong Kong. On the other hand, there is no dearth of indications they don’t care what outsiders think.
Clark also said that asking the Vatican “to come down hard” was always going to be a tough sell, but the practical non-response is jarring all the same.
The long game
The Vatican is playing the long game in China. So are the Chinese. It is difficult not to read Cardinal Zen’s arrest as a probing jab in the early rounds of a prize fight. Letting loose with a reactive haymaker is never good tactical boxing, even if it lands. Neither is letting one’s adversary put one back on one’s heels. If that happens, be assured a better-timed haymaker is coming from the other guy. The thing is to jab back and make it sting just a little, if possible, to let the other guy know you’re there.
I’ve compared the Vatican’s conduct of its relationship with China’s mainland Communist government to a dance, with the twofold question being: “Where does the Vatican want to be when the music stops, and where is the Vatican’s conduct likely to put the Church in China when the music finally does cease?” Boxing is a kind of dance, though, so the metaphor fits. The problem may appear on this reading to be that the Vatican is behaving as though it is in a very different kind of passo a due with the Chinese, than it really is.
Whether a bad deal is better than no deal is always a tough question.
If there was a time to let frustration be known, in other words, there’s a strong case to be made for it having been the day of Cardinal Zen’s arrest. Cardinal Parolin passed.
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