November 23, 2016
On 21 November, 2016, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the prominent former bishop of Hong Kong and defender of the loyal Underground Church of China, has given an important interview to the German Bishops’ official website, Katholisch.de. In it, he describes the dangers of the Vatican’s current policy of working with the Chinese Government while at the same time weakening the Catholic witness of the lay faithful who are not willing to submit themselves to Communist rule.
In the following, I shall present, in my own translation, some important parts of this candid interview. When asked why he was critical of the current negotiations between the Vatican and China, Cardinal Zen says: “First, we should agree upon the question what is a Communist regime. It is a totalitarian regime which wants to control everything. Also the Church. But this we may not allow – the Church may not be controlled by a government, by a regime.” To the Vatican’s claim that the negotiations are being led “with good will,” the cardinal responds: “The Chinese are very clever. They can play with words. They have no scruples, they are not honest. The danger is great that the Vatican is being deceived.”
Cardinal Zen finds also some very clear words in response to the question as to whether a better relationship with China would not also benefit the Catholics in China, especially the ones in the suffering Underground Church who do not want to join the “Patriotic Association”: “The Chinese government is right now removing Crosses from the roofs and it sharpens, with new rules, its control over the faithful and their pastors. How can one be thus of good hope? There is no [natural] hope at the moment. As long as the regime does not change, there is no reason to hope.” (Only for the infused, supernatural virtue of hope!)
Cardinal Zen also refutes the alluring idea, as proposed by Katholisch.de, to make compromises. He says: “The Church may not refuse a dialogue, and she may also make compromises. But there are limits. We cannot be compliant toward the regime in Beijing. They want everything, they want a capitulation.” The 84-year-old prelate believes that “Pope Francis is far away, he does not know China. And he does not know the Communism of China. But, there are people in the Vatican who have this objective and this theme on their agenda, and they insist upon having a success. They want the historic breakthrough.”
Moreover, Cardinal Zen sees the great danger of diluting the Faith when accepting the bishops who have been carefully chosen by the Chinese government. He explains, as follows: “There are many good priests and bishops in the Chinese Church. But they have to obey the state; they are being led by the nose by the government. One day, the faithful will realize that they are no shepherds, but only representatives of the state. That they do not serve the Gospels, but the political power.”
The journalist from Katholisch.de asks what, then, should be done, if an agreement cannot be found? Zen answers: “The Church has to defend freedom. How shall the people tomorrow still have respect for the Church when she does not today defend the freedom and stop the persecution of the faithful? All these years of compromise have weakened the position of the Church. The Church [, on the contrary,] should encourage the faithful to be strong, to practice resistance.”
When asked about the accusation of being a critic of the pope, Cardinal Zen responds: “I would never criticize the pope. I criticize the Vatican, but not the pope. If Francis comes to an agreement with Beijing, I will stop speaking. I will disappear. […] I will read my books and I will never appear publicly again. That is what I have also said to my brethren: retreat quietly and wait until better times come.” However, until Pope Francis makes his own explicit decision, this elderly cardinal will continue his Catholic witness: “I am a public person. Many do not like me, many like me. I am someone crying in the desert. But I will continue to speak my mind. Additionally, I am 84 years old. At that age, it is difficult to change one’s character. Thus, I am simply myself.”
While many of these very strong statements will be helpful for many Catholics in the world to understand the situation in China a little bit better, it is to be hoped that Cardinal Zen will still candidly and forthrightly keep speaking up, even if Pope Francis were to make a wrong decision with regard to the Chinese Church – and to do so for the sake of all faithful in China who are now so suppressed, and who have put their hope and trust in Cardinal Zen.