Cardinal Says Vatican Is Surrendering to China's Communist Government With Deal on Catholic Worship

By Patrick Goodenough | March 20, 2018 | 4:45am EDT
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun became bishop of Hong Kong in 2002 and was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. (Photo: Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong)

( – The outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong has launched a fresh attack on a proposed agreement between the Vatican and China’s communist government.

The agreement describes a future where Chinese Catholics worship in a state-recognized church, under surveillance cameras, “listening to a priest preaching the latest instruction from the reigning President-Emperor.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a persistent critic of Beijing’s religious policies, said in an essay posted on his Facebook page Monday that it was rumored the controversial deal could be signed before the end of this month.

He wondered why the Vatican believed it was necessary to “surrender.”

“But why surrender?” he asked. “Doesn’t the Vatican know that in cities like Shanghai, many priests celebrate Sunday Mass in private homes for their faithful?”

“There is still a certain degree of freedom for the ‘birds outside the cage,’” Zen continued. “But now things are going to change. The Vatican is coming to help the government to push everybody into the cage.”

The “cage” referred to by the 86-year-old cardinal is the state-sanctioned “Catholic” organization, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA).

Beijing cut ties with the Vatican in the 1950s and established the official “patriotic” denomination which boasts some 5.7 million members, but has been rejected by Catholics loyal to Rome.

After 1958, the CPA began to appoint its own bishops, without approval from the Vatican.

Roman Catholicism was driven underground and many priests were jailed over the decades since, according to the Vatican and human rights campaigners. In the face of persecution, an estimated 3-4 million “underground” Catholics who look to the pope continue to meet in secret.

Pope Benedict XVI, in a pastoral letter to Chinese Catholics a decade ago, stated that the declared purposes of the CPA were “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”

Now, a Beijing-Vatican agreement that has been under negotiation for a year grapples with the respective authority of the Chinese state and the Holy See in the appointment of bishops.

Details remain hazy, but a reported deal in the works would entail Pope Francis pardoning seven CPA bishops – who were previously excommunicated by the Vatican in line with canonical law – and so enabling them to continue in their posts but now viewed as legitimate.

Moreover, two legitimate (i.e. appointed by the Vatican) bishops in China have reportedly been asked to step aside, to make way for state-backed bishops.

Going forward, the Chinese state would continue to appoint bishops, but the pope would have a final say, according to the reports of the imminent accord.

The agreement is said to be driven by Pope Francis’ determination to heal the decades-old rift among Chinese Catholics, and it has been championed by some senior clergy in the church.

One such champion, Vatican advisor Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx, is a target in Zen’s essay.

Zen quoted from a recent Heyndrickx article in which the Belgian priest enthused that a signing of a China-Vatican agreement “would be a blessing because it will enable them [Catholic faithful in China] to openly celebrate their faith in one community.”

“The challenge to unite behind the Pope’s decision makes 2018 for Chinese Catholics into ‘the year of truth,’” Heyndrickx wrote.

“What truth?” countered Zen. “Truth with Chinese characteristics?”

(Chinese President Xi Jinping told a conference on religion in 2016 that religious groups in China “must adhere to the leadership of the [Communist Party of China], and support the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Xinhua reported at the time.)

Zen continued: “The truth doesn’t enjoy good health or high esteem nowadays in China. Everything is faked, from food to medicine. You are not expected to tell the truth, just say what the boss likes to hear.”

In response to Heyndrickx’ comment about the chance for Chinese Catholics to “openly celebrate their faith in one community,” Zen wrote, “How wonderful! But where?”

“In a church registered with the Patriotic Association, under the surveillance cameras, listening to a priest preaching the latest instruction from the reigning President-Emperor?!”

“Surely this is not a really normal worship as in any Catholic church in the world!”

The “President-Emperor” reference is likely to Xi, whose already considerable powers were boosted with the recent removal of presidential term limits and the enshrining of his philosophy into the national constitution.

Persecution and ‘beautification’

In the late 1990s the Shanghai-born Zen was forbidden to visit the communist-ruled mainland after telling a Synod of Bishops at the Vatican there was no freedom of belief in China.

He was appointed head of Hong Kong’s 200,000-plus Catholics in 2002, and was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

The Protestant equivalent of the “patriotic” Catholic association is the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), established in 1950. (Shunning foreign influences, the organization espouses “self-governance, self-support and self-propagation.”)

Out of almost 60 million Protestants in China, around 23 million are members of the TPSM. Many others worship in unregistered “house” churches.

Despite Beijing’s engagement with the Vatican, persecution of Christians continues in China.

Since 2014, officials have taken down crosses from more than 2,000 churches as part of a so-called “beautification” campaign, according to the U.S.-based campaign group China Aid. Xi came to power in 2013.

In a still from a video, the Golden Lampstand independent church in Linfen, Shanxi province, is demolished on January 9, 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Just two months ago authorities demolished a large independent church in the city of Linfen in northern Shanxi province – a church that provided a spiritual home for some 50,000 believers. The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said the demolition was part of a city-wide campaign targeting “illegal buildings.”

On February 1, new regulations came into effect giving local authorities the power to decide on religious registration applications and to take action against “unsanctioned” religious activity, which can include levying large fines.

China is one of ten countries whose suppression of religious freedom the U.S. considers so severe, it designates them “countries of particular concern.” It has been on the list every year since the designations were first authorized by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

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