When one cardinal publicly criticises another we can be sure that something serious is at stake. In an interview published last week (but conducted in September), Cardinal Joseph Zen had some harsh words for Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
The former bishop of Hong Kong accused the Vatican Secretary of State of “manipulating the Holy Father”.
Speaking to the online magazine New Bloom, Cardinal Zen summed up the situation of the Church in China as “terrible”. In September 2018, the Holy See signed a “provisional agreement” with Beijing, ending a decades-long dispute over the appointment of bishops. In future, it was reported, the Chinese authorities would propose candidates for vacant sees and the Pope would either accept or reject them.
But this historic breakthrough coincided with a crackdown on religion not seen since the Cultural Revolution half a century ago. Under Xi Jinping, who assumed the presidency the day after Francis was elected Pope, officials have pursued a ruthless policy of “sinicisation”. All religious groups are required to subordinate their beliefs to the ruling ideology.
This has had profound consequences for the country’s roughly 10 million Catholics, who are split between the pliant state-approved Church and the “underground” Church which has remained loyal to the Holy Father. The Vatican hoped that the provisional agreement would heal the rift: henceforth there would be just one Chinese Catholic Church encompassing all the baptised.
Cardinal Zen sees it differently. He believes that the Vatican is “legitimising the schismatic church in China”. That is, the Holy See has lent credibility to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, founded in 1957 to ensure state control of Church activities. The Association’s bishops seem, in some cases, little more than party spokesmen. Consider this recent statement by Bishop John Fang Xingyao at a recent Communist Party symposium on religion: “Love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church, and the law of the country is above canon law.” Bishop Fang is president of the Patriotic Association and owed his episcopal nomination in 1994 to the Chinese government, rather than the Vatican. Clearly, Cardinal Zen’s fears should be taken seriously.
The cardinal holds the Vatican Secretary of State responsible for this situation. In the interview, he recognises Cardinal Parolin’s deep knowledge of China and his long experience of negotiating with the regime. But he argues that the Italian cardinal has controlled the flow of information to Pope Francis so that the Holy Father hears mainly from those favouring rapprochement.
Cardinal Zen expresses frustration that, despite being only one of two living Chinese cardinals (with John Tong Hon), the Vatican dismisses his advice. He describes a recent supper with Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin. Anxious to avoid a quarrel during the meal, Cardinal Zen waited until the end before raising his criticisms of a Vatican document issued in June permitting Chinese clergy to register with the government, even if they are required to sign a statement recognising the Communist Party’s authority over the Church. The cardinal believes that the Vatican text amounts to “the killing of the underground [Church]”. He recalls that when he mentioned his objections after the supper, Pope Francis said, “Oh, oh, I’m going to look into the matter,” and escorted him to the door.
The Secretary of State has not responded to Cardinal Zen’s comments. His defenders might argue that he simply has a principled disagreement with Cardinal Zen: he believes that the unification of Church and rapprochement with the regime are the best way to safeguard the interests of Chinese Catholics. We should not dismiss this out of hand, as history might yet prove him correct.
But the Church is currently paying a heavy price for the agreement. Churches are being bulldozed, priests imprisoned, lay people harassed and sacred images replaced with portraits of Xi. There are also credible reports that the regime has herded more than a million Muslims into camps where some have faced unspeakable degradation. The Holy See has failed to condemn these human rights abuses publicly, undermining its record as a moral leader in world affairs.
China has offered the Vatican little except the odd encouraging article in the state-run media. There is no sign that Beijing will permit a papal visit or enter full diplomatic relations. Why would it when it appears to have the Holy See exactly where it wants it?
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