Cardinal Joseph Zen is not afraid of throwing down the gauntlet.
Meet the toughest critic of the Vatican’s China deal
Aged 86, he is the most outspoken critic of a deal in the works between the Holy See and Beijing.
Cardinal Zen has been a vocal opponent of the Chinese Communist Party for decades. During his years as the bishop of Hong Kong, he was one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement, including during the sustained protests of 2014.
The Vatican and China broke off ties in 1951, two years after the Chinese Communist Party took over the country at the end of the Chinese Civil War.
The appointment of bishops, senior leaders within the Catholic Church, is the biggest obstacle to the normalization of bilateral ties. The agreement, if signed, is likely to pave the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China.
But Cardinal Zen has called the potential agreement “evil” and has described the Vatican's top diplomat Pietro Parolin as “someone with little faith.”
He’s also laments that Pope Francis “doesn’t understand the Chinese Communist Party.”
Suspicious of religion
“Vatican officials say we have to come to an agreement as soon as possible because it will be unfavorable if this drags on,” Cardinal Zen says. “But you have to evaluate the current situation. Things are bad now.”
The Chinese government recognizes five religions, including Catholicism. But the state is suspicious of religious authorities, and wants to retain ultimate control over believers.
The government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was founded in 1957. Not recognized by the Vatican, the association supervises state-sanctioned churches and appoints its own clergy.
Priests and followers who do not pledge allegiance to the association run their “underground churches.” But they’ve been facing persecution, and some priests have been imprisoned.
There are about 10 to 12 million Catholics in China, and half of them are members of the underground churches.
The crackdown on religion has intensified in recent years, according to human rights groups. In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping talked about the need to “sinicize religions” during the National Religious Work Conference, emphasizing the importance of state control.
Appointment of bishops
Cardinal Zen says, in his view, the Vatican will have to concede too much to Beijing. Negotiations are ongoing. According to some reports, the Pope will have the final say from a list candidates handpicked by the Chinese government.
But Cardinal Zen argues the real decision-making power will lie with Beijing. “What kind of bishops will the government choose? It will choose the most obedient ones.”
There are currently about 100 bishops in China. Around 70 of them belong to official churches, and about 30 are with “underground churches.” Informally, many of the "above-ground" bishops have also been approved by the Holy See.
But seven government-approved bishops have been excommunicated because they were ordained without the approval of the Pope. The Holy See reportedly has agreed to give them a papal pardon and recognize them as the leaders of their dioceses.
Things are even thornier in two cases. Two Vatican-approved bishops, Zhuang Jianjian and Guo Xijin, have been asked by the Holy See to step down to make room for two government-approved bishops.
A Shanghai native, Cardinal Zen was born to a Catholic family. At the age of 16, he decided to join the Salesians of Don Bosco and came to Hong Kong to study.
He was able to return to mainland China only in 1989, a few months after the Tiananmen crackdown. He was given a teaching post, and used the opportunity to travel widely around the country. But during those seven years in China, he became disenchanted with the way the authorities treated priests.
Despite the cardinal’s years of service to the Church, it appears his has become a minority voice. In January, a Holy See statement hinted Cardinal Zen’s criticism was “fostering confusion and controversy.”
Supporters of rapprochement argue that the priority of the Holy See is to unite the different factions in China.
“Unity of the church, according to the gospel, that’s the big priority of the law of Jesus, and that’s what the Pope wants to achieve first of all,” says Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a member of the Vatican Commission on China.
He says it’s necessary for the two bishops to step down: “In both cases, in order to achieve a better good and the unity of the church, the Pope proposed this for the other bishops. I think we sympathize, but we should not dramatize.”
Supporters of a deal say a greater Church presence will also help strengthen social services.
“The Vatican is not in the business of converting,” says Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Center for European Studies at Renmin University. “The Catholic Church can do charity work, run hospitals and help with education.”
Both Heyndrickx and Sisci say the agreement has not been finalized and the leadership of the Pope should be respected.
This is perhaps one thing that Cardinal Zen can agree on. “I won’t speak out if the agreement is passed. My bottom line is that I won’t criticize the Pope.”
With a landmark agreement on the horizon, Joseph Zen may have to keep his views to himself from now on.