By Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun
Beijing, Oct 24, 2018: In September, the Vatican announced that it had come to a provisional agreement with the government of China over the appointment of Catholic bishops.
Supporters of the deal say that it finally brings unity after longstanding division — between an underground Church loyal to the pope and an official church approved by the Chinese authorities — and that with it, the Chinese government has for the first time recognized the authority of the pope. In fact, the deal is a major step toward the annihilation of the real Church in China.
I know the Church in China, I know the Communists and I know the Holy See. I’m a Chinese from Shanghai. I lived many years in the mainland and many years in Hong Kong. I taught in seminaries throughout China — in Shanghai, Xian, Beijing, Wuhan, Shenyang — between 1989 and 1996.
Pope Francis, an Argentine, doesn’t seem to understand the Communists. He is very pastoral, and he comes from South America, where historically military governments and the rich got together to oppress poor people.
And who there would come out to defend the poor? The Communists. Maybe even some Jesuits, and the government would call those Jesuits Communists.
Francis may have natural sympathy for Communists because for him, they are the persecuted. He doesn’t know them as the persecutors they become once in power, like the Communists in China.
The Holy See and Beijing cut off relations in the 1950s. Catholics and other believers were arrested and sent to labor camps.
I went back to China in 1974 during the Cultural Revolution; the situation was terrible beyond imagination. A whole nation under slavery. We forget these things too easily. We also forget that you can never have a truly good agreement with a totalitarian regime.
China has opened up, yes, since the 1980s, but even today everything is still under the Chinese Communist Party’s control. The official church in China is controlled by the so-called patriotic association and the bishops’ conference, both under the thumb of the party.
From 1985 to 2002, Cardinal Jozef Tomko was the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which oversees the Church’s missionary work. He was a Slovak, who understood communism, and he was wise.
Cardinal Tomko’s position was that the underground Church was the only lawful Church in China, and that the official church was unlawful. But he also understood that there were many good people in the official church. Like the bishop of Xian, who for a time was a vice chairman of the bishops’ conference. Or the bishop of Shanghai, Jin Luxian, a Jesuit and a brilliant linguist, who had been interned in the 1950s.
Back then, the Holy See had a cautious policy that it implemented generously. It was amenable to reasonable compromise but had a bottom line.
Things changed in 2002, when Cardinal Tomko reached the age of retirement. A young Italian with no foreign experience replaced him and began legitimizing official Chinese bishops too quickly, too easily, creating the impression that now the Vatican would automatically second Beijing’s selection.
Hope returned when Joseph Ratzinger, a German who had lived through both Nazism and communism, became Pope Benedict XVI.
He brought on Cardinal Ivan Dias, an Indian who had spent time in West Africa and South Korea, to head the congregation of evangelization, and that internationalized the Vatican. A special commission for the Church in China also was set up. I was appointed to it.
Unfortunately, Cardinal Dias believed in Ostpolitik and in the teachings of a state secretary in the 1980s who had been a proponent of détente with Soviet-controlled governments. And he applied the policy to China.
When Benedict issued his famous letter to the Church of China in 2007, calling for reconciliation among all Catholics there, something incredible happened. The Chinese translation was released with errors, including one too important not to have been deliberate.
In a delicate passage about how priests in the underground might accept recognition by the Chinese authorities without necessarily betraying the faith, a critical caveat was left out about how “almost always,” however, the Chinese authorities imposed requirements “contrary to the dictates” of Catholics’ conscience.
Some of us raised the issue and the text was eventually corrected on the Vatican’s website. But by then, the mistaken original had widely circulated in China, and some bishops there had understood Benedict’s historic letter as encouragement to join the state-sanctioned church.
Today, we have Pope Francis. Naturally optimistic about communism, he is being encouraged to be optimistic about the Communists in China by cynics around him who know better.
The commission for the Church in China no longer convenes, even though it has not been dissolved. Those of us who come from the periphery, the front lines, are being marginalized.
I was among those who applauded Francis’s decision to appoint Pietro Parolin as secretary of state in 2013. But I now think that Cardinal Parolin cares less about the Church than about diplomatic success. His ultimate goal is the restoration of formal relations between the Vatican and Beijing.
Francis wants to go to China — all popes have wanted to go to China, starting with John Paul II. But what did Francis’ visit to Cuba in 2015 bring the Church? The Cuban people? Almost nothing. And did he convert the Castro brothers?
The faithful in China are suffering and are now coming under increasing pressure. Early this year, the government tightened regulations on the practice of religion. Priests in the underground on the mainland tell me that they are discouraging parishioners from coming to Mass to avoid arrest.
Francis himself has said that although the recent agreement — whose terms haven’t been disclosed — provides for “a dialogue about eventual candidates,” it is the pope who “appoints” bishops.
But what good is having the last word when China will have all the words before it? In theory the pope could veto the nomination of any bishop who seems unworthy. But how many times can he do that, really?
Soon after the deal was announced, two Chinese bishops from the official church were sent to Vatican City for the synod, a regular meeting of bishops from around the world.
Who selected them? Both men are known to be close to the Chinese government. As I have said, their presence at the gathering was an insult to the good bishops of China.
Their presence also raises the painful question of whether the Vatican will now legitimize the seven official bishops who remain illegitimate. The pope has already lifted their excommunication, paving the way for them to be formally granted dioceses.
The official church has about 70 bishops; the underground Church has only about 30. The Chinese authorities say: You recognize our seven and we’ll recognize your 30. That sounds like a good trade-off. But will the 30 then be allowed to still function as underground bishops? Surely not.
They will be forced to join the so-called bishops’ conference. They will be forced to join the others in that bird cage, and will become a minority among them. The Vatican’s deal, struck in the name of unifying the Church in China, means the annihilation of the real Church in China.
If I were a cartoonist I would draw the Holy Father on his knees offering the keys of the kingdom of heaven to President Xi Jinping and saying, “Please recognize me as the pope.”
And yet, to the underground bishops and priests of China, I can only say this: Please don’t start a revolution. They take away your churches? You can no longer officiate? Go home, and pray with your family. Till the soil. Wait for better times. Go back to the catacombs. Communism isn’t eternal.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a Shanghai native, is a retired bishop of Hong Kong.
( The New York Times)