Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun expressed guarded pessimism over the negotiations currently being carried on between the Vatican and Beijing at an afternoon gathering at St. Vincent’s Chapel in Wong Tai Sin organised by the Justice and Peace Commission on November 13.
While saying that he believes that the Vatican does have some room to manoeuvre and a few bargaining chips on the table, Cardinal Zen warned Vatican bureaucrats not to get bogged down in what he termed evil agreements in their anxiety to appease their counterparts in Beijing.
He said that he has personal reservations over what he described as the weak policy the Vatican is running in its negotiations with China.
Cardinal Zen said he is disturbed by the upbeat media coverage predicting that an equitable agreement between Beijing and the Holy See may be imminent, as he believes this is a critical time in which various views must be presented in order to maintain a balance.
He also said that it is a time that demands a great deal of prayer, as while “it is impossible to have a perfect agreement, an evil one cannot be made.”
As an example of an evil agreement, Cardinal Zen said one thing that must be avoided at all costs would be allowing bishop-candidates to be nominated by the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.
The cardinal said that while the Vatican may have the right to say no to any nomination, he believes such a policy would reduce it to a position of passivity, whereby it may retain the right to refuse, but end up with no right to choose or nominate a candidate.
The former bishop of Hong Kong said that he doubts whether it would be feasible for the Vatican to repeatedly refuse any candidate put forward by the bishops’ conference or have any say in an alternative, as continual rejection or arguing would sour any relationship.
The cardinal shared that one proposal being mooted is that voting in the local diocesan elections for a bishop-candidate could be limited to priests and sisters.
However, he said he finds this worrying as well, as the government is a past master at manipulating elections.
He went as far as to ask, “Is it possible to have a real election in China?”
Cardinal Zen said in an article published in the Kung Kao Po on November 13 that any election proposal could be disguised as a compromise by Beijing, so it would still maintain the affective say in who can go forward as a bishop.
He added that if this eventuated, it would damage the harmony among the priests, as it would leave some feeling discouraged or left out in the cold.
But his guarded pessimism does not hold that all is necessarily lost, as he believes a more acceptable proposal would be to turn the situation around, allowing the pope to nominate candidates and giving Beijing the opportunity to approve or reject his nominations.
Cardinal Zen believes that this approach could save the Vatican the embarrassment of turning down a nominated priest and also give the whole system more flexibility, as the pope is in a position to mix things up a bit by nominating a priest from one diocese as a bishop for other diocese, lessening the burden in areas with few personnel.
However, he still believes the Vatican policy towards China is weak and although he does not mean to criticise Pope Francis or his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, he does not believe that popes are always free to exercise their authority.
He explained that Vatican policy is more often made and implemented by bureaucrats, who can manipulate and finesse with the best of them.
He cited the letter penned to the Chinese government by Pope Benedict calling for more religious freedom, especially a loosening of restrictions on the unofficial Church communities.
However, he pointed out that the wording of the letter was significantly watered down when it was translated into Chinese, because particular Vatican officials, whom he did not name, had adopted an appeasement policy.
Cardinal Zen says that his belief is that because the Vatican request was so weak, the situation of the unofficial communities in the Church in China actually went backwards.
He also shared a bit about some of the resolutions of a committee made up of 30 people with expertise in China Church affairs that was purposely set up in 2008 to discuss the situation on the mainland that were simply not implemented.
He said that at one of its three-day annual meetings the committee passed a resolution not to cooperate with Anthony Liu Bainian, the power behind the throne at the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
But the cardinal said that Vatican officials remained silent in the face of Liu’s interference in the choosing of which bishops would be allowed to attend seminars overseas.
After Pope Benedict stepped down, the committee was never convened again.
Cardinal Zen noted that he has also written to Pope Francis to express his reservations and worries, but doubts whether the pope will give him an ear, because the top Vatican officials around him, including the secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, seem to support the appeasement theory.
However, the cardinal believes the Vatican still has room to move, because of the sizable number of Catholics in China, but the last thing he wants to see is a compromise. “Compromises destroy everything,” he stated.
Willy Lam Wo-lap, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, shared that as the combined number of Catholics and Protestants in China has reached at least 90 million, he believes that Christianity is regarded as a big threat to the Chinese government.
His belief is that this is the very reason the Chinese government is unlikely to loosen the noose it holds around the neck of the Church, as well as around the unofficial House Churches and other religious organisations in the country.