02/17/2015, 00.00
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It looks like someone is trying to shout us down

by Card. Joseph Zen Ze-kiun
The widespread optimism concerning the dialogue between the Holy See and China is largely groundless. Some Chinese bishops unable to speak freely are asked "leading" questions. The key issues remain unresolved, namely episcopal appointments and the fate of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Benedict XVI's Letter to Chinese Catholics, also cited by Pope Francis, provides guidelines. No agreement is better than a bad agreement. What happened to Msgr. Cosma Shi Enxiang and Msgr. James Su Zhimin? Hong Kong's bishop emeritus, champion of religious freedom in China, delivers a vibrant reflection.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - A Hong Kong Communist Daily started spreading the news that the Sino-Vatican Agreement is close at hand. Then the voice of the Secretary of State of the Pope adds weight to the news: "Yes, the prospects are promising. Both sides are willing to talk".

Among my friends, who since a long time are concerned with what happens to the Church in China, there is a sense of disbelief. We find it difficult to go along with this optimism. We do not see any sign that would encourage the hope that the Chinese Communists are about to change their religious policy.

Now we see two interviews published: Two bishops in China interviewed by Gianni Valente, a reporter working for Fides, the News Agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

While reading the texts, there is a bitter taste in my mouth. G. V. seems to be sending us this message: "Two bishops in China, in communion with the Pope and who have paid for this their loyalty, are fully in support of a Sino-Vatican rapprochement. You people who refuse to share this enthusiasm had better shut up".


Before my comments on some of the contents in the interviews, I would like to make two preliminary remarks.

1. Those who ever go to interview Church people in China must be aware that they are not free and cannot speak freely, otherwise something may happen as it happened to Msgr. Thaddeus Ma of Shanghai. To suppose that they are free is simply naïve. To interview them, knowing that they are not free, is cruel and also unfair to the readers who might be misled.

2. To my disappointment, I noticed that G.V., a respectable reporter, used "leading questions" in these two interviews, putting words into the mouth of the persons he interviewed.

For example, talking to Msgr. Wei about the division between Catholics in the so-called official and underground communities, he adds: "which (division) has often been enhanced by personal ambitions and power struggles"; when talking later about the negotiations between the Vatican and Communist China, he says: "for someone, if the Holy See deals with the Chinese Government, she risks appearing ready for compromise or even ready to sell herself out"; similarly, in the interview with Msgr. Han, talking about the dialogue between the Holy See and Beijing, he adds: "will there not be the possibility that people will consider any aperture, any attempt to reach an agreement, a wrong and suicidal choice"?


1. What is the problem between China and the Vatican?

In spite of the misleading introductory words of G. V., Msgr. Wei answered very well: "There is no need to go back to the history of 2000 years. The actual problem, the reason for the present division of official and underground communities is only one. In present day China, the two communities are the outcome of pressure from outside themselves. The Church was divided as an answer to the way the Communist Government deals with her. Then, in the course of time, the division has become crystallized."

2. Since the problem is only one, the so-called historical mistakes of the two sides have not much to do with it. It is enough that the Government changes its way of dealing with the Church and the problem would be solved. The question put by G. V., "Who must make the first step?" is superfluous. Msgr. Wei says very well: "The Church has already made the first step. See all the efforts Pope Francis is making to show his will for a dialogue."

3. In those above-mentioned "leading questions", G. V. wants to make people understand that there are persons who oppose a dialogue between the Holy See and Beijing and consider every such attempt as a betrayal of the Church. This is a big misunderstanding and causes other misunderstandings. Nobody can deny that without dialogue there cannot be any solution of any problem. But for the dialogue to succeed, good will on both sides is required. On the side of Rome, it is obvious that such good will exists. But what about Beijing? In an optimism without foundation to suppose that Beijing has good will is dangerous. It may be just wishful thinking. Now, if the other party is not ready to make any compromise and we want to arrive at an agreement at any cost, then the only thing we have to do is to surrender and to sell ourselves out. So, we are not afraid of a dialogue, we are not contrary to the dialogue. We are afraid of an attitude of compromise at any cost, without a bottom line.

4. Our bottom line is what Pope Francis calls "our identity" (Homily in the Mass concelebrated with Asian Bishops in Korea) and is the Catholic ecclesiology, as explained in the 2007 Letter of Pope Benedict to the Church in China. To this Letter Pope Francis recently made explicit reference.

In all these years, the situation of the Church in China has gone farther and farther away from the mentioned bottom line.

With an independent Church, with ordinations of bishops without papal mandate, we have a de facto schismatic Church, even if we do not like to call her such. What makes us hope that the Communist Government is now ready to go back to our bottom line? To allow that our Catholic Church become really Catholic again? The Church in China is in a gravely abnormal situation. It is the Government that runs the Church. For things to turn normal, we need a miracle.

5. The problems to be solved are so many!

Certainly, the most serious problem is that of the nomination of bishops. In these years that I have been a member of the Commission for the Church in China, and although I am a Chinese Cardinal, I have never received any information about whether any negotiations were going on and with what result. So I do not know what kind of Agreement they are about to conclude. I only want to remind the Holy See that the word "election" has a very peculiar meaning in China. I want them also to remember that in China the Episcopal Conference simply does not exist. Only the name exists.

Another crucial problem is the Patriotic Association. The rumours which now are around already tell us that it will be impossible to eliminate the Patriotic Association. Then, what kind of hope have we that things may turn normal? Msgr. Wei thinks that the Patriotic Association may change its nature. I am afraid that with the name also the reality will continue more or less as it is. In this kind of game of words, the Holy See is certainly not the equal of the Chinese Communists.

Besides these two grave problems, there is a multitude of irregular situations to be regularized: excommunicated bishops, illegitimate bishops, some with participation in other illegitimate episcopal ordinations, legitimate bishops with one or more participations in illegitimate ordinations, bishops ordained legitimately with participation of illegitimate bishops at their ordination... These are all serious cases of irregularity. If the Holy See does not put things right, her credibility will be endangered.

Then, in the future final arrangement into one unified structure, how will be the rights of the two communities be balanced? The supreme rule should be the good of the faithful, but will the Chinese Communist consent to it?

6. Card. Parolin said recently that we must do things acting from theological considerations. I suppose this to mean the point of view of truth and justice. If the Communist side disagrees on this and is not ready to make any compromise, what can we do to achieve a good Agreement? The temptation to reach a conclusion at any cost is not imaginary. In these last years, have we not conceded already too much to the other side?

Recently, too, the same Card. Parolin, in commemorating Card. Casaroli, used superlative expressions in praise of the famous Ostpolitik promoted by Casaroli in dealing with Communist East Europe. Card. Parolin even described those who refused the control of the Government as "systematic opponents" of the Government, as "gladiators", as "people who like to show themselves on the political arena". This attitude does little to allay our fears and help our confidence.

7. Msgr. Wei said the most important thing at the conclusion of the interview: "As batteries are essential for the functioning of so many modern gadgets, so prayer is what keeps the faith alive".

Only with faith shall we be able to accept a complete failure in the present, and not to sacrifice our convictions and the discipline of the Church for an immediate success.

No Agreement is better than a bad Agreement.

We cannot pro bono pacis tolerate an Agreement which betrays our identity.


I don't want to spend too many words on the interview of G. V. with Msgr. Han Zhi Hai of Lanzhou. The prelate has strongly expressed his refusal of "people who, from the outside, pretend to give commands on what other people should or should not do regarding their faith".

I think Pope Benedict is surely not one "from the outside". Obviously, Pope Benedict has, like everybody, the desire to see one day disappear the division between official and underground. However, until the Government, in order to realize this union, demands conditions that are against a Catholic conscience, the unification is not possible. I am happy to see that Msgr. Han had his priests help him to make a discernment. They convinced him that the moment of real union has not yet come.


At this moment, we receive contrasting news about the fate of Bishop Shi En Xiang of Yixian, who 14 years ago was violently taken away from his pastoral ministry and the affection of his relatives. Some people announced his death. Other people deny such a report. When shall we be given sure information about this heroic Pastor of 94 years of age. Is he dead? When did he die? Where did he die? Will his relatives be given back his body or just his ashes? Is G. V. able to give us some help in this?

Then there is the case of Bishop Su Zhi Min of Baoding. Is he still alive? Where are they detaining him?

When we see these two venerable Bishops deprived of the most fundamental right of human dignity, it is difficult for us to imagine that the representatives of the Holy See can sit down and talk to the Communist counterpart without chagrin.

(Pictured: Card Zen and members of the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong in last Saturday's demonstration to demand news about the fate of Msgr. Cosmas Shi Enxiang)

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