Better Read Than Red: A ‘Review’ of Cardinal Zen’s Book

“Shedding the blood of a few children for the unity and prosperity of the state was a small price to pay.”

(photo: Register Files)

An imaginary Chinese Party official reads Cardinal Zen’s For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent:


Dear Respected Comrade Er,

Week after week, year after year, they show up to eat that piece of wafer, on their knees, the beads dangling off their hands with inaudible prayers spilling out of their mouths. Why? Why cannot let go of this archaic form of control, and embrace the equality the Party offers? How did the lies about a God becoming man and rising from the dead penetrate so deep? This Christ lives in the depths of the stubborn hearts of rebellious Catholics. Their obstinance is infuriating. No matter. The Party will find a way to crush this superstition, just as it has with others. It is a matter of time now that their confidence in Ostpolitik has increased.

I read Cardinal Zen’s meddlesome book as Comrade Yi asked. In this short but very revealing collection of lectures Zen talks about the events leading up to and following the intrusive letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics in China, which was clearly an attempt to intervene with the internal affairs of the People’s Republic by encouraging the so-called Underground Church.

Cardinal Zen starts his short book with a concise account of the events preceding the writing of the letter. When the words of Pope Benedict translated into Chinese, there were mistranslations that — shall we say — steered the meaning towards our position. Cardinal Zen soon after issues an “Aid” for the Letter that addressed these problems, but the damage was already done. The cardinal seems confused as to why the Pope did not speak out and gives his own explanation with some reluctance: “Pope Benedict is a saint, a great theologian, but he has a weakness: he is too good, too humble, too tolerant.”

Catholic missionaries of old brought the tool of submission, religion, which has always been the favorite weapon of the empires. These imperialist attempts at dividing and conquering China cannot be left unchecked, of course, but yet the religious fervor cannot be eradicated by force. Giving them martyrs, as it seems, is akin to fanning the flame of their devotion. The most reasonable course of action is to slowly pry the loyal heads of Chinese Catholics away from Rome, which is not willing to release her power in our lands.

Even though the Vatican is not willing to completely surrender her authority, their desire for harmony and compromise will provide us the leverage we need. Cardinal Zen is naturally opposed to this way of thinking: “Harmony and understanding cannot come at the expense of Truth.” Truth! Their God is weak. Even Zen recognizes the ease with which the Party can manipulate their episcopacy. He recounts how the official Church orchestrates ordinations without the approval or knowledge of the Vatican. In the aftermath, many of these bishops are recognized by the Holy See and slowly the official Church gains strength, while the underground Church is left weak and confused.

In addition to issuing this somewhat annoying letter, Pope Benedict created a commission that regularly discussed the situation of the Chinese Catholics. This commission consisted of people from the Roman Curia, all the members of the Secretariat of State (the official Church) and the CEP (the underground Church) and some from the CDF. These meetings, even though regular, accomplished little to nothing. The deliberations went on endlessly. They couldn’t even agree on whether reconciliation or unification between the CPCA and CEP was preferable.

In our long history with dealing with religion, we have learned that an outright public criticism sometimes backfires. Therefore, especially considering the loyalty of the Chinese Catholics to Rome, we have decided to change the direction of the flow by organizing a 50th anniversary celebration of the first illegitimate episcopal ordination. Even though as Zen recounts in his book, the Pope tried to halt the celebration, we were able to secure the presence of many bishops and priests that lent the events an air of approval from Rome. “It is all the fault of Ostpolitik. The willingness on the part of the Holy See to yield has encouraged the Chinese government to be more and more arrogant,” Zen laments.

The cardinal goes on to explain different parts of the Letter. The Pope talks about ecclesiology where truth and love provide the pillars upon which the Christian community stands. Zen emphasizes that “faith is more fundamental than the sacraments” and this is precisely the kind of thinking that would create impenetrable communities where people rely on their supposed Deity rather than gaining headways and favors through politics.

However, despite his opposition to Ostpolitik, the cardinal is not entirely against the reconciliation efforts between the official and the underground churches. He is not a purist who only desires martyrs and holds his people to impossible standards. That kind of unreasonableness would make him dismissible. On the contrary, he has a desire to narrow the gap in order to decrease the impact of division on the Church as a whole. Yet, he does this without compromising the authority of the Petrine Office and the Truth they claim to ascribe. Thankfully, most of his admonishments fall on deaf ears.

Cardinal Zen concludes his lectures with a section on what the Catholic Church must do once the Letter was manipulated and the commission was rendered ineffective.  He points out that in the last decades the underground Church has been demoralized and the official Church gained more strength, because the Party has successfully figured out how to navigate the bureaucracy and the weakness of Rome.

Thankfully, Pope Benedict resigned in 2013 and our efforts to vanquish the oppressive presence of religion in the People’s Republic gained a new hope with the installation of Cardinal Parolin who got rid of the commission in China, thus effectively removing Cardinal Zen from the scene. The cardinal’s tirade against Ostpolitik that uses power and money as bargaining chips go unheeded.

The men in Vatican delude themselves thinking that the Catholic Church actually yields any concrete power in the world. Maybe, once they did, but not anymore. The Party knows and understands the simple desire for security and food and is willing to sacrifice some for the good of many. This spiritual nonsense must be squashed either by using coercion or diplomacy.

“Right now, the whole world see the state of religious freedom in China go from bad to worse. Can we hope to gain something from coming to terms with government? When I say that it’s almost like hoping that St. Joseph can get something out of talking with Herod. I am not joking.”

This Herod must have also understood that shedding the blood of a few children for the unity and prosperity of the state was a small price to pay.


Comrade San