What Hath Rome to Do With Beijing?

COMMENTARY: A Chinese Catholic activist issues a cry from the heart to his fellow Catholics around the world.

Cardinal Joseph Zen preaches a homily during Mass on May 24, 2022, at Holy Cross parish in Hong Kong.
Cardinal Joseph Zen preaches a homily during Mass on May 24, 2022, at Holy Cross parish in Hong Kong. (photo: Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)

I was born in China to a family that has kept its Catholic faith for many generations. Now based in the United States, I work with an apostolate that promotes dialogue and solidarity between Catholics, Protestants and nonbelievers in China to defend life and human dignity. 

In recent years, our ministry’s mission has been personified by three prophetic men in China — Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church, a Protestant house church; Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 before dying in custody in 2017; and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

Pastor Wang Yi, currently serving a nine-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power,” is the most outspoken Protestant to criticize the current China policy between Beijing and the Holy See. He has praised Cardinal Zen’s integrity, just as his friend Liu Xiaobo expressed admiration for Pope St. John Paul II.

Before Cardinal Zen’s arrest, I carried a message from him to Wang: “I wholeheartedly give my blessing to Pastor Wang Yi and ask for his blessing.” 

When I passed this to Wang’s church, I said: “You may not care much, but this is historic. At this point, 500 years of hatred has nothing to do with all of us. Wang’s spirit in jail heard this.” Cardinal Zen cited the Book of Jeremiah and likened Liu to a biblical prophet.

But as the Catholic Zen, Calvinist Wang and nonbeliever Liu have worked to drag their people out of slavery, their respective followers have been slow to follow their example of solidarity. In my 10 years of close monitoring of the Church in China, I have heard no other Catholic pastor, inside or outside China, talk about Wang and Liu — in fact, most don’t even know them. And since its announcement in September 2018, the secret Vatican-China agreement has further jeopardized the already thin bond among these groups.

The Deep Impact of the Deal on China

Cardinal Zen has condemned the silence, in the world and the Church, surrounding religious persecution “not just against Catholics, but Protestants, Muslims, Tibetans” in China. At a time when the voices of the most powerful moral authorities are needed, Rome and Chinese Catholics are silent. What will the deep impact of such silence do for the place of Catholicism in China today and in the future? How will people trust our Catholics — if not fight against us as national betrayers? 

I’ve assured my children that many faithful in the West are supporting Cardinal Zen in their Masses and daily prayers. But I also can’t hide the fact that, too often, the underground faithful in China have had to carry so much of this burden without help from the rest of the Church.

And sometimes, the burden has even been increased by fellow Catholics. Consider: In September 2018, Pope Francis lifted the excommunication of seven illegitimate bishops of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and forced underground bishops to vacate their sees for them. (Later, seven underground priests, along with their bishop and 10 seminarians, were arrested.)

In August 2022, when cardinals from around the world gathered at a consistory in Rome, Cardinal Gerhard Müller noted that no mention was made of Cardinal Zen’s persecution, and no public prayers were offered for his upcoming trial.

In September 2022, Pope Francis told journalists that China’s government should not be “classified” as anti-democratic, because “it is such a complex country with its rhythms.”

The Vatican has been mostly silent on China’s daily human rights disasters, the encroachment of Hong Kong, Uyghur genocide, Tibetan monk self-immolation and other human rights violations.

In the face of such barbs, how can I convince my Protestant and non-Christian allies that our Catholic teachings are not hypocrisy? What makes my dialogue with them possible is our common focus on moral unity over doctrinal debate. Pastor Wang’s Calvinist community may not understand the Catholic Church as an institution but they deeply respect Cardinal Zen and even include him in their official prayers. They know Cardinal Zen is the one who dares to pray on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, as they do, and who dares to follow John Paul’s fighting strategies: memory battle, cultural resistance, conscience revolution.

House-church Protestants in China tend to be more highly educated, and occupy a higher socioeconomic tier, than their Catholic counterparts. As such, they have emerged as the leading force in speaking the truth against Chinese government and cultural errors. These staunch Calvinists hold conservative social values, so you can imagine what they must think of the diffidence of Catholics and the alternative moral doctrines being espoused throughout so much of the West today.

The End and the Beginning 

I remember the day I joined a group of local parishioners in China to watch the live funeral of Pope St. John Paul II. We gathered in a hotel room because that was the only place we could get CNN or the BBC. The following year, I was able to travel to Rome for a Dec. 31 Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. After Mass, I stood on a chair, shouting, “China, China” to the exiting Pope Benedict XVI. He heard my cries and came over to me, offering his hand in greeting.

Benedict later offered his hand to all of us with his 2007 Letter to Catholics in China. He told us, “Fear not, little flock” — bringing to mind the words of John Paul II to “be not afraid.” 

Such papal reassurances have become rare, replaced by blunt counsel from white martyrs like Cardinal Zen to prepare to live their faith hidden in “the catacombs.”

When Cardinal Zen was told that his favorite crucifix is itself now hidden in a private place in China, he said to my friend who took it from his office back to China, “I am so happy to know that my crucifix is under your care and you show it to young people. That crucifix is the only precious thing I bought for myself in my life. I let you take it away only because I believed that you needed it more than I did. … In this moment I need the crucifix more than ever. Do you know the verse of “Abide with me?” “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes, Shine through the gloom and point me to the sky. …”

I would like to bring this crucifix to America someday, but perhaps it’s best to keep it in China as a witness to hope and a sign of contradiction. The question is not whether the communists will confiscate it; the question is whether the Chinese faithful really care about it.

When people tell you that most Chinese Catholics welcome the secret Vatican-China deal, they are most likely correct. Why is this? In a future article, we will explain the dividing and uniting mentality of different Catholic groups in China.

Vatican Renews China Deal for Second Time

After the China deal was signed in 2018, state officials in different regions of China removed crosses and demolished church buildings, and underground Catholics and clergy have reported harassment and detention.