Cardinal Zen: Compelled to Speak
New book offers a Catholic Chinese perspective on Catholics in China.
For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent
On the Situation of the Church in China
By Cardinal Joseph Zen
Ignatius Press, 2019
153 pages, $15
To order: ewtnrc.com or (800) 854-6316
The Communist government in China is playing the Church for a sap, and many in the Church know it — and no one knows it better than Cardinal Joseph Zen, a Chinese native who served for seven years as the sixth bishop of Hong Kong and continues to make news as a staunch critic of the Vatican’s attempts to deal with Beijing according to the old Ostpolitik model of dialogue used by the Church during the Cold War.
In his new book For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent, Cardinal Zen examines how the successes and missteps of previous popes can help current and future popes better understand how the Chinese Communist government works and why, dialogue or no dialogue, communism will forever work against the spiritual interests of the Catholic Church. His solution to the problem is to revisit Benedict XVI’s “Letter to the Church in the People’s Republic of China.”
The book is an edited transcription of Cardinal Zen’s 2017 lecture series commemorating the 10th anniversary of Benedict XVI’s letter. Originally delivered in Chinese, the lectures were translated into Italian by Cardinal Zen and into English by Pierre G. Rossi.
Originally published in Hong Kong in 2018, only a few days before the Vatican announced its provisional agreement with the Chinese government, For Love of My People — recently republished by Ignatius Press — serves as an excellent primer for understanding the political and religious context of this most recent agreement between the Bride of Christ and the Middle Kingdom. But it also provides an eyewitness blow-by-blow account of why Benedict’s earlier missive, promulgated to the Chinese faithful as a dead letter, needs to be resurrected and revisited.
“It is important to understand the background of the relationship between China and the Vatican in the last decades, and what the expectations are of the two sides; especially important is why the Letter of Benedict XVI was in the end not fully understood and implemented,” writes Italian publisher and friend of the cardinal, Aurelio Porfiri, in the book’s introduction.
The eight lectures spell out in great detail the reasons for this missed opportunity, including incompetence and malfeasance in the Roman Curia, Benedict XVI’s lack of will (too often frustrated by Curia double-dealing) to use his authority, a series of mistakes in the translation of the letter itself — some accidental and some intentional — and a Vatican commission set up to implement the letter, which practically from its creation was rendered toothless through the undermining and interference of other elements in the Roman Curia.
In the lectures, Cardinal Zen delves into the finer points of the letter, the heart of which is Benedict’s concern to reconcile and unite the underground Church in China and the government-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) while also maintaining the Church’s autonomy in matters of worship, teaching and governance — a problem that still remains in play today as the Church (if not China) continues to work toward a more lasting agreement in this country.
“Could the underground community join the official community [the CPCA]?” Cardinal Zen asks. “This is the great problem that we must face directly.”
It is also the problem which Benedict’s 2017 letter sought to address. “In itself,” Cardinal Zen writes, “there is not a problem, because we have the right to work in the open. But in actual fact, things are more complicated, because the government ‘almost always’ [as Benedict writes in his letter] imposes conditions that no believer can in good conscience accept, such as joining the CPCA, supporting an independent Church with episcopal ordinations without pontifical mandate, or concelebrating with illegitimate bishops.”
By examining these three areas of concern — whether the underground Church should join the CPCA, accept episcopal ordinations of CPCA bishops as legitimate, and rely on CPCA priests and bishops to provide the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) — Cardinal Zen builds a case that accuses the Chinese government of manipulating the Church in Rome to do its bidding, with an endgame of forcing the underground Church out of hiding. It is a case that may still hold currency after the 2018 Vatican-China provisional agreement.
Church(es), Bishops, Sacraments
In the end, Benedict decided in his letter that whether the underground Church should comply was to be left to each local bishop in China. While many in the Church saw this deferral to local ordinaries as full-throated papal support for the underground Church “to come out into the open,” Cardinal Zen argues in his lectures to the contrary.
“Does the Pope’s Letter forbid the Bishops of the underground community to try to come out? No, it doesn’t,” he writes. “Does it encourage them to do so? No, it doesn’t. The Pope asks them to use caution because there is not much hope in a positive result. As long as the government holds on to its current position and continues to impose unacceptable conditions, accepting such conditions is tantamount to surrender.”
As Cardinal Zen sees it, at the heart of the Vatican’s concern for unifying the two “Churches” in China — during both Benedict’s and Francis’ papacies — is the desire to provide the sacraments to the faithful in China. But Cardinal Zen argues that, as important as the sacraments are, maintaining the Church’s integrity remains the more vital concern — and the faithful should realize that Beijing is not above using the sacraments as bargaining chips in their ploy to force the underground Church into the open.
“There is the great principle that the faithful have the right to receive valid sacraments,” the cardinal writes. “Therefore, if it is dangerous or even cumbersome to receive valid and legitimate sacraments, they can avail themselves of this right. But while it is said that it is a right, nowhere does it say that it is a duty. Thus, if a believer thinks he can keep his faith while temporarily not receiving the sacraments, especially if he suspects that a priest lacks true faith in the doctrine of the Catholic Church and perhaps intends to force the faithful to enter the CPCA, then he can put aside the right to receive valid sacraments.”
In the seventh lecture, Cardinal Zen analyzes Benedict’s letter in light of the Church’s teaching on the relationship between Church and state. Cardinal Zen distills from this teaching a stark lesson in how pusillanimity does neither the Church nor the faithful in China any favors. He notes that, in 2010, 10 bishops were ordained, but only nine were initially approved by Pope Benedict. This 10th bishop, whom Cardinal Zen does not identify, was by all accounts “never, not ever” going to be approved by the Pope. “Then he was approved (someone mockingly noted that ‘not ever’ did not last long).”
According to Cardinal Zen, this wayward bishop was approved after a brief and cursory investigation by Rome — but with no explanation about why, before this investigation, Rome had been so ardently opposed. “Many people view this kind of doing things as yielding too much on the part of the Holy See,” Cardinal Zen writes. “The Holy See justifies this by saying that this is to avoid a possible schism, noting that if many bishops are ordained illegitimately, the Church becomes schismatic.”
But this concern for avoiding schism and providing bishops and the sacraments at any cost — based on a false notion of dialogue, according to the old Ostpolitik model of the Cold War — will eventually, Cardinal Zen argues, cost the Church more dearly than the interruptions in the life of the Chinese Church that the Vatican is seeking to avoid.
“In recent years, the almost unrestricted desire for dialogue to reach an outcome has weakened our Church in China,” Cardinal Zen asserts.
Much of this brief-but-dense book might read like inside baseball, or, as Cardinal Zen says, “All this I am saying might seem like gossip, but if I mention it, it is because I want people to understand that the Church too is made up of men and that Pope Benedict encountered difficulties.”
Yet, as the book’s title implies, Cardinal Zen writes that he is compelled to speak out — not from any personal gain but because he is uniquely qualified to sound the alarm and help curate the faith for the people — his people — in China.
“Right now, the whole world sees the state of religious freedom in China go from bad to worse,” he writes. “Can we hope to gain something from coming to terms with the government? When I say that it’s almost like hoping that Saint Joseph can get something out of talking with Herod. I am not joking.”
As Cardinal Zen notes, the main purpose of his book is to give hope to the people in his homeland — hope that the Vatican will get it right this time and hope that they keep the faith.
“Sometimes we have to recognize that it is not possible to reach an acceptable outcome,” he writes. “If that is the case, we must humbly acknowledge the momentary failure of dialogue, hoping that in the future the situation might allow us to restart it. For the time being, let us do what we can — namely, strengthen the faith.”
Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.