Cardinal Zen: I Fear the Vatican’s Ostpolitik With Communist China

In an exclusive Register interview, the Chinese archbishop discusses his concerns about reports of an impending agreement between Rome and Beijing.

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

Ipsa Cura Est (“He cares for you”) is a fitting motto for a man who has singled himself out in his robust defense of the persecuted — whether that’s members of Falun Gong or China’s persecuted Christians.

Although now retired, Cardinal Joseph Zen, 85, is far from living a quiet life. The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong is an outspoken critic of China’s communist government and has made headlines around the world about his fears over a pending Vatican deal with China.

He recently spoke with Register correspondent Daniel Blackman at his home in Hong Kong’s Salesian House of Studies.


You’re reported as saying that a Vatican deal with China would be to “betray Christ.” Why do you think that?

Well, it was reported like that, but it’s not quite what I said. I think sometimes the media wants to make things a bit more sensational then they really are. What I mean is that if the Pope “knowingly” signed a bad agreement with the communists, it would be a betrayal of Jesus, and a betrayal of the good and faithful people in the Catholic Church in China.

I’m not against the dialogue, but I am worried that it may not have good conclusions, as you need to have goodwill on both sides, and I cannot see goodwill on the side of the communists. Why do they come to dialogue? To dialogue means to compromise, but the communists are not ready to give anything; they don’t need anything, and they have full control of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, as they do of all religions in China.

For so many years they have conquered the Church; their only purpose is more power, not to give any back. They probably want to see a decision from the Vatican telling the underground Church to come up, so then they will have full control of the Church.

They [the underground Church] would be the ones who would be betrayed: They have resisted under so much pressure, and I’m afraid, truly afraid, that the Vatican officials will be cheated by China. The Chinese are masters at playing with words, so they may give an agreement that looks okay but is not. I’m worried.


What is your view about one solution mentioned — a deal around the choosing of bishops?

 I don’t know anything; they don’t tell me anything. I know things via the news. I’ve heard the idea that the bishops’ conference would presents names for new bishops and present it to the government, but this is fake. There is no bishops’ conference; it’s only such in name. The government runs the Church through the association — it’s not two bodies; it’s one body under the government’s control.

They don’t even try to hide this. You see photos of the association meetings presided over by a government official.

In a place where the Vatican can’t operate normally though the papal nuncio, the local bishops could suggest candidates — I would even agree to give the government a veto, so that even if they rejected one candidate, another could be picked — at least it would still be the choice of the bishops. However, in this case, it’s misleading, as the association is not a bishops’ conference; it’s a puppet of the government.

Another suggestion is to allow the priests, religious and laity to select candidates. But this has its problems. Who will be allowed to decide; how will they decide; what proportion of priests and laity will be involved? Some dioceses have many priests, other areas have very few, say four or five priests, so how can they have a proper election? You know, there are no real elections in China — it’s all manipulated by the government.


What sort of candidate would the government reject?

Those who are not obedient to the government, those who don’t accept government instruction, and those who are loyal to Rome. The government wants to control everything. But the situation is complicated; there are many unknown things. Some are selected bishops with the approval of the Vatican, in secret; the candidate may not be their first choice, but a compromise choice.

Nonetheless, if the Vatican has approved, then they are legitimate bishops.


So there are legitimate bishops in a schismatic Church?

Well, there was a time, after the communists took over, when there was no communication possible with the Vatican: The Church was very pressured, so good-natured men came forward to be ordained as priests and bishops without the permission of Rome; they were ordained illicitly. But then communication improved later, on thanks to a more open policy, so they could write to Rome, explain the situation, ask for forgiveness and permission to exercise their ministry.

They were often made auxiliary bishops in a diocese, with the underground bishop as the main bishop of the diocese, although hidden. …

So, at the national level, the association is “schismatic,” but the popes didn’t want to use that word, as they knew many were under pressure and not willingly in this situation, so I emphasis at the national level — but on the diocesan level, it’s very different. There are many kinds of bishops; some who resist, including numerous clergy who are strong. Others are faithful in their hearts, but weak, so they join the association; they know they can’t break the system, and the Vatican is very tolerant toward the association.


What has been your direct experience of dealing with the state-sponsored church?

For seven years, between 1989 and 1996, I would spent six months of the year in China, teaching philosophy and theology at the seminaries of the association. I applied in 1984 and had to wait four years for permission. So, there I was, and I could see everything. I once met the vice chairman of the so-called bishops’ conference; he was a good man, unlike those now who are puppets. I asked him about the next bishops’ meeting, and he laughed. “You think we have meetings,” he said. “They never allow us to talk; if we try, they intervene. We’re called by the government and given instructions.”

Anyway, I was treated very well, kindly, but I could see there was no respect for the bishops — it was terrible; they couldn’t do anything. They’re slaves — that is the real situation. People who have not lived close enough to a totalitarian regime don’t understand. Nazism, communism — these are terrible systems. Yes, Italy had Mussolini, but in comparison, he really doesn’t compare.


Before Christmas, you were critical of a Vatican declaration about the ninth assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives. What was that about?

This national meeting is the most explicit and clear manifestation of the schismatic nature of the association. And since I wrote my critique, I’ve still received no clarification from the Vatican about their declaration.

Prior to the eighth meeting, a commission was set up at the Vatican. A communiqué was drafted and published, telling the bishops they should not attend the meeting. It was approved by Pope Benedict XVI. Unfortunately, three bishops from China went to the Vatican and pleaded with Cardinal Ivan Dias, then head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, telling him they faced so much pressure and wanted permission to attend.

This time around, the same should have happened, and they should have asked the government to abstain from holding the meeting, as they are in talks with the Vatican. The declaration said something about the Vatican “waiting for hard facts before it makes a judgment.” I’ve received no clarification or information.

The communists were offensive and went ahead, and there were more illicit ordinations with the participation of excommunicated bishops. It’s a slap in the face of the Vatican.


What is your contact with underground Catholics?

Well, before the communists took over, I was already in Hong Kong, but my family suffered somewhat under the communists. It became hard for missionaries to enter China, once the communists took over, too. I have to say, there are many naïve people here in Hong Kong and in Rome who are naïve; they don’t know the facts. They think there is religious freedom, but many are in prison. They don’t know the true — the real — situation.

I also want to say that I am not only for the underground Catholics and against Catholics in the association. I make a point to defend both groups when they are tempted to blame and criticize each other. So, yes, I do have contact, but not directly with the underground — that would be too dangerous for them.


This year will be the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s “Letter to Catholics in China.” Were you involved, and is it still relevant?

There was actually a draft of this letter prepared before Pope Benedict became pope. When he was elected, he said he wanted to do something to help the Catholics in China by writing a letter and establishing a commission, which he did. At the beginning of 2007, we met for two days at the Vatican — myself, bishops from Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some experts.

We studied the draft and sent our suggestions to the Pope, who then wrote the letter himself. It came out in June, and it was wonderful.

Actually, Pope Francis said publicly that the letter is still valid; he confirmed its validity … including about bishops behaving like bishops and not publicly supporting the association (it is a scandal to the underground Church). However, some in Rome manipulated the letter.


Who did, and why?

The Chinese translation, in my opinion, was manipulated. People in the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples were in charge of the translations, and there were some mistakes. But it seems to me that one was intentional; it could not have been a mistake.

The letter asks whether the underground Catholic Church should be able to operate in the open, and, of course, they should; it is their right. But in not a few instances, “almost always,” the government will ask you to do things against your conscience, like join the association or proclaim your support for the association. It’s very difficult, so we left the decision about coming out into the open to the individual bishops.

My own suggestion at the draft stage around this issue was not incorporated, partly, I think, because, in 2006, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples encouraged a bishop to come out and join the association so the Pope could not say it was wrong. So the principle of letting the bishop judge is okay.

But from the final version of the letter in Chinese, the phrase “almost always” was omitted. This is a very important phrase, as it’s almost impossible for the underground to come out and not be expected to go against their conscience. By omitting this important phrase, it allowed for an erroneous interpretation, as if all the underground Catholics could just come out.

There was Father Jerome Heyndrickx, a friend of the government and the Vatican, who then started saying publicly, based on this serious omission, that the underground Catholics should come out, as the Pope wanted them to. It created a terrible situation — so much confusion.

I think it was omitted because some are of the opinion that the underground should join the communist-controlled association.


Do you have any contact with Pope Benedict now?

Pope Benedict is very discreet, but, it’s more than obvious that I’m doing what was his intention.

You have heard of Ostpolitik, the policy of West Germany toward East Germany, making things more friendly, shall we say. This sort of policy had its uses, in terms of politics and economy, but for religion, definitely not. It’s what the Vatican is trying to do with China now.

Look at how it failed in Hungary: The Church could not operate. At Vatican II, only two and five bishops were able to attend the various sessions. It was a failure.

The problem is that the Vatican still believes in Ostpolitik, so I was very happy when the last book interview with Peter Seewald and Pope Benedict was published. There is a section where Benedict discusses Ostpolitik, saying Cardinal [Agostino] Casaroli supported and promoted it, with good intentions, but Benedict says straightforwardly that it was a failure.

John Paul II had direct experience of Nazism, and communism too, and he said we cannot compromise with the communists. So, when I read that in the latest interview with Benedict, I was very happy.


This year is also the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima and the Russian Revolution — surely of relevance for Catholics oppressed by communism.

Well, today is good timing for you to mention this! I’m about to go to the local church to celebrate Mass and closing payers. We’ve just had Our Lady of Fatima with us for two weeks. The statute is one of six blessed by the Pope to tour with world for the anniversary.

The message is still very important — prayer, penance — and there has been a lot of discussions about the three secrets. I’ve not made a deep study of the issues, but the Vatican says everything has now been revealed, but many think there is still something that has not been said.

I think there are two possibilities. In Sister Lucia’s narration, a pope dies. Pope Benedict said this refers to the assignation attempt of Pope John Paul II. But he didn’t die, and the bullet is in the crown of Our Lady in Fatima. Perhaps some other pope has to die?

Now, I don’t want to enter into this discussion too much, as it has to be very well-documented first, but I like to compare this with the dream of St. John Bosco: He saw a great naval battle — the big ship is the Church, and the pope falls down; then he gets up. That is closer to the assassination of Pope John Paul. Then comes the victory, and the ship rests between the pillars of Our Lady the Immaculate and the holy Eucharist. It’s the same message as Fatima.

You know the Chinese government bans Our Lady of Fatima — she is not allowed in the country. They allow other images and devotions, but not Fatima. They say she is anti-communist!


Is there anything you’d like to add?

Some people now think the approach is “Do anything the Pope says.” But I think, really, we need to defend the authority of the Pope in spite of the Pope, sometimes.

We must go slow — the Pope is listening. There has been some discussion about a papal trip to China, which I think should not go ahead. It wouldn’t do any good; it would just be manipulated by the communists, and photos would be used with the Pope with government officials and bishops, without him knowing who was licit, who was excommunicated, that sort of thing, and then it would be manipulated.


Register correspondent Daniel Blackman is based in London.