Backroom Battles as Vatican Courts China

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Pope Francis, Cardinal Zen and the letter.

The old, retired cardinal has had enough. He does not like what the Vatican is doing in China. He takes a plane and asks to be received by the Pope. But instead of bringing it to an end, the encounter of the two men escalated the tensions of the Vatican’s pending agreement with China, a peace brokerage between two opposing arms of Catholicism in one of the most strictly controlled regimes in the world.

The outcry of betrayal came from 86-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, affectionately named “Lion in Winter.” For decades, Zen has been urging the Vatican to take a stronger stand in defending the Catholic Church from persecution and control by Chinese Communist authorities. Cardinal Zen, now retired, was native to Shanghai but fled to Hong Kong to escape Communist rule at the end of the Chinese Civil War. He spent almost whole his life in Southeast Asia, traveling to China often.

In parallel with the centralization of power in the hands of Xi Jinping, Beijing is increasingly tightening its grip on the former British colony. In 2002, when Zen became bishop of Hong Kong, he helped to reinforce its political rights, shielding Hong Kong’s autonomy from China’s pervasive force. Zen, along with the younger generation of Hong Kong activists, is in no mood to compromise with Beijing.

For those unaware, the Catholic Church in China is run by the Communist party via the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The latter does not recognize the authority of the Pope and is loyal only to the Chinese Communist party. There is, however, an “underground Church” by which flock and priest are loyal to the Pope and Catholic Church in Rome. While the priests of the patriotic church are ordained by CPA, and therefore by the will of the Communist party, the priests of the Underground are ordained by the pope in Rome, where they travel clandestinely.

So, when last month a delegation from the Vatican traveled to China and met Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian, 88, who presides over the church in Shantou, in the southern province of Guangdong, they were playing for power. In a meeting in Beijing, they asked Zhuang to retire in favor of a bishop, Huang Bingzhang, appointed by the Chinese government, and who is a member of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, and was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2011.

When  Zhuang, loyal to the Pope, was ordered to retire to give the space to the pro-government and previously excommunicated Huang, he tearfully asked Cardinal Zen for help, giving him a letter of response to the Vatican’s request. Cardinal Zen, suspecting that the Pope no longer receives his mail, then does something incredible. He gets on a plane and flies to Rome, with Zhuang’s and other suspiciously undelivered letters in his bag. On his blog, Cardinal Zen described what happened next:

In the afternoon of that day, 10th January, I received a phone-call from Santa Marta telling me that the Holy Father would receive me in private audience in the evening of Friday 12th January (though the report appeared only on 14th January in the Holy See bulletin). That was the last day of my 85 years of life, what a gift from Heaven! (Note that it was the vigil of the Holy Father’s departure for Chile and Peru, so the Holy Father must have been very busy).

On that evening the conversation lasted about half an hour. I was rather disorderly in my talking, but I think I succeeded to convey to the Holy Father the worries of his faithful children in China.

The most important question I put to the Holy Father (which was also in the letter) was whether he had had time “to look into the matter” (as he promised Archbishop Savio Hon). In spite of the danger of being accused of breach of confidentiality, I decide to tell you what His Holiness said: “Yes, I told them (his collaborators in the Holy See) not to create another Mindszenty case”! I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China. His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me.

I think it was most meaningful and appropriate for the Holy Father to make this historical reference to Card. Josef Mindszenty, one of the heroes of our faith. (Card. Josef Mindszenty was the Archbishop of Budapest, Cardinal Primate of Hungary under Communist persecution. He suffered much in several years in prison. During the short-lived revolution of 1956, he was freed from jail by the insurgents and, before the Red Army crushed the revolution, took refuge in the American Embassy. Under the pressure of the Government he was ordered by the Holy See to leave his country and immediately a successor was named to the likings of the Communist Government).

Cardinal Zen’s detailed account of his encounter with Pope Francis is telling. If the narrative in the blog is real–I have no reason to believe that is not–the two men discussed the removal of the bishops by the Vatican delegation during the visit to Beijing last December. According to Zen’s account, Francis had no idea about the decisions and promised Zen he would investigate. Zen never accused the Pope of betraying the Church in China. In the exact words of Cardinal Zen: “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months.”

Did the Vatican’s delegation to China act without knowledge of the Pope? This would be greatly disobedient, considering the Pope’s absolute power. But sometimes even the God’s arm is too short. John Paul II was very isolated, and he hated the curia. Pope Ratzinger was elected to clean the Vatican’s sinking boat, but had to resign, as he, according to his judgment, was not able to turn things around. So the cardinals elected a Jesuit, capable of dealing with the complexities of the church with untold insight, they thought. Francis started with sweeping and cleaning, reorganizing the Vatican’s bank and finances, setting the mold for a more modern and humble Church.

But in the opaque world of the Vatican, it is extremely hard to judge the Pope’s effectiveness. However, as much as Francis’ rhetoric is appealing, charismatic and close to the people, he is still a conservative, not a reformer. He is a better politician than Pope Benedict XVI but does not have enough will or power to meaningfully approach the Church’s necessary reforms, and regain its influence among its followers. Rather than open the doors of change at home, the Jesuit pope might instead conquer the Church’s long-desired territory in pursuit of a more comfortable legacy.

From this point of view, it is hard to believe that the Pope does not know what is going on in China. That would mean that Francis did not speak truthfully to Cardinal Zen when the latter was expressing his outrage that the Vatican is now sacrificing its loyal priests and bishops in acquiescence to Chinese autocracy. But Zen, the old fox, published the Pope’s words, effectively holding him responsible in the court of public opinion. If the Pope will not fulfill his promise to investigate and protect the loyal bishops of China, the martyrs of an approaching agreement, then Zen is ready to act, as he wrote in the final sentence of his post: “Am I the major obstacle in the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China? If that is a bad deal, I would be more than happy to be the obstacle.”

So what would be the lousy deal for Zen, for “underground” Chinese Catholics? A deal that would force the Vatican to cave into the Beijing authorities, sacrificing the underground church on the altar of Chinese power. There are forces in the Vatican that staunchly support the 8 million followers of the underground church, and Cardinal Zen is no doubt one of them. (For the complete report on the religious situation in China, its congregations, and churches, see the Freedom House report.) While Zen is back in Hong Kong, we continue to watch reports that hint that the campaign against the underground church has already started; or, that Chinese authorities understand dialogue and democracy, by means of repression.

Zen stirred discussions, questions, and speculation. His post forced the two negotiating sides to speed up their negotiations, while Zen has become the target of the Hong Kong press, loyal to Beijing, which claims that Zen hates the Chinese communist government more than he loves the Pope.

But the most substantial rebuttal of Zen’s siren call came from the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, who denies every single word of the old cardinal without even mentioning his name. “Yes, the Holy Father personally follows current contacts with the authorities of the People’s Republic of China. All his collaborators act in concert with him. No one takes private initiatives. Frankly, any other kind of reasoning seems to me to be out of place,” said Parolin in an extensive interview for La Stampa. Parolin, a long time China hand in the Vatican, is orchestrating the negotiations with Beijing, which intensified two years ago, as noted in one of my previous posts. Parolin’s interview is interesting because it explains the Vatican’s reasoning and its justification for the situation on the ground:

In fact, communion between the Bishop of Rome and all Catholic Bishops touches the heart of the Church’s unity: it is not a private matter between the Pope and the Chinese Bishops or between the Apostolic See and civil authorities. The main purpose of the Holy See in the ongoing dialogue is precisely that of safeguarding communion within the Church, in the wake of genuine Tradition and constant ecclesiastical discipline. You see, in China, there are not two Churches, but two communities of faithful called to follow a gradual path of reconciliation towards unity. It is not, therefore, a matter of maintaining a perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures, but of finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context.

The above can be understood as the ideological foundation of the Vatican’s plan to reconcile with the Chinese government-sponsored church while putting aside the one that is loyal to the Pope. But then the interview reveals, even more, when Parolin steps from the shadows and says:

With honesty and realism, the Church asks nothing but to profess her faith with more serenity, definitively ending a long period of contrasts, in order to give more room for greater trust and offer the positive contribution of Catholics to the good of Chinese society as a whole.  Of course, many wounds are still open today. To treat them, we need to use the balm of mercy. And if someone is asked to make a sacrifice, small or great, it must be clear to everyone that this is not the price of a political exchange, but falls within the evangelical perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ. The hope is that, when God wills it, we won’t have to speak of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” Bishops, “clandestine” and “official” Bishops in the Church in China, but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of collaboration and communion again.   

Sacrifice is not a favor on behalf of the Beijing regime, but is for the good of the Church of Christ, claims Parolin. How old is this; how many times has the Church, and other regimes and ideologies, asked the populous to “sacrifice” for the greater cause? At what cost? Towards the end of the interview with Parolin, I knew there was something wrong, but could not quite pinpoint what makes the Vatican’s claim on understanding, and therefore engineering, the complexity of humankind compatible with the Chinese nationalist state. What Parolin says here is a complete illusion:

I am convinced of one thing. Trust is not the result of the strength of diplomacy or negotiations. Trust is based on the Lord who guides history. We trust that the Chinese faithful, thanks to their sense of faith, will know how to recognize that the action of the Holy See is animated by this trust, which does not respond to worldly logics. It is especially up to the pastors to help the faithful to recognize in the Pope’s guidance the sure reference point for grasping God’s plan in the present circumstances.

It will never happen as long as Beijing is run by a government that’s credo is nationalism and the ongoing construction of imperial infrastructure at the expense of individual freedoms. And as long as the Holy See’s power is based on the pretext that the Church is the only place that can guarantee the salvation of humankind, and bring it into God’s hands, Parolin’s vision will remain just that, a vision.

As an agnostic, I am compelled toward the dialogue between the two centers of power, which command 1.5 billion brethren each. And while I was writing this post, the Cardinal John Tong, bishop of Hong Kong, announced that China and the Vatican have reached an agreement on bishops. “China and the Vatican have reached consensus on the appointment of bishops, which will lead to the resolution of other outstanding problems,” said Cardinal Tong, adding: “The Chinese government is concerned with problems on the political level, while for the Holy See, the problems are on the religious and pastoral levels.”

If it is true that the agreement is soon to be signed while the two sides remain on the above-mentioned sides of the tensions, then dear brethren, and comrades, you have not achieved anything but broader grounds for argument, division, disintegration.

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