During his recent visit to Washington, D.C., Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun told reporters that mistakes and misunderstandings on the part of key Vatican officials, and a desire for “compromise at any cost,” have undermined Pope Benedict's intentions for the Catholic Church in China.
“In the year 2007, the Holy Father issued a letter in which he gave a very clear direction. But those directions were not followed,” said Cardinal Zen, in an April 7 press conference at Washington, D.C.'s Hudson Institute. “There was even a wrong interpretation by some experts, like a certain Fr. (Jeroom) Heyndrickx, which misled many people.”
These experts, according to Cardinal Zen, encouraged all Chinese Catholics to seek government recognition as members of the “official” or “open” church, a step that would require them to join the government-run Catholic Patriotic Association.
“That wrong interpretation said that the Holy Father 'wants everybody to come into the open,'” the cardinal explained. “This is not true at all.” Although the Patriotic Association contains many bishops in communion with Rome, Pope Benedict warned “underground” bishops to be careful in approaching it.
“The Holy Father cautioned people in the underground,” Cardinal Zen pointed out. “Because when you want to come out, the letter says: in no few instances, indeed almost always, the government will impose conditions which are not acceptable to the Catholic conscience.”
The Pope's letter ultimately left the matter of government recognition up to individual bishops, while warning that the Catholic Patriotic Association's founding principles – especially its claim of independence from the Vatican – were “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”
Now, Cardinal Zen believes that a rush for government recognition, combined with misguided Vatican policies, has emboldened authorities in Beijing, and even swayed many Chinese Catholics to the government's side.
“Recently, unfortunately the people in the Congregation for Evangelization even followed a wrong policy, the wrong strategy – which is the old 'Ostpolitik,'” he observed. The term refers to Pope Paul VI's controversial policy of accommodating Communist governments in an attempt to obtain better conditions for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain during the 1960s and 70s.
“This policy of Ostpolitik – which is compromise at any cost, to please the government always, to always avoid confrontation – led to the present situation, the events at the end of November and the beginning of December,” Cardinal Zen said.
In November of 2010, the Chinese government ordained a bishop without the approval of the Holy See, at a ceremony in which several bishops loyal to Rome were reportedly forced to participate. In December, police officers rounded up a large number of bishops and escorted them to a state-sponsored meeting of an unauthorized “bishops' conference.”
“It is no more our Church,” Cardinal Zen lamented. “They carried out one more illegitimate ordination, and then they had a big assembly which is completely against the doctrine of the Church. It was like a slap in the face of the Holy Father.”
“But unfortunately, these people in the Congregation for Evangelization, and this expert, still believe that they must carry on the policy of compromise.”
Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx, who has worked extensively in China on behalf of the CICM missionaries, wrote in a March 2011 essay that the illicit consecration and bishops' assembly should not get in the way of seeking “unity, through dialogue and reconciliation.”
Cardinal Zen hopes that the influence of Fr. Heyndrickx and other voices for compromise, including Cardinal Prefect Ivan Dias of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, may be reaching an end. He sees signs of a “new beginning” that would allow the Pope's intentions for the Chinese Church – particularly a reconciliation of “underground” and “official” Catholics – to be authentically realized.
“Fortunately, the Holy Father, who has been so patient all this time, has taken some action, especially the appointment of the new Secretary for the Congregation for Evangelization,” the recently-ordained Archbishop Savio Hon. “He is Chinese, he knows the reality, and he is also a good theologian. So we have hope for a new beginning.”
“But it will be very difficult, because now the difficulty is not only to face a government, but to face our own people, who are already more on the side of the government than on the side of the Church. That's the very sad reality.”
Cardinal Zen told CNA that the first and most important task, at present, would be to revisit Pope Benedict XVI's “Letter to Chinese Catholics,” and acquire a correct understanding of the principles it sets out as non-negotiable.
“Everything is laid down in the letter of the Holy Father,” he said. “You have to explain to the government, that we cannot go all the way with them. That means we cannot agree on an independent church. That's our bottom line, because we are the universal Catholic Church.
“They must accept that the Church is run by the bishops, and they must give real power to the bishops. Now, the bishops are nothing, they mean nothing. They are being humiliated.”