In his view, Zen said those who back the deal want "compromise without limits, they are already willing to completely surrender."
Based on what Pope Francis has told him and Archbishop Savio Hon, who was born in British Hong Kong and is currently apostolic nuncio to Greece, Zen said it's clear that the Pope "didn't know the details" of the planned deal.
"We all know that the indications of the Roman Curia are necessarily approved by the Pope," he said, adding that faithful from the Chinese continent "do not complain about the Pope due to certain misunderstandings."
"If he signs any deal they want, we can only accept it, without protest," he said. "But before the eventual signing, it is our right to make the truth about things known, because this can change the direction and avoid serious dangers for the Church."
Cardinal Zen's latest critique was published in Chinese on his blog Feb. 24, and was translated and published in Italian on the blog of veteran Vatican analyst Sandro Magister.
The post centers on a conversation Zen had with a priest from continental China, Fr. Geng Zhanhe, responding to different points Geng apparently made in support of the deal.
Rumors of the proposed agreement have been gaining steam in recent weeks, with sources close the situation saying the accord is "imminent" and could come as early as this spring. If the deal is reached, the Vatican is expected to officially recognize seven bishops who are out of communion with Rome, including 2-3 whose excommunications have been explicitly declared by the Vatican.
Most notably, the new deal would also apparently outline government and Vatican roles in future episcopal selection. The details of the deal would reportedly be similar to the Vatican's agreement with Vietnam, in which the Holy See would propose three names, and the Chinese government would choose the one to be appointed bishop.
Currently every bishop recognized by Beijing must be a member of the patriotic association, and many bishops appointed by the Vatican who are not recognized or approved by the Chinese government have faced government persecution.
In his blog post, Cardinal Zen criticized the fact that as one of two Chinese cardinals, he has not been made aware of the contents of the agreement. "Certainly they can't make public all the contents of the negotiation," he said, but as one of the two cardinals for China, "would I not have the right to know the contents?"
Yet even if the contents of the deal were commonly known, "should we just wait and hold hands and make critiques only once it's been accomplished?"
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Zen said the "democratic election" of new bishops in China by the "illegitimate episcopal conference" would mean that it is really the government who elects the prelates, so the "final word" of the Pope "cannot save his function; the formality of maintaining pontifical authority will hide the fact that the real authority to name bishops will be placed in the hands of an atheist government."
If Francis were to sign the agreement tomorrow, Zen said he "could not criticize it," even if he doesn't understand the decision. But until then, "I have the duty to speak with a loud voice according to my conscience, I have the right to reiterate that this is a bad agreement!"
He noted that China is increasingly tightening its grip on religious activity in general, and pointed to a new crackdown put into place Feb. 1 which, among other things, bans anyone under 18 from attending religious services. It's also forbidden to hold any sort of youth group activity or summer camp, even if it's not held at a church.
Asking why the Chinese government is suddenly becoming so strict with the clandestine Church after looking the other way for many years, Zen said this is because "the Holy See is helping the authorities of the government to do this."
Responding to the argument that if a deal is not reached the Chinese government would increasingly appoint illegitimate bishops, eventually leading to schism, Zen said having the government control the Church in China independently of the Holy See is already schismatic.
"Will it be [schismatic] with only an increased number of illegitimate bishops?" he asked. "Would it not still be worse if the Pope were to bless the bishops chosen by the government and the Church is controlled by the government?"