The Church in mainland China has been divided for some 60 years between the underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government-sanctioned organization.
The agreement between the Holy See and Beijing was intended to normalize the situation of China’s Catholics and unify the underground Church and the CPCA.
Cardinal Re wrote that “there is a profound symphony” of thought and action among St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis on the Church in China, and that all three “have favored dialogue between the two parties and not contrariety.
He said that “after having personally taken note of the existing documents in the Current Archive of the Secretariat of State, I am able to assure Your Eminence that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the draft of the Accord on the nomination of Bishops in China, which only in 2018 was it possible to sign.”
Cardinal Zen responded to Cardinal Re's claims about Francis' immediate predecessors by referring to Benedict XVI's statement in Last Conversations that he and St. John Paul II regarded ostpolitik – a Vatican diplomatic effort to reach out to and accommodate the Eastern Bloc – as a failure, albeit one pursued with good intentions.
“Instead of being conciliatory and accepting compromises, it was necessary to resist it forcefully,” Benedict XVI said in the 2017 book-interview.
The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong also discussed the dean's statement that “‘independent Church’ can no longer be interpreted in an absolute manner as ‘separation’ from the Pope, as was the case in the past,” and that “there is slowness in drawing in loco all the consequences which derive from this epochal change both on the doctrinal and on the practical level and there persist dolorous tensions and situations.”
“The so-called epochal change of the meaning of the word “independence” I am afraid might exist only in the head of the Most Eminent Secretary of State,” Cardinal Zen wrote.
He suggested that the change could have been “caused by an erroneous translation from Chinese by the young minutante of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples,” whom he said, as probably the only Chinese person in the congregation, is the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, but is also partly responsible for the at least 10 mistakes in translating Benedict XVI's 2007 letter to Catholics in China.
“But given the intelligence of His Eminence, I hesitated to believe that he could have been misled,” Cardinal Zen demurred. “It looks more probable that he willingly allowed himself to be cheated.”
Cardinal Zen maintained he has “strong evidence” that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, “is manipulating the Holy Father, who always shows so much affection to me when we meet, but never answers my questions.”
In the opening of his letter, Cardinal Zen told Cardinal Re that “I admire your courage in venturing into problems you yourself acknowledge to be complex, thus, risking the prestige of your newly inaugurated high office,” adding that “we have nowadays this our 'vice pope' capable to infuse such courage in many workers in the Holy See” – a reference to Cardinal Parolin.
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He addressed again the pope's pastoral guidelines concerning the civil registration of clergy in China, which recognize the choice of those who feel that they cannot in good conscience register with the government and accept sinicization, but encourage registration nevertheless.
Cardinal Re said the guidelines “were designed precisely to safeguard the faith,” but Cardinal Zen wrote that he “could not understand them.”
The Chinese cardinal wrote: “When many of my brothers in despair come to me for advice, I tell them: don’t criticize those who follow the guideline from Rome. But since the guideline leaves room for objection of conscience, you can quietly retire into the state of catacombs and don’t resist by force to any injustice, you could only suffer more losses. Am I wrong in all these?”
He concluded that he “100 percent agrees” with Cardinal Re's invitation to prayer. “I was aware that even the Holy See recommended that traditional invocation to Our Lady: 'Sub tuum praesidium' and the other to Archangel St. Michael.”
Cardinal Zen added that there is also, obviously, the traditional prayer for the pope which concludes, “and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies.”