Cardinal Zen: Church is losing ‘credibility’ to evangelize China

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze kiun departs the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome on Nov 18 2014 Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA CNA 11 19 14 Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun departs the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, Nov. 18, 2014. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA

The former Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, has said that the Church's efforts to negotiate an extension to the 2018 provisional agreement with China are harming the evangelization of that country.

In an interview with CNA, Cardinal Zen said that the Church's silence on Communist human rights abuses, including the detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs in a network of concentration camps in Xinjiang Province, was damaging the ability of the Church to play a role in shaping the future of the country.

"The resounding silence will damage the work of evangelization," the cardinal said. "Tomorrow when people will gather to plan the new China, the Catholic Church may not be welcome."

While Cardinals Zen, Charles Muang Bo of Burma and Ignatius Suharyo of Indonesia have repeatedly denounced China's human rights violations, the Vatican, including Pope Francis, have remained silent on what human rights groups have called a "genocide" and campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Uyghurs as diplomatic talks continue on the future of the Vatican-China agreement.

In recent weeks, both the Holy See and the Chinese government have signaled their intention to extend the 2018 deal, which was meant to unify the country's 12 million Catholics, divided between the underground Church and the Communist-administered Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and clear a path for the appointment of bishops for Chinese dioceses.

While Zen says there is a lack of visible progress on either Communist tolerance of underground Catholics or on the nomination of bishops, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said last week that negotiations continued to "normalize" the life of the Church in China.

"With China, our current interest is to normalize the life of the Church as much as possible, to ensure that the Church can live a normal life, which for the Catholic Church is also to have relations with the Holy See and with the Pope," Parolin said Sept. 14.

Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press conference Sept. 10 that "With the concerted efforts from both sides, the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops between China and the Vatican has been implemented successfully since it was signed around two years ago."

Supporters of the agreement say that the deal has prevented invalid episcopal ordinations and begun to normalize legal status for Catholic believers, at a time when followers of illict religious organizations are persecuted in China.

Zen is not the only expert to criticize the Vatican's agreement with Beijing. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Holy See to take a more prominent role in opposing and denouncing human rights abuses by the Chinese government.

"What the Church teaches the world about religious freedom and solidarity should now be forcefully and persistently conveyed by the Vatican in the face of the Chinese Communist Party's relentless efforts to bend all religious communities to the will of the Party and its totalitarian program," Pompeo wrote Friday in First Things

"Two years on, it's clear that the Sino-Vatican agreement has not shielded Catholics from the Party's depredations, to say nothing of the Party's horrific treatment of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and other religious believers," Pompeo observed.

Pompeo noted that "as part of the 2018 agreement, the Vatican legitimized Chinese priests and bishops whose loyalties remain unclear. Meanwhile, Pompeo wrote, "communist authorities continue to shutter churches, spy on and harass the faithful, and insist that the Party is the ultimate authority in religious affairs."

Cardinal Zen told CNA that, in his view, there is little reason to expect an extension will yield progress toward Parolin's stated aims. The cardinal said that he had little hope a renewed Vatican-China deal would secure the future of Chinese Catholics "unless the regime collapses."

Zen especially criticized Vatican acceptance of the CPCA, which operates under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party. Many bishops and priests have refused to cooperate with the state-sponsored CPCA, and have said that they are expected by Beijing to sign documents acknowledging Communist teaching and the supremacy of the party over Church affairs - attestations that run counter to Catholic doctrine regarding the primacy of the pope.  

While some experts have emphasized that clerics can agree to the deal with certain mental reservations, Zen has said the status quo is not satisfactory.

Expressing his opposition to the Communist Party's requirements for Catholic clerics, Zen offered his assessment of the situation bluntly: "Parolin is calling a united schismatic Church, which he has produced, 'Catholic.'"

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Clergy who refuse to submit to Communist oversight continue to be arrested and imprisoned, church buildings are regularly demolished, and government officials have offered bounties of thousands of dollars for people to report underground Christian worshippers.

In Hong Kong, the diocese Zen led until 2009, the mainland government has imposed a sweeping new National Security Law, which criminalizes previously protected civil liberties under the headings of "sedition" and "foreign collusion." Before the law's implementation, many Catholics, including Zen, warned that it could be used to silence the Church in Hong Kong, though the law was defended by Cardinal John Tong Hon, Zen's successor in the diocese, who is currently serving as apostolic administrator.

Since the law came into effect on 1 July, several prominent pro-democracy activists and journalists – many of them Catholics – have been arrested.

Cardinal Zen told CNA that Catholics arrested under the new law's provisions, like Jimmy Lai, Agnes Chow, and Martin Lee, were "simply putting into practice the social teaching of the Church."

"In this moment, democracy means freedom and human rights, human dignity," Zen said.

The cardinal has previously warned that a crackdown on religious liberty in Hong Kong by the mainland government could see the diocese, which has enjoyed relative freedom compared to mainland dioceses since the 1997 handover from the U.K., subject to the same restrictions as Catholics on the mainland.

"We are already in that situation," said Zen.

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Recently, Cardinal Tong instructed Catholic schools and clergy to refrain for addressing contentious political issues in classrooms and homilies and instead "foster the correct values on national identity."

Tong also intervened to stop a Catholic group affiliated with the diocese from running a prayer for democratic freedoms in Hong Kong in local newspapers.

Zen told CNA that, while he understood the sensitivity of the situation, "this servile attitude saddens me a lot."

"We are losing dignity and credibility," he said.

"I admit that in this moment it is very difficult to run a school. The way the government school authority is dealing with teachers is utterly disgraceful, humiliating. But we are no more in the position to defend the teachers."

The cardinal lamented division in the Church, saying that unity among all Hong Kongers is necessary if there is to be hope of resistance to creeping Communist repression.

"The society is lacerated," the cardinal said. "The division and contrast is everywhere: in families, in work place, obviously also among teachers and parents of the students. Are we bound to accept the position of the Government, when they impose an unjust law on the community?"

"How to teach the duty of discerning between right and wrong? Surely not by imposition but by free open discussion. But even if we dare to do this against the will of the Government, without a unanimous, or even only a strong majority [in favor], how can we proceed further?

"When the day comes that our teachers must only teach what the Government commands them to teach, against truth and justice, we may have no choice than declare publicly that the school can no more be called Catholic, because we are no more responsible for it," Zen said.

Asked if he saw any prospect of an improvement for the local Church coming out of Vatican negotiations with the current Communist government, Zen said simply "No."

"Is there any choice between helping the Government to destroy the Church or resisting the Government to keep our Faith?"

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