Maike Hickson

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Cardinal Zen from the cover of his Jan. 2019 book "For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent" www.ignatius.com

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Cdl. Zen in new book: Vatican’s China ‘strategy was wrong, all about compromise and surrender’

Maike Hickson Maike Hickson Follow Maike
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Cardinal Zen's book: For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent www.ignatius.com

February 4, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen has strongly criticized in a new book the Vatican's recent dealings with China, stating that the "strategy was wrong," adding that it was "all about compromise and surrender." He has also revealed that the troubling China policy did not start with Pope Francis. 

In "For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent" released by Ignatius Press on Jan. 25, Cardinal Zen describes in detail the history of the Vatican's shifting China policy over the course of the last decades.

After he praises Cardinal Jozef Tomko, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (CEP) from 1985 until 2001, for his clarity in dealing with China, Cardinal Zen also makes it clear that, since Tomko's end of tenure in 2001, the Vatican has been sending confusing messages and has made compromising decisions when dealing with Communist China. Zen writes with honesty and open disclosure about the inner conflicts in the Vatican regarding China.

The book contains a set of eight lectures delivered by the Chinese cardinal in Hong Kong in 2017, the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's own 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics which presents “some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China.” Zen – the former bishop of Hong Kong – had counseled Pope Benedict with regard to that official letter, and he describes in detail how the letter came into existence and how some members of the Roman Curia tried to skew the Pope's own message. As a matter of fact, Cardinal Zen describes that, especially since 2001, there exists a group of curial members from the CEP and the Secretary of State who promote a sort of Ostpolitik which seeks more compromise with the Communist government in China, to the detriment of the Catholic faithful.

As will be seen, Pope Benedict, though personally supporting Cardinal Zen in his efforts to resist the Communist influence in the Catholic Church in China, also showed himself too lenient toward those curial members who were working against Cardinal Zen. When seeing problems with the Vatican's new China policy, “I brought it to the attention of the Holy Father, but it seems that not even the Pope could do anything about it,” is Cardinal Zen's polite, but discouraging comment. On another occasion, when the Pope did not want to confront those in the Vatican who opposed Cardinal Zen, Pope Benedict XVI limply said to Cardinal Zen: “Sometimes one does not want to offend a person.”

Overall, the book is marked by an unusual honesty and frankness. For the sake of a truthful assessment of the history of the Vatican's dealing with China, Cardinal Zen does not shy away from quoting private conversations with Pope Benedict XVI and from secret Vatican meetings concerning China. Yet, this disclosure is meant to be for the good of the Church, for the sake of a policy that truly protects the Catholics in China and defends the truth of the Catholic Faith.

China's complexity

Throughout the book, Cardinal Zen makes it clear that the situation in China is very complex, and he insists upon drawing a differentiated picture that does justice also to those Catholics who are now members of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) under the influence of the Communists. However, Zen insists that, since the foundation of the CPCA in 1957, this organization has been schismatic, inasmuch as it is under the complete influence of the Communists and inasmuch as it has been consecrating bishops without any permission or mandate from Rome.

What Cardinal Zen is able to show is that the Chinese Communists, however, have always been sensitive to their being seen as having the support of the Catholics, and that they tend to be less bold and oppressive when they feel some counter-pressure from Rome. That is to say, the more lenient Rome has shown itself to be toward demands from China, the bolder the Communists have become in their intrusion into Catholic affairs. They at once exploit what Fritz Kraemer calls a "provocative weakness" on the part of the Church.

As Zen says, there is “faithfulness not only within the underground Church, but also among most people in the official Church.” (He taught at different seminaries in official seminaries in China and thus has first-hand experience here.) Even though Cardinal Zen sees that there are still many well-meaning Catholics in the CPCA, he insists upon fighting back against the undue influence of Communism in Catholics' affairs and he insists that the confusion of the faithful should not be increased. That is to say, Rome should not send the message that it is now acceptable to accept the Communist rule over Catholic affairs. Yet, too many times – even before Pope Francis – this acquiescence has been practically done.

Cardinal Zen shows in his book that a sort of confusion has been exponentially increasing in the last decades. Rome has been sending messages to China that have encouraged faithful bishops to make some essential compromises with China, even coming out into the open and submitting themselves to the rule of the Communists. These developments have had the effect that the loyal Catholics in China from the underground have lost trust in those compliant bishops, but they also are confused as to what the Vatican is actually intending.

Problems prior to Pope Francis

This description of confusion and of discouragement unmistakably already pertains to the time before the pontificate of Pope Francis. For example, Zen says that, under Cardinal Tomko's successor, “some of the Bishops ordained on January 6, 2000, were too easily legitimized.” They had asked for forgiveness from the Holy Father, but such a legitimization had usually to be granted only after a thorough examination of whether such an illegitimately consecrated bishop truly had the Catholic Faith. For, the illegitimate consecrations in the year 2000 have certainly been “a clear challenge to the Pope's authority.”

When, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, appreciating Zen's “zeal for the Church in China,” made him a cardinal, Cardinal Zen told the Chinese Catholics that he himself “had received the scarlet vestment in their name because it represented the red of the blood of the martyrs.” Benedict thereby wanted Zen to help him with China. But at the same time, the new head of the CEP – it was then Cardinal Cardinal Ivan Dias – tried to slow Zen down, telling him: “Don't forget that the Communists are also our brothers.” Cardinal Zen replied that the bishops who are jailed by the Communists are his brothers, too, and asked on whose side he, Zen, should stand. It was clear to Cardinal Zen that this prelate “wanted me to stay out of it.” When Zen came to Rome for a visit, neither the CEP nor the Secretary of State even tried to meet with him. “We are very busy,” they said.

Pope Benedict – “a Pope who loves China” – then tried, in this atmosphere, to write his 2007 Letter to the Chinese Catholics, restating some fundamental aspects of how to deal with the situation in China, such as the insistence upon the Pope's authority with regard to episcopal consecrations. While Cardinal Zen honors the Letter to Chinese Catholics, a careful reader will notice that he does not always agree with the tone of appeasement, even under Benedict, something he politely calls the “overly tolerant attitude of the Holy See.”

“The Holy See has not always reacted forcefully,” Zen says, when dealing, for example, with illegitimate consecrations of new bishops by the Chinese Communists. (Important to know in this context is that Cardinal Zen says that a certain Mr. Liu Bainian, the powerful layman who effectively runs the official Catholic Church in China, is a high-ranking official in the Communist Party.) By legitimizing too many of the illegitimately consecrated bishops under Communist rule, the Vatican is again sending a confusing message to the faithful Catholics in China, says Zen. The impression is made that “sooner  or later you will be legitimized,” thus implicitly inviting future illegitimate episcopal consecrations. Zen states: “I brought it to the attention of the Holy Father, but it seems that not even the Pope could do anything about it.”

Importantly, Cardinal Zen shows how the 2007 papal letter to the Chinese Catholics was mistranslated – and then and thus manipulated – and that it took Cardinal Zen a full year to get the Vatican to post on its website a correct Chinese translation (and this manifestly against the will of the CEP). There was also published an explanatory note to the somewhat lengthy 2007 Letter, and this note contains some strange comments, indeed, such as: “Some, caring for the good of the faithful and looking far into the future, have accepted to be illegitimately ordained.” Zen then asks: “If this is the case, does it mean that those who did not accept illegitimate ordination do not care about the good of the faithful? Are they shortsighted?” (Later, he calls such compliant talk “grossly unfair.”)

Strategy was wrong

Cardinal Zen is very forceful in his critique of the overall Vatican policy. He says: “the strategy was wrong, all about compromise and surrender [....] The Curia has always tried to please the Chinese government.” He adds that “they didn't listen to us, who come from the front line.” But the Holy Father, he explains “could not say who was right and who was wrong.” Zen says that “we could see the gap between the Pope's way of thinking and that of the people who were supposed to support it, and who instead distorted it.” Why this is the case, Cardinal Zen further explains when he writes “Pope Benedict is a saint, a great theologian, but has weakness: he is too good, too humble, too tolerant.” 

Cardinal Zen reveals that he said at some point to the Pope: “Holy Father, I can't take it anymore. You want me to help you with the Church in China, but I only have words; you have the authority and you are not helping me.”

Cardinal Zen discusses in detail  this 2007 Letter which he calls a “great gift.” The main argument of Zen is that a reconciliation between the official Church and the underground Church in China is not possible, as long as the Communists try to influence and to steer the Church's inner life and suppress the free exercise of the Catholic Faith. Therefore, it is not a proper reconciliation between two parties, but an attempt at telling one party to stop influencing the other.

He explains that he saw in the draft of the Letter an “excessively laudatory” tone, and Benedict indeed removed a specific quote that Zen had singled out (he followed also other suggestions of Zen). On the question of “good will” on both sides, Zen says that “the deadlock can last for a long time, and perhaps we can never reach a good outcome.” If this is the case, the most important aspect should be to help the Catholics in China to preserve the full Catholic Faith.

“Harmony and understanding,” Zen said, “cannot come at the expense of the truth.”

Cardinal Zen insists that the Communist government “shows no respect” even for the bishops of the official Church, whom they control completely. Often, the Communists even force these bishops to partake in illegitimate episcopal consecrations, forcing them physically to attend. And: “They act as if the Pope does not exist.”  

Cardinal Zen discusses also the question as to whether or not the clergymen of the underground Church should now come out from hiding and get officially acknowledged. Pope Benedict leaves this question open in his 2007 Letter, saying that it is up to each bishop to decide, but that the faithful should obey their bishop if he decides to do so. “The Pope did not rule out the possibility of doing so,” Zen says, “but neither did he encourage it.” Some, however, afterwards thought that the Pope actually had encouraged a coming out.

Cardinal Zen shows that, in most cases, this “coming out” is to the detriment of the Faith, because the Communists will thereby further take control. “It is very difficult to come out into the open.” Cardinal Zen sees that the Pope's attitude here had been detrimentally influenced by the CEP which had even encouraged one auxiliary bishop – Bishop An of Baoding – to come out into the open. However, as Zen shows, Bishop An “who had suffered for many years in prison for his faith” then became “a blind follower of the government.” Zen states here that “priests and believers who now abandon the Bishop [An], guided by their consciences, sorrowfully have no other choice.” They cannot follow their bishop.

Using even stronger words, Zen adds: “In the current situation, going from an underground to an official condition is, for all intents and purposes, unlawful because the official condition is a schismatic structure.” As can be seen here, Zen takes a stronger stance than Pope Benedict himself.

A too lenient attitude on the side of the Vatican encourages the Communists to be bold, says Zen. An example is that the Communists openly celebrated – shortly after the publication of the Pope's 2007 Letter – the fiftieth anniversary of the first illegitimate episcopal consecration in China (in 1958), with many Catholic bishops and priests present, “as if the Pope's Letter had never been written!” Cardinal Zen then said to the Pope, in the presence of Cardinal Bertone (the Secretary of State at the time): “It is all the fault of Ostpolitik. The willingness on the part of the Holy See to yield has encouraged the Chinese government to be more and more arrogant.”

Defender of the Catholic Chinese

Thus, Cardinal Zen shows himself to be a defender of the Catholic Chinese who yearn to keep the Faith intact and to remain united with the hierarchical Church as founded by Christ. “How can we deliver the flock into the mouth of rapacious wolves?” is the piercing question that Cardinal Zen poses with regard to our now leaving Catholics in the hands of Communist-controlled structures. He warns us, saying that “in the underground community the Bishops are becoming fewer and fewer.”

This Chinese prelate is to be honored for his speaking the plain truth, even if it wounds and hurts, for the sake of helping the Catholic Church in China. His book will help Catholics to learn more about the history of this long-lasting conflict with China, and it will help them assess the new approach of Ostpolitik, as proposed now by Pope Francis, which was, however, partly started long before his own pontificate.

For sure, Cardinal Zen warns us against Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the current Secretary of State, whom he calls “arrogant and despotic, interested more in diplomatic (worldly) success than in the triumph of the Faith.” Zen says that Parolin “got rid of me.” Thus, he concludes: “The ones we fear are Pope Francis' collaborators, infatuated with Ostpolitik.”

When asked in a January 31 interview with EWTN's Raymond Arroyo about the response of the Catholics in China to the new Vatican agreement, Cardinal Zen said: “They say: 'Horrible', a voice of despair, of confusion.”

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.