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Pope Francis with Bp. Chow at the Vatican in March 2022Vatican News

VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — Speaking exclusively to LifeSiteNews, Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow, S.J., of the Diocese of Hong Kong downplayed fears about the Vatican’s secretive deal with Communist China, a deal that he has defended, and highlighted “dialogue” as key to relations with Beijing.

Announced as one of the 21 new cardinals who will receive the red hat in the upcoming consistory on September 30, Chow has emerged as a prominent figure in recent months. The Jesuit prelate is notable for his hope that the Church might “ordain women” to the diaconate or the priesthood, but chiefly for his support and defense of the Vatican’s secretive deal with officials in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

‘Dialogue’ and ‘empathy’ key in Beijing relations

When asked by LifeSite in Rome about his role and the role of the Diocese of Hong Kong in relation to China, Chow stated that “we are in a special role.”

In April, Chow visited Beijing upon the invitation of Archbishop Joseph Li Shan, president of the Communist state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). Chow subsequently invited Li to Hong Kong for a return visit, in a move which stoked fears that Chow was allowing greater CCP control over the region’s Catholics. At the time, Chow described his role as being a bridge builder between Hong Kong and the state-approved and Communist-run church in China.

“We are Chinese,” Chow told LifeSite, “so we kind of know the Chinese mentality, even though I won’t say I know exactly what mainland China or the government are doing.”

This makes it “easy to understand each other,” said Chow, who will become a cardinal on Saturday. “At the same time, I’m a Catholic so I also know what Rome understands,” he added. 

READ: Cardinal Burke: Chinese Communists have ‘rebelled against God,’ ‘cruelly persecuted’ Catholics

Continuing, Chow highlighted “dialogue” and “empathy” as key themes for his diocese. 

“So, in a way, I’m trying to, if I can, inform each other [the Vatican and Beijing] what they are thinking. Because we need to establish empathy. When we are lacking empathy we cannot have real dialogue,” he said.

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Provincial superior of the Chinese Province of the Jesuits from 2018-2021, Chow was appointed as bishop of Hong Kong in May 2021. He stated at the time of his appointment that he had previously turned down the bishopric but relented after Pope Francis personally wrote to ask him to accept. 

Chow has employed a careful line with regard to his comments on China, shying away from any public criticism of the Communist nation. At the time of his appointment to the diocese in 2021, he distanced himself from the underground Chinese Church and also warned not to expect future statements from him combating the CCP:

I don’t think it’s wise for me to comment on China without enough information and knowledge. It’s not that I’m afraid but prudence is also a virtue.

The Vatican’s agreement with Beijing is believed to recognize the state-approved version of the Catholic Church and allows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to appoint bishops. The Pope apparently maintains a veto power, although in practice it is the CCP that has control. It also allegedly allows for the removal and replacement of legitimate bishops by CCP-approved bishops.

Chow has gone on record promoting the Chinese Communist Party’s program of “sinicization.”

Such a policy of support, or even appeasement, regarding the Sino-Vatican deal was also expressed by Cardinal Zen’s immediate successor in the Diocese of Hong Kong, namely, Cardinal John Tong, who served as apostolic administrator of the diocese from 2019 until Chow took over in 2021. 

Cardinal Zen’s alleged support

In contrast to Chow’s policy, emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen has consistently criticized the Vatican’s deal with China as an “incredible betrayal” and accused the Vatican of “selling out” Chinese Catholics. Zen has even accused Francis of “encouraging a schism” via the deal.

The still-undisclosed terms of the deal have also led to a heightened increase in religious persecution since it was signed, which the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China described as a direct consequence of the deal.

But speaking to LifeSite, Chow downplayed differences between his stance and that of Zen’s regarding the deal.

Actually, Cardinal Zen and I have talked a few times, and Cardinal Zen respects me, my role,” said Chow. 

“He said ‘you have your wisdom,’ and he actually told people, ‘give Bishop Chow time and space, he’s doing a good job,’ which I really respect,” the incoming cardinal stated. 

Chow admitted that “we’re not together on everything; we don’t agree on everything, but we all try to help.”

Continuing, Chow attested that “I also understand his [Zen’s] concern – growing up in Hong Kong. But we need to have dialogues.”

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Pope Francis greets Bp. Chow in Mongolia, September 2023. Credit: Fr. Spadaro/Facebook

Chow’s citation of support from Cardinal Zen echoes a report given of Zen’s much anticipated meeting with Pope Francis in January of this year. America magazine reported that Zen thanked the Pope for appointing Chow to Hong Kong, calling him “a good bishop.” The report added that Francis “smiled at hearing this and quipped, ‘He’s a Jesuit!’”

READ: Pope Francis insists Vatican’s relationship with Chinese Communist gov’t is ‘very respectful’

In his comments to the press at the Vatican’s press office, Chow sought to defend the Sino-Vatican deal. Returning from Mongolia, Pope Francis also argued that “the relationship with China is very respectful, very respectful.”

Despite this, recent months have demonstrated a relationship full of tension. Chinese Catholic laity and clergy were banned from attending the Pope’s visit to Mongolia.

Indeed, on two occasions, the CCP unilaterally appointed two bishops to sees without the approval of the Vatican. Bishop John Peng Weizhao was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Jiangxi on November 24 – a diocese not recognized by the Holy See, and an event about which the Vatican expressed its “surprise and regret.”

Then in July, Pope Francis bowed to pressure from the CCP and accepted the appointment of Bishop Shen Bin to the Diocese of Shanghai – a move that the CCP effected in April and “informed” the Vatican about. 

In an early defense of the deal, Pope Francis described the agreement as forming a “new chapter of the Catholic Church in China.” Upon receiving his cardinal’s robes, Chow looks set to continue forging the Vatican’s link with Beijing.