On Wednesday, May 11, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, was arrested along with several other activists on charges related to their involvement with a now-inactive charity, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was founded to help provide financial support for those arrested during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Zen was released on bail at around 11 p.m. that evening.
Along with Cardinal Zen, three of his fellow trustees with the 612 Fund were also arrested—the pop singer and activist Denise Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng, and scholar Hui Po-keung. The fifth trustee of the organization, former Hong Kong legislator Cyd Ho, was already in custody on other charges. The arrest of these activists is yet another example of Beijing’s intolerance for free political speech and determination to dismantle democracy in Hong Kong. The Associated Press said last week that the arrests “further expand a blanket crackdown on all forms of dissent in the city that appears increasingly vindictive in prosecuting actions performed prior to the enactment of the national security law.”
The Church’s official response to Zen’s arrest was subdued. This was not unexpected given the fragile relationship between the Holy See and the Beijing government, as well as the uncertain future of Catholicism in Hong Kong amidst the current political tension.
The Vatican’s statement, released by spokesman Matteo Bruni, said, “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.” The official response of the Diocese of Hong Kong was similar in tone. They released a short statement the next day, saying that they were “extremely concerned about the condition and safety of Cardinal Joseph Zen,” and that they were offering “special prayers for him.”
Additionally, America reported that current Hong Kong Bishop Stephen Chow wrote on his Facebook page, “I have spoken with Cardinal Zen. He told me to let his friends know that he is fine. Not to worry. And he wants us to take a low profile approach for him.”
In 2018, the Holy See reached an agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of Catholic bishops in China following more than six decades of division, persecution, and tense dialogue. The process began with Pope John Paul II in the 1980s, who started to regularize bishops appointed by the state-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) on an individual basis. Gradually this became a standard practice, with around 30 CCPA bishops personally requesting and being granted Vatican recognition in subsequent decades. By the time of the 2018 agreement, only seven bishops had not received (or had been denied) papal approval.
Although this legitimization arrangement was carried out somewhat openly, the division between the state-approved CCPA and the pope continued officially, given that there was no formal agreement on the process of appointing bishops. Furthermore, the status of the bishops who lacked papal approval and the approximately 70 unregistered bishops—in communion with Rome but not officially recognized by the Chinese government—remained unresolved.
The Years of Hope and Dialogue
Because of the unique arrangement between Hong Kong and mainland China, the Catholic Church there has historically enjoyed the freedom of religion and expression.
For this reason, the Vatican has long seen Hong Kong’s role as a bridge between the Church and Beijing. The longtime Vatican diplomat Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo once described the importance of Hong Kong in the relationship, saying, “The peaceful religious activity of the diocese of Hong Kong, its harmonious presence in the life of this great and hard-working metropolis, should constitute an example that could break down the walls of prejudice and fear towards the Catholic Church.”
Over twenty years ago, Cardinal Zen, who served as bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, largely fit that mold. Firm on matters of faith, yet sensitive to the complexities of the situation, he supported dialogue between the Vatican and China. He hoped for an eventual agreement between the two, even when such an agreement seemed far off.
In a January 14, 2000 article in the National Catholic Reporter, Cardinal Zen (who was then the Coadjutor Bishop of Hong Kong) said that a compromise between Rome and China on the selection of bishops would likely be a necessary step. Lamenting another round of illicit CCPA consecrations, however, he said, “The Vatican should be ready to make concessions and to compromise, but not to surrender.”
In a March 2002 interview in the British Catholic paper The Tablet, Zen spoke favorably of his hope for a future compromise agreement between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops, saying, “If to establish diplomatic relations means that the Vatican can have contact with everybody in China, with the official Church and the underground Church, then it would be worthwhile.” He also said such a deal would benefit the underground Church: “If you wait too long then the problems multiply. There is much confusion in the underground Church, and much need in the official Church for our help with formation and with spiritual renewal.”
Zen also worried about young priests serving in the unregistered Catholic communities: “They do not have a solid foundation in the spiritual life. In their family, they had a long tradition, but in the old style. In the seminary, they are a crowd, and there is a good atmosphere, but they have no individual guidance and counseling and they may have their own personal problems unresolved. Once they are ordained priests, they are put in a very difficult situation, masters of themselves but unable to face all those pressures.”
Three types of Bishops
By the time of his 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI foresaw an end to the lamentable divisions in the Chinese Church. He identified that the key to unity among Chinese Catholics was a resolution to the unprecedented situation of the Chinese episcopate. He discussed three different groups of bishops, based on the status of their recognition by Rome and Beijing. He explained how each group faced particular challenges. He noted that two of these groups were “in communion with the Bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter, and at the hands of validly and legitimately ordained Bishops in observance of the rite of the Catholic Church,” the other was not. Two of these groups were recognized by the Chinese government, the other was not.
The first set of Chinese bishops Benedict discusses is the clandestine (often described as “underground” or “unregistered”) group. Benedict describes them as bishops who are ordained in secret, “not wishing to be subjected to undue control exercised over the life of the Church, and eager to maintain total fidelity to the Successor of Peter and to Catholic doctrine.” He reminds the faithful that this is not an ideal arrangement, writing, “The clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church’s life, and history shows that Pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering.” He then expresses the Holy See’s desire that these bishops be recognized by the civil government, expressing hope that all the faithful will be able to live out the faith freely in China.
The second group mentioned is the legitimized bishops. These are bishops who, “under the pressure of particular circumstances, have consented to receive episcopal ordination without the pontifical mandate, but have subsequently asked to be received into communion with the Successor of Peter.” He reminded Chinese Catholics that these CCPA bishops have been granted “the full and legitimate exercise of episcopal jurisdiction” by the pope and should be accepted by them. He did note, however, that some of these bishops have not indicated their status publicly, and asked that all of these legitimized bishops unequivocally and publicly manifest their communion with the Apostolic See.
Finally, Benedict discusses the matter of illicit bishops who are members of the CCPA and not in communion with Rome, describing them as “certain Bishops – a very small number of them – who have been ordained without the Pontifical mandate and who have not asked for or have not yet obtained, the necessary legitimation.” He says that although these bishops are not seen as legitimate in the Church, they do exercise valid sacramental ministry. He also says that if these bishops were to someday become legitimized, the result would be “great spiritual enrichment” for the Church in China and the entire world.
Benedict’s letter was written in light of much improvement in the relationship between China and Rome. By 2007, the situation had thawed significantly, and—thanks to legitimization by Rome—the lines between the state-recognized CCPA and the so-called “underground Church” had become blurred.
In his 2002 Tablet interview, then-Bishop Zen acknowledged this complex situation, even commenting on his relationships with some of the legitimized CCPA bishops. He said, “The bishop in Shanghai is my good friend. The bishop in Xian is a very good bishop, reconciled with Rome. The bishop in Wuhan is also reconciled, although he is not very strong. More than two-thirds of the bishops of the Patriotic Church are reconciled with Rome.”
In the interview, he also spoke favorably of the CCPA bishops as a whole, commenting that theirs was a difficult position, “I admire them,” he said. “They are always under harassment.” The future cardinal was well-aware that the atheistic Chinese Government was not friendly to any religion, and that the visibility of the official bishops made them vulnerable to government pressure and coercion.
Zen explained that although the Chinese government didn’t officially approve of these bishops seeking legitimization, the practice was tolerated. “It is all done in secret,” he said, “but not so secretly that the Communists do not know. But they can pretend not to know, for everyone’s convenience. That is the Chinese way of doing things.” Still, at the time he was rightly pessimistic about an imminent agreement, citing recent government crackdowns and illicit ordinations.
A few years later, in 2006, Zen’s tone had changed somewhat. He made clear that he believed a major sticking point in the issue of Chinese-Vatican dialogue was the ongoing appointment of bishops by the CCPA without Vatican approval. This troubled Zen so much that he even said the dialogue with Beijing should be shut down, saying that it “cannot continue because people will think we are prepared to surrender. We cannot budge. When you brutally place such a fait accompli, how can you call this dialogue?”
Pope Benedict, by issuing his letter the following year, clearly disagreed. Perhaps the most striking (and consequential) part of Benedict’s letter is its conclusion, where he officially revokes “all the faculties previously granted in order to address particular pastoral necessities that emerged in truly difficult times.” In other words, with that one sentence, he summarily withdrew permission for clandestine bishops to appoint and ordain bishops in secret. He explained that this decision was made in consideration of the positive developments in the Church in China and improved communications. Yet, as Cardinal Zen indicated, at the time, legitimization was usually done in secret, without the involvement of the CCPA. Under this new directive, the implication was that it would now only be possible for the Church to appoint successors to the approximately 70 clandestine Chinese bishops with the cooperation of the CCPA. But there was no agreement yet in place.
At the time of Benedict’s letter, many familiar with the situation thought a compromise on the appointment of Chinese bishops was imminent. Cardinal Zen offered effusive praise for the letter, issuing a response in which he said, “I admire the precious balance achieved by the Holy Father between his passion for the truth and his love for his children.” He also expressed his hope that the letter would mean that “our Bishops and priests can thus refer to it directly as a common starting point for dialogue.”
Hopes of an impending agreement were soon dashed, however, and the dialogue was interrupted altogether in 2010. The impasse came as a result of new illicit episcopal consecrations in China and by the Chinese government’s continued refusal to allow bishops from the Chinese mainland to take part in the Synod of Bishops in Rome. (In 2005, four Chinese bishops were invited to travel to Rome for the synod, but the Chinese government denied them permission. Permission to attend subsequent synods was also refused until two Chinese bishops were finally permitted to attend the October 2018 Synod on Youth and Young People.)
Even so, the basic framework of the prospective agreement was well-understood. From the Vatican’s perspective, the two required elements of any deal with China were the legal recognition of the clandestine bishops by the government and that all episcopal appointments had to be subject to papal approval. It was understood that some sort of compromise with the CCPA would probably have to be made. It was foreseen that the process would likely involve either the Vatican proposing a slate of candidates from which the CCPA would choose, or the CCPA nominating candidates that the Holy See would approve or reject.
Many have noted parallels with the Vatican’s relationship with Vietnam. For years, they have had an arrangement where the Holy See will present one candidate’s name to Vietnamese officials, who can approve or reject the nominee. If rejected, other candidates are presented by the Holy See, one at a time, until a candidate is accepted. In recent years, the relationship has continued to improve, and in 2011, the Holy See appointed a Vatican envoy to Vietnam. More recently, there has been discussion that Vietnam and the Vatican are close to establishing formal ties.
In the years immediately following Benedict’s letter to Chinese Catholics, however, the hope for a positive outcome of the rocky dialogue with Beijing appeared very far off. Meanwhile, the clandestine bishops were growing older, illicit CCPA consecrations continued to take place, and the only new bishops with Vatican approval were those appointed by the CCPA who sought legitimization.
The rise of the anti-religion Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2012 gave the Vatican’s hope for an agreement a new urgency. Although the Chinese government was certainly not seen as trustworthy in its tolerance of state-sanctioned religious groups, the situation for unsanctioned religious communities had become even direr. News of government crackdowns on underground Protestant churches and its persecution of the Muslim Uyghur community signaled to the Vatican that the very survival of the unregistered Catholic communities was uncertain.
Preparation for the 2018 agreement
In 2016 and 2017, Cardinal Zen’s successor, Cardinal John Tong, released two pastoral letters addressing the future of Sino-Vatican relations and the Church in China. In his 2016 letter, The communion of the Church in China with the universal Church, Cardinal Tong responds to the concerns of those who say that with this deal Pope Francis was betraying “the principles of the Church upheld by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.”
The entire letter is well worth reading, but one important section answers a question that papal critics frequently ask: “Why does the Holy See persistently insist on dialogue rather than confronting the Chinese government?”
In his response, the cardinal reminds us, “God does not use violence to conquer the human race. He uses dialogue, humility, and patience to move mankind, so that it may willingly and whole-heartedly accept the invitation of God.” He explains that it has taken a long time for the Church to build trust and mutual respect with the Chinese government, and he believes that this patience and charity had begun to bear fruit. He describes the forthcoming agreement on the appointment of bishops as “a first step between the Holy See and Beijing,” and “the exact fruit of this kind of dialogue. It is a move from not understanding and not trusting to understanding and trust. It is a win-win situation, for friends will support each other and enrich each other’s lives. The agreement between the Holy See and Beijing is an example of human dialogue, the beginning of the normalization of a mutual relationship.”
In this pastoral letter, Cardinal Tong proceeds thoughtfully, addressing the oft-cited objections to the agreement and the Vatican’s approach. And he responds to those who believe the agreement threatens the clandestine Churches, saying, that the dialogue “aims to change the clandestine Churches’ abnormal condition for survival, so that they may soon practice their religious faith under the protection of the law.”
His 2017 letter, “The future of the Sino-Vatican dialogue from an ecclesiological point of view,” follows up on the previous letter, with an eye toward the problems that would remain unsolved by the agreement, such as the status of the CCPA, the lack of a proper Chinese bishops’ conference, and the trustworthiness of the state-approved bishops and officials. He understands that these are serious concerns, but stresses that faithfulness and a commitment to dialogue and friendship are the only ways these problems can be addressed peacefully.
A history of resistance
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the news of an impending Vatican agreement with China has been used as yet another rallying cry in the constant attacks against Pope Francis. Headlines like “Rome Betrays Underground China Church,” “The Betrayed Church,” “Pope Francis Throws Faithful Chinese Under the Bus,” and “By Accepting Communist-Chosen Bishops, Pope Francis Betrays Chinese Christians,” blared from Catholic and conservative publications when news of the deal broke.
Remarkably, Cardinal Zen joined the chorus of voices in opposition to the proposed deal. He has been lauded as a hero and a prophetic voice by papal critics for his newfound position as an opponent of compromise between the Vatican and the Chinese government.
In February 2018—in one of the first pieces I wrote for WPI—I responded to the panic started by papal critics over the China deal. I did a deep dive on the Church in China and the history of the relationship between Rome and Beijing, attempting to sort out the various issues at play.
I have been fascinated by the history of the Catholic Church in China since childhood—I’ve seen the film Keys of the Kingdom countless times and one of my favorite books growing up was Robert W. Greene’s Calvary in China, the autobiographical story of an American missionary in China during the Maoist revolution. As an adult, I’ve followed the relationship between China and the Vatican very closely. And it seemed to me that the 2018 China-Vatican agreement was quite similar to the potential agreement discussed when Benedict and John Paul were pope. It also seemed to me that the critiques against Pope Francis by mainstream conservative Catholics were remarkably similar to the attacks by the reactionary fringe against John Paul and Benedict over a decade before.
Now, let’s not be mistaken, during the John Paul and Benedict papacies there were certainly critics of the notion that any kind of cooperation or compromise with the Chinese government was capitulation to the communists and a betrayal of the underground Church. Reactionary Catholic media outlets like the traditionalist website Tradition in Action have been decrying papal gestures of goodwill towards the Chinese since the later years of John Paul II.
For example, in the year 2000, they ran a short piece with the headline, “CHINESE UNDERGROUND CATHOLICS DELIVERED TO THE WOLVES,” indicating that the Vatican would soon be cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The article states, “In addition to stimulating the West to deliver Taiwan, an anti-Communist stronghold, into the mouth of the wolf, there is the shameful position of the Holy See in face of the heroic Chinese ‘Church of the Catacombs,’ which counts millions of Catholics faithful to the Pope.” Currently, Taiwan maintains full diplomatic relations with only 14 countries, and the Holy See is their only European diplomatic ally. 22 years after that headline, the Vatican continues its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan.
Later, in 2007, Tradition in Action published an article by Marian T. Horvat condemning Pope Benedict’s letter to Chinese Catholics under the headline, “Benedict Delivers Chinese Catholics to Communism.” Horvat (who was also noteworthy for promoting the idea that Sister Lucia, the last surviving Fatima visionary, was murdered and replaced with a body double in the late 1950s) describes the letter as “a scandal, a betrayal of those Catholics who, shedding their blood, have maintained their fidelity to the See of Peter without compromises.” She goes on to accuse Benedict in harsh terms: “Implying that the immutable doctrine of the Church has now changed, he asks the underground Catholic Church to surface and swim in the tide of Communism.”
Cardinal Zen, in the years following the letter, began making public statements that effectively charged Vatican officials with an incorrect interpretation of Pope Benedict’s intentions. At an April 2011 press conference in Washington, DC, he told reporters, “In the year 2007, the Holy Father issued a letter in which he gave a very clear direction. But those directions were not followed.” He went on to criticize other Church experts for misleading people on the letter, mentioning the Belgian missionary priest and China scholar Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx.
The sticking point for Cardinal Zen was the question of whether clandestine bishops should come out from underground and seek government recognition. According to Zen, some in the Church had been saying, erroneously, that in the 2007 letter, Pope Benedict “wants everybody to come into the open…This is not true at all.” He went on to assert, “the letter says: in no few instances, indeed almost always, the government will impose conditions which are not acceptable to the Catholic conscience.”
Benedict’s letter does acknowledge these difficulties, but “leaves the decision to the individual Bishop who, having consulted his presbyterate, is better able to know the local situation, to weigh the concrete possibilities of choice and to evaluate the possible consequences within the diocesan community.” Furthermore, he states, “it must be kept in mind, especially where there is little room for freedom, that in order to evaluate the morality of an act it is necessary to devote particular care to establishing the real intentions of the person concerned, in addition to the objective shortcoming.”
A June 2011 essay by Fr. Heyndrickx, in which he responds to the news that a formerly unregistered bishop had joined the CCPA, echoes the pope’s sentiment. He writes, “In solidarity and in union of prayer, we must all respect the judgments and ecclesial decisions of these courageous pastors in China who bear the heat of the day. Above all, we must refrain from imposing our own judgments on situations and people of whom we cannot have first-hand knowledge.”
Recycling the Reactionary Narrative
Many Catholics today seem to be under the impression that the terms of the Vatican’s deal with China originated with Pope Francis, even though basic parameters were foreseen decades ago. Suddenly, the reactionary argument of yesterday has become the mainstream conservative Catholic position of today. The ire is directed exclusively at Pope Francis and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin—as if they started the entire dialogue with China. (Some have even tried to suggest that Francis worked with Theodore McCarrick to orchestrate the deal, claiming the former Cardinal was the “architect” of the agreement.)
Today’s critics seem unaware of the history of the China deal. They appear ignorant that the dialogue began decades ago and was even once supported by Cardinal Zen. Radical traditionalists like Marian T. Horvat certainly didn’t forget, singling out Benedict, Zen, and others as “False-right Heroes of the China-Vatican Agreement,” but few have taken notice.
Furthermore, Francis’s critics appear to think that every unjust act of the Chinese government is a result of this deal. Even Cardinal Zen’s arrest, which was related to political—not religious—activities, has been tied to the agreement by pundits on the Catholic right. For example, in Catholic World Report, Christopher Altieri says “the Holy See’s much-controverted, frequently maligned, and fairly doubtful” agreement with China is the “backdrop to the arrest.” Altieri was especially critical of the Holy See’s public response, saying that as a result, “The Chinese now know they can arrest a Prince of the Church, confiscate his passport, and hold him for a few hours’ close questioning, without eliciting the naked ire of the Vatican.”
Altieri’s comments seem to lack awareness of the likelihood that much more may have been—and likely was—going on behind the scenes. This is often the case, although we rarely hear about it. But remember, had Cardinal Becciu not been dispensed from the pontifical secret before his trial last month, the fact that Pope Francis approved paying a €1 million ransom to free a Columbian nun from Islamist captors in Mali would never have been made public. Who knows what strings might have been pulled to secure Cardinal Zen’s quick release?
Given the tension between the Vatican and China, what does Altieri think the Vatican should have said? Cardinal Zen was released within hours. Does he think a public display of fury at China by Cardinal Parolin would have sped up his release? More generally, what does the arrest of a Hong Kong cardinal along with several non-Catholic activists for political reasons have to do with an agreement on episcopal appointments on the mainland?
The logic here seems to be, “The Chinese government did something bad. It’s Pope Francis’s fault.”
Since 2016 or so, Cardinal Zen has become something of a folk hero to critics of Pope Francis, praised for his “courage” in condemning the Vatican-China agreement. He’s been a regular guest on EWTN’s World Over Live and his activities are frequently covered by anti-Francis media outlets. Zen’s past support for a Vatican compromise with the Chinese government has been forgotten, and the fact that Francis’s predecessors supported a similar deal has been strongly denied.
Altieri does this in his piece, uncritically repeating this revisionism, He wrote, “Cardinal Parolin gave a speech in Milan, in which he said – among other things – that Pope Benedict XVI had approved ‘the draft agreement on the appointment of bishops in China.’ Cardinal Zen wasn’t buying it. ‘Parolin knows he himself is lying.’” But it’s difficult to justify Zen’s assertion. The historical record shows that Benedict favored a deal much like the one reached in 2018.
It must be noted that since the agreement, the Vatican has reiterated many of the same principles put forward by Pope Benedict, and it has addressed many longstanding concerns. For example, the Vatican reaffirmed its stance on the matter of whether clergy must seek government recognition in June 2019. The document, “Orientations for the Chinese Clergy,” stressed that “freedom of conscience must be respected, and therefore no one may be forced to take a step they do not wish to take.”
Altieri also compares the Vatican-China relationship with a “dance,” asking, “Where does the Vatican want to be when the music stops, and where is the Vatican’s conduct likely to put the Church in China when the music finally does cease?” He adds, “Boxing is a kind of dance, though, so the metaphor fits.”
To compare Vatican-China diplomacy to a dance or a boxing match is a gross mischaracterization. The Vatican doesn’t have any leverage in the situation. There’s never been anything preventing China from breaking the terms of any agreement.
The Challenging Path of Dialogue
Like Pope Francis, no one at the Vatican (or at least anyone who knows what they’re talking about) sees the agreement with Beijing as anything close to ideal or even as some kind of mutually-decided compromise. Essentially, since the beginning of the Church’s dialogue with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops, there’s been a minimum threshold for reaching an agreement: the pope must be able to sign off on episcopal appointments. The deal that China offered (which Rome ultimately agreed to in 2018) reportedly met that threshold. The conditions (including Rome agreeing to accept the seven state-approved bishops) were deemed an acceptable price to pay.
That’s not to suggest that the Vatican didn’t know they were making a very weak deal with an untrustworthy partner. But it did two things. First, it gave legal recognition to around 70 unregistered bishops who were otherwise in serious danger from the Chinese government. Second, the agreement kept the dialogue with China going. If Rome had said no, they faced the real possibility that the government would stop all discussions with Rome and decide to crush the Chinese Church altogether.
That doesn’t mean that still won’t happen. Unfortunately, China is an untrustworthy negotiation partner. The current regime is hostile to all religion—whether it’s underground, above-ground, or state-approved. And Pope Francis understands this. His priority was to reach an agreement with the hope that the Catholic Church might have a tiny bit of legal protection in China, with the possibility that it might lead to more religious freedom someday.
In an August 2021 interview (published in English by L’Osservatore Romano) Pope Francis discussed the difficulty of continuing to pursue dialogue with the Chinese government, especially given the unpredictability of China’s leadership and with the future uncertain. “You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that… but it is the way. Closed-mindedness is never the way,” he said. He went on to note that at this stage, although the tangible results may be few, there has nevertheless been progress: “What has been achieved so far in China was at least dialogue… some concrete things like the appointment of new bishops, slowly.”
During Francis’s papacy, the popular discourse over Vatican-China relations has lost sight of history and has forgotten that the predominant line of thought on how to handle China has long been the view of Popes John Paul, Benedict, and Francis. The opposing view, that of the reactionaries, sees any negotiation or diplomacy as a betrayal of the underground Church. For mainstream conservative Catholics to suddenly adopt the latter position is to reject the views of the last three popes and 40 years of Vatican-China relations. That’s their choice. But ignoring history does not do the Church—in China or elsewhere—any good.
Image: “Cardinal Joseph Zen and Calgary Chinese Congregation” by stephenccwu is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.