The Price of Catholic Unity

Cardinal Joseph Zen attends a news conference in Hong Kong in 2018. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)
Lectures from a cardinal in contemporary Communist China

For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent: On the Situation of the Church in China, published in English this year, is a series of eight lectures by Joseph Cardinal Zen. Cardinal Zen delivered the lectures in Hong Kong in 2017. The lectures are an account of the state of the relationship between the Church within and the Church outside China from 2000 to 2017, focusing on a letter written by Pope Benedict to Chinese Catholics in 2007 and on diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Church in China.

Though the plight of faithful in China may currently be overshadowed by the many high-profile sexual-abuse scandals within the Church, the persecution faced by Catholics in the avowedly atheist country should not be disregarded. But it is not the Chinese government’s oppression of religious minorities that Zen focuses on. In his lectures he details the incompetence and corruption of Church officials in their handling of the complex and tense relationship between Vatican officials and diplomats, the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA), and the underground Catholic Church in China.

The PCA has historically operated under the auspices of the ruling Communist party rather than Rome, appointing its own bishops without Vatican approval and thereby rendering those bishops latae sententiae excommunicants. Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 formally excommunicated two PCA-appointed bishops and the two bishops who had ordained them. The underground Catholic Church in China is in good standing and full communion with Rome but lacks the approval of the Chinese government and therefore suffers persecution.

Some Chinese Catholics loathe the state-run Church as an empty apparatus intended for control rather than sincere devotion, some believers trust only the state-sanctioned Church, and some do not bother to distinguish between the two, since the difference is not in rite or theology but in ecclesiological administration. Zen, who is still outspoken in his disapproval of the provisional agreement signed on September 22 of last year, criticizes the prevarications of the Vatican in its dealings with the Church in China in For Love of My People. He condemns the strategy of “compromise and surrender” and says that the “Curia has always tried to please the Chinese government.”

In 1988, the Vatican issued eight points on Catholicism in China. The provisional agreement signed last year is in discord with them. In the eight points, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples decreed that PCA ordinations were valid but not licit. But under the agreement, in what Pope Francis has claimed is an attempt to foster healing and unity among Chinese Catholics, the distinction between PCA and Catholic bishops has been erased. Francis has recognized eight bishops (one deceased) appointed by the PCA in Beijing as in full ecclesial communion with Rome, even though they were appointed with flagrant disregard for the Vatican and, in some cases, had been previously excommunicated.

While the agreement is a step toward repairing the rift within the Chinese Church, it has left Catholics who have long fought for the underground Church in China feeling subverted and betrayed. Pope Francis has admitted that the agreement will not necessarily end the suffering of Chinese Catholics. The pope has also lamented “the suffering for those who don’t understand, or who have so many years behind them of living clandestinely.” Catholics such as Cardinal Zen who have long encouraged opposition to the PCA suddenly find the Vatican itself seeking common ground with the organization.

Unity of believers is a worthy and principal goal, but proper form and the authority of the Church should not be sacrificed in achieving it. Zen decried the agreement before and after it was signed, seeing it as an attempt by the Church to ingratiate itself with China’s ruling party rather than defend true believers. Zen rightly notes of Vatican officials that “if today they go along with the regime, tomorrow our Church will not be welcome for the rebuilding of the new China.”

Zen discusses myriad examples of the incompetence that plagues the Church. One is that Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state appointed by Francis, has allowed the Catholic commission for the Church in China to lapse, no longer facilitating its meetings. Zen also mentions that Father Federico Lombardi, the former director of the Press Office of the Holy See, allowed himself to be interviewed by Phoenix Television, one of the few private television networks officially permitted by Hong Kong’s government. Zen suggests that Phoenix is not a neutral outlet. The channel has come under criticism in recent years for the government influence in its programming. In 2016, the channel suspended airing of several popular political-commentary shows because of “ideological mistakes” by the hosts.

Zen also tells of Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who at a Vatican symposium on organ transplants invited as a guest of honor Dr. Huang Jiefu, China’s former deputy health minister. Huang has publicly taken credit for a decade-long reform effort in the Chinese medical community. In 2005, as vice health minister, he admitted that over 90 percent of the transplant organs in China were harvested from executed prisoners, but he promised reform of the medical system.

His high rhetoric notwithstanding, Huang did not seem to effect much change. In June 2016, the U.S. Congress unanimously condemned China’s “state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting,” in a resolution alleging that the Chinese Communist Party was continuing the practice in secret and that it was killing “non-consenting prisoners of conscience,” including religious and ethnic minorities.

Zen is a dedicated, orthodox Catholic and he indicates no disobedience to the pope by his criticisms. In his last lecture, Zen says, “I will never lead a rebellion against the Pope” if he signs an agreement with the Chinese government. “I will quietly withdraw to the monastic life of prayer and penance.” But a weak and feckless Church that is not willing to fight brazenly for the truth will not inspire many future witnesses like Zen. A Church that does not devote itself to its own teachings is an empty institution.

Zen does not leave us without hope for the Church, or for the Church in China. He is our hope. He is the voice crying out in the desert, refusing to be satisfied with half-truths or cowardly deference. Like Christians in other countries hostile to Christianity, Zen in his unwavering dedication to God is an example and testament to all Christians.

Zen concedes that there is true belief in both the underground and the official state Church in China. “We came to realize that our categories were too sharply divisive,” he says, “when in reality there were so many healthy forces.”

He does not hesitate to point out the failure of the Church to communicate adequately with Chinese Catholics. In 2007, Pope Benedict wrote a letter intended to provide clarity to the Church in China. The letter was meant to be ready by Easter, Zen says, but the final copy was not published until the end of June. Moreover, the final Chinese copy had mistakes and sentences mistranslated. “What a shame that a letter addressed precisely to the people of China had so many errors in the Chinese translation,” Zen laments.

In the last of his eight lectures, given on June 28, 2017, Zen, compares being a Catholic in China to living in a cage. He says that the provisional agreement between China and the pope, which was not yet signed at the time of his writing, will further stifle Chinese Catholics in their ability to worship: “To us, a terrifying scenario is unfolding, the sellout of the Church! Not reconstituted unity, but a forced cohabitation in the cage. From the point of view of the faith, we cannot see any gain.”

If Catholics have learned anything from the recent crimes propagated in the Church, it should be that there is no mercy without justice. Passivity and capitulation among clerics in the face of injustice or persecution should not be tolerated; and no government or institution, including the tangled bureaucracy of the Catholic hierarchy, is above reproach.

These criticisms of the Church’s entreaties to China come not from an aggrieved anti-cleric but from a cardinal in good standing. Zen’s lectures are not a condemnation of authority but rather a call for the Church to act as a strong authority and an uncompromising garrison of virtue. Clerics should not shy away from their commitment to Christian teaching. They should be fortified by it.

Hope for Catholicism in China lies in the hands of Cardinal Zen and those who, like him, are willing to defend the faith even without strong support from the Vatican. The Church on Earth will be preserved not by equivocations and incompetent bureaucracy but by the Church Militant. Zen reminds us that it is the Catholics who are steadfast in their devotion to the sacraments and doctrine who will preserve the Church, and that nothing less than martyrdom, be it red or white, is the seed of the Church.


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