Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has renewed his criticism of the Vatican-China deal, warning that he thinks Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin is exercising undue influence in advising Pope Francis.
“I have a clear impression that Parolin is manipulating the Holy Father,” Zen told New Bloom Magazine in a recent interview.
Zen said Parolin’s motives are unclear, but suggested that he may be acting out of “vainglory” and a desire for “diplomatic success.”
“It’s a real mystery how a man of the Church, given all his knowledge of China, of the Communists, could do such a thing as he’s doing now,” he said.
For decades, the Church in China had been split between the “underground” Church, in full communion with Rome, and the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which was not. The communist government appointed bishops for the CPCA.
In September 2018, news was released of a provisional agreement between Beijing and Vatican officials, intended to unify the underground Church and the CPCA. While the terms of the agreement have been kept confidential, it reportedly allows the CPCA to choose a slate of nominees for bishop, from which the pope would then select in making his appointment.
Zen has been an outspoken critic of the agreement, calling it an act of “shameless surrender” to the communist government.
The cardinal has criticized the deal’s secrecy, noting that as one of two Chinese cardinals, he has been unable to see the contents of the agreement, and that documents released from the Holy See have been vague, without any name or department attached to them, in a departure from the usual protocol.
Zen has also warned that the deal will put those who have remained loyal to Rome in the underground Church in danger, as pressure mounts to accept the authority of the CPCA.
Guidance from the Vatican recognizes the choice of those who feel that they cannot in good conscience register with the government and accept the communist policy of “sinicization,” to bring the Catholic Church more in-line with the communist understanding of Chinese culture, society, and politics. However, reports indicate that those who decline to register are facing harassment and persecution.
Last month, Bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin, a leader in the Chinese underground Church, refused to register with the government. According to Asia News, he was placed under the supervision of two state security officials and visited daily in an attempt to force him to sign an act of registration with the state. He escaped a few days later and was reportedly in hiding.
Speaking with New Bloom, Cardinal Zen outlined his experience of a shift in the Vatican’s approach to China over recent decades.
In the 1980s, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, invited Zen to take part in a series of quiet Vatican meetings about China.
These meetings, Zen said, allowed experts and bishops from different parts of China to offer a report on their situation to the Vatican Secretary of State and Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
Zen praised Tomko, saying that both his vast experience in the Vatican and his knowledge of life under communism in his home country of Czechoslovakia gave him a good perspective on the situation of China.
Advised by Tomko, he said, the Holy See legitimized several illegitimate bishops who asked for pardon, recognizing that they were “good people” who had been timid and were pressured by the government into accepting illegitimate ordination.
But when Tomko retired, Zen said, his successors moved the discussion around China in a different direction. He accused Vatican officials of manipulating the Chinese translation of a text written by Pope Benedict XVI to the Church in China, and rendering a commission established by Pope Benedict ineffective.
In particular, he named Ivan Dias, who served as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and Cardinal Parolin, then-Undersecretary of State, as driving figures in the new approach.
Zen said he no longer had a voice in the Vatican discussions, and felt that the pope was no longer hearing from those on the ground about their situation.
In 2010, he said, rumors began to arise that an agreement between the Vatican and China was in the works. But several years later, no agreement had surfaced.
“I have no evidence, but I believe that it was Pope Benedict who said no,” Zen said. “He could not sign that agreement. And I think the one agreement signed now [by Pope Francis] must be exactly that one, which Pope Benedict refused to sign.”
Then, in 2013, Pope Francis was elected.
“Now I’m sorry to say that I think you can agree that he has low respect for his predecessors. He is shutting down everything done by John Paul II and by Pope Benedict,” Zen said, adding that Vatican officials always describe these actions as being “in continuity” with previous popes, but he considers this description to be “an insult” and obviously false.
While Zen said his personal relationship with Pope Francis is “wonderful,” he added that the pope has not addressed the concerns he has repeatedly raised regarding the China Deal that was struck in 2018.
Earlier this year, Zen traveled to Rome, where he requested a meeting with Pope Francis. He said his first request went unanswered, and he sent a second request, which was met with the instruction to speak with Cardinal Parolin. Zen declined, and was subsequently invited to have dinner with both Parolin and Pope Francis.
“I went there to the supper. Very simple, the three of us. I thought supper is not a time to quarrel, so I had to be kind during supper,” Zen said. “So I talked all about Hong Kong, and Parolin didn’t say a word. So at the end, I said, ‘Holy Father, what about my objections to that document?’ He said, ‘Oh, oh, I’m going to look into the matter.’ He saw me off at the door.”
Zen said he was left with the distinct impression that Parolin is manipulating Pope Francis. He is concerned that the Pope is “legitimizing the schismatic church in China” and that those who have faced years of persecution as members of the underground Church are now left confused and unsure about what to do.
Priests are being asked to sign a document supporting the government-run church in order to minister openly, he warned.
The Communist Party will not tolerate the Catholic Church unless it feels that it can control the Church, Zen said.
“They need to control everything. Since they know that they cannot destroy, they want to control. Obviously. All the churches. They want to destroy from within.”