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Cardinal Zen Is Just Wrong – OpEd


By Father Michael Kelly SJ*

Cardinal Zen would do well to take a short course in Catholic history. In what is both false and misleading, Cardinal Zen keeps repeating the claim that the Vatican’s behavior in its relations with Beijing on the appointment of bishops in China is “unprecedented.”

It is not and it is false to claim it is as even a casual familiarity with Catholic history will show. In fact, for 90 percent of the history of the church, processes for the selection and appointment of bishops across the Catholic Church prevailed that are identical with or very close to what is happening in China right now.

Today and for much of the last 200 years, appointments of bishops are handled in a process where a local church sends three names to Rome — to the Congregation for Bishops or to where most bishops were decided on at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples or Propaganda Fide.

These candidates are assessed and the preferred candidate is then sent to the pope for approval. In most cases, the “preferred candidate” sent to the pope for approval and appointment is the first name proposed at the local level.

But that is — in Catholic terms — a recent development: only 200 years! At the beginning of the 19th century no more than 2-5 percent of the bishops of the world were directly appointed from Rome by the pope. From the beginning of the 19th century, a process began that has delivered us the current procedure where almost all bishops in the world owe their appointments to the pope.

This change came about following the humiliation of Pope Pius VII by Napoleon who summoned him to Notre Dame in Paris in 1804 to be a witness to his crowning as emperor. The event as reported had Napoleon take the crown from the pope with Napoleon crowning himself.

This followed Napoleon’s high handed and effective rejection of no less than 40 candidates proposed by the Vatican as bishops in France. After the 1789 French Revolution and “The Terror” led by Robespierre, tens of thousands of French clerics fled the country and with them a vast number of bishops, leaving their Sees vacant.

Church authorities with the Vatican’s approval proposed successors. Napoleon rejected 40 of them and proposed alternatives who were appointed.

This experience led the pope to commence a campaign conducted throughout the 19th century to recover his authority in episcopal appointments, something that was accomplished as the kingdoms and empires of Europe all were overthrown or, as happened following World War I, just discarded.

But until that point, the appointment of bishops was in the hands of various imperial authorities with the pope just ticking the box created by the various aristocratic houses.

This had huge and lasting impact especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Indeed, the process of Cardinal Zen’s own appointment owed its origins to this period.

This started to happen with a stroke of the pen in 1493 when the lamentable Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, divided the “New World” between the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. With this ruling, Portugal got access to and control of lands to the east of a line in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, which meant Africa and all of Asia except the Philippines. Spain got the Philippines and all of Latin America except Brazil.

With these colonial “possessions” granted by the corrupt Alexander VI went also the right — which they already had in their homelands — to appoint bishops in their new colonies.

Colonialism had begun and with it the missionary expansion of the Roman Church but with the kings of Spain and Portugal saying who got to be bishops. This practice continued until half way through the 20th century with right being extended to the Anglican United Kingdom in India until its independence of Britain in 1947.

Routinely, the archbishops of Bombay and Karachi would be nominated and approved by the colonial authorities — England and Portugal — only then to approved by the pope. The last English archbishop of Bombay — Tom Roberts — was Jesuit plucked from his job as parish priest of the large Jesuit parish in Liverpool, St. Francis Xavier. Come independence, he resigned; the Vatican wouldn’t accept his resignation; he just vacated the See and went home to live with the English Jesuits for the rest of his life.

Back to China and the significance of this history for current challenges. Throughout its history since the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, the papacy has always had to play politics with kingdoms and empires. Popes fought for the church’s interests; kings and princes fought for their own; both parties made concessions and shared control of vital aspects of the church’s governance.

Dealing with the government of China is very different because it isn’t part of the Catholic world that saw deals done between the pope and Catholic monarchs. China’s political and historical precedent is Imperial China that has always found it difficult, if not impossible, to deal with difference and the world outside the Middle Kingdom. The communists are no different.

And why does the Vatican do it? For one simple reason: to preserve what little space and formal arrangements they can for the survival of the institution of the church which, after all, is their job. Far from being the cowards and quislings Cardinal Zen would have us believe Cardinal Parolin and the Vatican’s Secretariat of State are.

Standing on your dignity and only making demands and no concessions, as Cardinal Zen does, is not only a doomed strategy. It is also an approach that is completely ignorant of what the church has done in other circumstances throughout history in contexts far less amenable than contemporary or historical China. Take the Nazis in Germany or the Fascists in Italy in the 1920s or the Eastern Bloc Communists in the 1950s and ’60s.

Moreover, it takes us back to what happened some 46 years ago when President Richard M Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger did what was unthinkable during the high time of the Cold War: accepted that the Chinese communists were the established government of China and like it or not, they had to be dealt with as its government.

Many in the church today — Cardinal Zen included — act as if that’s not the final word on who runs China. All my life I have known — in the Jesuits and elsewhere — what in clerical and missionary circles were called “old China hands.” I live in a house in Bangkok that was built in the mid 1950s to accommodate a group of Jesuits expelled from China.

They simply couldn’t accept what had happened in history and argued to just wait till communist China collapses and they can go back to China and resume their work as foreign missionaries. The “old China hands” expected Chiang Kai-shek to reclaim China and allow the missionaries to resume their work.

Cardinal Zen not only needs to read a bit more history. He also needs to turn the emotional volume down. His “cops and robbers” narrative that he shouts at everyone who doesn’t agree with him — this writer included — does little more than encourage anyone listening to walk away from him.

Whatever he thinks he’s doing for the people he sees himself supporting, he isn’t doing them any good with his approach. The value of what he might contribute is lost in his hysterical outbursts against those he accuses of being evil.

It’s some claim to be speaking for half the Catholics in China when he has no actual evidence to support the assertion about people living in a country he hasn’t visited in over 20 years. Moralize all you like, but Cardinal Zen offers no path forward.

*Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of and based in Thailand.

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The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

One thought on “Cardinal Zen Is Just Wrong – OpEd

  • April 7, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    Cardinal Zen’s point as I see it, is that the Communist Party has an interest in the removal of the Catholic Church from China, and that the Chinese Communist Government canot be trusted. To Father Kelly I would say, so what if the at various times in history the Church has allowed governments and rulers to have a big say in episcopal candidates- do we have to be stuck in the past when we know things can be done better? Do we have to repeat the disaster Fr Kelly cites with the Napoleon example? I think Cdl Zen is very familiar with Church history (Fr Kelly SJ says the Cdl is not). However, Cardinal Zen is saying the Communists cannot be trusted, have no place in chosing Bishops, and lets do things better. Holiness brings a wisdom that cannot be attained through academic qualifications (though the Cardinal has plenty of that). Fr Kelly’s article does not add up for me. Is it reasonable to suspect he has a disdain for prelates who are Catholic in the full sense of the word?



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