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Chinese Cardinal Surfaces Tensions with GovernmentAlan WisdomApril 12, 2011
“I bring bad news about the Church in China,” declared Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun at a Washington, DC, luncheon last Thursday. Speaking April 7 at the Hudson Institute, the retired Catholic Archbishop of Hong Kong discussed tensions between Chinese Catholics and the People’s Republic government, as well as between groups of Catholics who respond differently to government policies. Cardinal Zen for many years has been unusual for his frankness in discussing these problems, and for his forthrightness in defending religious freedom in China.
“All these years the policy of the Communist Party has not changed,” according to Cardinal Zen. The objective is “to control the Church.” In the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s this aim was pursued by repressing all Catholics and other religious believers. In recent decades the communist strategy has shifted to “creat[ing] an independent church,” the Catholic Patriotic Association, which will submit to Beijing and not to Rome. The cardinal accused the government of “spending a lot of money on the Church” to woo Catholics to its side. These kinds of inducements, he said, were in some ways worse than the open persecution that prevailed in the past.
Particularly painful to Zen was the fact that “[t]he Church is also divided…. Two groups react differently to the government policy.” What he called “the open church” has accepted government supervision under the Patriotic Association. But “the underground church” continues to give its exclusive loyalty to the Pope in Rome. The cardinal’s sympathies clearly lay with the underground church. “The difficulty,” he said, “is not only [for Catholics loyal to Rome] to face the government but our own people who are more on the side of the government than the Church.”
Yet Zen noted complexities in the situation. The “underground church” is not always underground. In some places, as in the province of Hebei, “you can have big churches” loyal to Rome that worship openly with the tacit consent of the government. On the other hand, the Patriotic Association is not completely estranged from Rome. The Hong Kong church leader shared his observation from years of teaching at Chinese Catholic seminaries: “Even in this open church the people are loyal to the Holy Father in their hearts.” Reciprocally, the Pope had recognized many of the bishops in the Patriotic Association.
But Zen complained about Vatican officials who “followed the wrong policy, the old Ostpolitik” of accommodating communist regimes. He criticized these officials for disseminating a “wrong interpretation” that “the Holy Father wants everyone [all Chinese Catholics] to come out into the open.” (This article in the Catholic News Agency explains more fully the Vatican politics to which Zen referred.)
This mixed message has “caused division even in the underground” between those who feel they still cannot trust the government and those who are willing to “compromise at any price,” according to the cardinal. He told of previously “underground” bishops who had participated in Patriotic Association ordinations without Rome’s approval. “It was like a slap in the face of the Holy Father,” Zen exclaimed. Nevertheless, the cardinal expressed “hope for a new beginning” and more discerning policies under new leadership in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
Zen drew a bright line beyond which the church could not compromise with the Beijing government. “You have to explain that we cannot go all the way with them,” he stated. “We cannot have an independent church, because we are the Holy Apostolic Roman Catholic Church.” The cardinal insisted that the communist government “must accept that the Church is run by the bishops.”
Zen remarked that although the atmosphere was freer in Hong Kong, even there his Catholic archdiocese had issues with the government. The Hong Kong government has “passed a new education ordinance that would take away our [Catholic] schools,” the cardinal lamented. The new law would require every Catholic school to be separately incorporated and to report directly to the government rather than through the archdiocese.
Zen indicated that Hong Kong Catholics have traditionally had a disproportionate influence in education. Even though they comprise barely 5 percent of the territory’s population, their schools teach 25 percent of Hong Kong primary and secondary students. The cardinal attributed the new education law to the Chinese government’s desire to “control everything.”
Zen disputed those who assume that China’s economic growth will automatically bring religious freedom. “How many years are they holding that opinion?” he asked. “And what is the result?” Clearly, the cardinal felt that the result had not been positive for the church. Increased prosperity had given the communist government “more money to buy priests and bishops,” he charged.
The above picture of Cardinal Zen was taken at the Hudson Institute and was used with permission.
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