Pope’s possible deal with China would ‘betray Christ’, says Hong Kong cardinal
Senior Catholic Joseph Zen says the pontiff ‘may not know the Communist persecutors who have killed hundreds of thousands’
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, says most supporters of the potential Vatican deal do not truly know China. Photograph: Benjamin Haas for the Guardian China Pope’s possible deal with China would ‘betray Christ’, says Hong Kong cardinal Senior Catholic Joseph Zen says the pontiff ‘may not know the Communist persecutors who have killed hundreds of thousands’
The most senior Chinese Catholic has slammed a potential rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing, saying it would be “betraying Jesus Christ”, amid a thaw in more than six decades of bitter relations.
Talk of a deal between the two sides has been building for months, with some saying the diplomatic coup for Pope Francis would be resolving the highly controversial issue of allowing China’s Communist government to have a hand in selecting bishops.
But Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 84-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong, has been an outspoken critic, saying any agreement where Beijing would have a hand in approving clergy would be “a surrender”.
“Maybe the pope is a little naive, he doesn’t have the background to know the Communists in China,” Zen said at the Salesian school in Hong Kong where he still teaches. “The pope used to know the persecuted Communists [in Latin America], but he may not know the Communist persecutors who have killed hundreds of thousands.”
Chinese Catholics are free to go to mass and attend government-sanctioned churches, but barred from proselytising. The state-controlled China Catholic Patriotic Association controls the church and appoints bishops, currently without any input from the Vatican.
An “underground” Catholic church exists, with some estimates saying it is larger than the official one, and its members and clergy have faced persecution by authorities.
Protestant Christians also face similar challenges, and a recent campaign by authorities in eastern China has seen more than 1,200 crosses removed from buildings and churches demolished.
Zen complained that most supporters of the deal did not truly know China, lacking first-hand experience with the state of the church under the Communists. He spent seven years frequently teaching in cities across China in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that was followed by severe tightening of freedom of expression and religion.
One motivation for the Vatican is the relatively small number of Catholics in a country filled with people who are increasingly searching for meaning in their lives. There are roughly 10 million Catholics, just a 10th of the overall number of Christians in the country.
With “fake freedom” under a proposed deal, priests could more easily preach and more churches would open, Zen predicted, but “it’s only the impression of freedom, it’s not real freedom, the people sooner or later will see the bishops are puppets of the government and not really the shepherds of the flock.”
“The official bishops are not really preaching the gospel,” Zen added “They are preaching obedience to Communist authority.”
Francesco Sisci, an Italian scholar and journalist who is based in Beijing, said “a very wide-ranging agreement” appeared to be on the horizon but that it remained unclear exactly when the deal would be unveiled. No observers expected it to lead to full diplomatic relations.
Sisci, who conducted a rare interview with Pope Francis at the start of this year in which the leader of the Catholic church backed the idea of dialogue with Beijing, said he believed the deal would represent a “a major breakthrough” for China, the Vatican and people of all faiths.
Sisci rejected the idea that the Vatican was abandoning its principles by engaging with Beijing and claimed many within the church leadership believed it would be more effective to talk to China’s Communist leaders than to “wage war” against them on issues such as human rights and religious freedom.
“The church doesn’t want crusades … and doesn’t want to start a new one with China,” he said.
The Italian academic said he believed the pope thought the church could play “a crucial role in helping China move into the modern world, to become a modern society”.
“He may be naive but it is his job being naive, being a man of faith,” Sisci added.
But that naivety could harm the Catholic church in China for decades to come, according to Zen, and a perception is building that the pope is pushing a pact he may not fully understand.
“You cannot go into negotiations with the mentality ‘we want to sign an agreement at any cost’, then you are surrendering yourself, you are betraying yourself, you are betraying Jesus Christ,” Zen lamented.
“If you cannot get a good deal, an acceptable deal, then the Vatican should walk away and maybe try again later,” he added. “Could the church negotiate with Hitler? Could it negotiate with Stalin? No.”
Ordinary Catholics who attend the government-controlled church welcome the negotiations as any deal would legitimise what is essentially a schismatic church.
“If they could really strike a deal, not only would us Catholics be happy, but all of the Chinese people should rejoice,” said Zhao, 36, who has been a Catholic for 20 years and works at the oldest Catholic church in China, close to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He declined to give his full name because of the sensitivity of discussing religion.
“Chinese society needs faith right now,” he added, saying a warming of ties would increase the number of Catholics, “which is a benefit to all society”.
But Zen warned that gains, diplomatically and in the number of faithful, could be short-lived.
In the long run people would leave the church as they became disillusioned with the “fake” institution, Zen said, adding “the clergy need to side with the people, the poor and the persecuted, not to government”.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians,” Zen said. “If that blood is poisoned, how long will those new Christians last?”
Additional reporting by Christy Yao