The Proposed Vatican-China Deal, “An Act of Suicide”:
An Interview with His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Zen

We are honored and humbled to share the words of Joseph Cardinal Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong, who shares his fears and concerns regarding the future of the Catholic Church in Mainland China and the proposed agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His words echo his concern for the good of the Church and its true believers. This interview is all the more important as the decision by the Holy See has been postponed, giving us the opportunity to share Cardinal Zen’s beliefs, his great faith, and his hope that his outspoken stance will lead to a clearer understanding of the Chinese push for control of the Church, and that perhaps there is still time to stop this grave mistake by the Pope. His interview is a true call to conscience and a plea to all who believe in the right to religious liberty.

(Interviewer: Hanako Cho)


The Chinese-Vatican Agreement

Interviewer: We are very much concerned about the agreement between China and the Vatican because it’s going to be very harmful and tragic for the Catholic faithful in China. We want to let your opinion be known to Japanese people because your opinion is so important and crucial to change the situation and I think everyone in the world has to listen to you.

Cardinal Zen: I think one must know the real situation. And you cannot just look from your own point of view, but you have to look at the whole reality. So you must know what the communists are doing in China and what the Holy See is doing in these years. Then you cannot be optimist because things are going in the wrong direction. It’s not improving but becoming worse than before.


The Division Between the Faithful and the Chinese Government

Interviewer: We are supposed to see the agreement between the Vatican and the CCP by the end of March – that means today. However, two days ago, the Vatican issued a statement that there is no imminent agreement regarding the appointment of bishops for the Catholic Church in China. Is the deal-making underway, or is it postponed?

Cardinal Zen: I don’t know, because we have no communication between us and the Vatican. I know only from the mass media. Yes, but I know China. I know what they have done these years, and so I’m very much worried. Because they say they want to improve the situation. But I’m asking, “How can you improve it? What do you mean by improving?” They say, “Oh, now we are trying to create unity.” How can you unite the church? How can you unite? How? I’m asking, “How?” Because what is the division this moment?”

The division is that there is a group who want to be faithful to the Catholic doctrine, so they say the Catholic Church cannot be completely controlled by the government. We must have our fundamental freedom. And so they are in the underground and they are unlawful in front of the government. There is also an official church, in which, there are many different people. But then more and more this official church is dominated by people who would voluntarily become the slaves of the government. So that is a very bad church now, a bad community.


The Motive of the Holy See

Interviewer: So why do you think that the Holy See is eager to enter into this agreement in the first place? It seems to me that the Vatican is not well informed regarding the current state of China, especially with regard to religious freedom in China. Why is this happening right now?

Cardinal Zen: The problem is, I believe, that the Holy See, the people there, especially this Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State, they know very well what the situation is. So that’s the problem.

I really cannot understand how he can be so optimistic. He must know the reality very well. So the problem is what they have in mind to achieve. They know very well that they cannot achieve unity in the present situation. They want to achieve unity between the two communities in China, the underground church and the community which accepts the control of the government.

How can they be united? How? The good people can be united only in their hearts. How can the two communities be really united? It cannot be, because to be united you cannot create a third possibility.

Now, there are only two possibilities. Either they would be united in the underground or they be united in the official church. Now, obviously, the government wants only to have unity in the official church. That means everybody has to obey the government.


Government Control

Interviewer: So what would really happen to those faithful and bishops in China if the agreement is made between the Vatican and China?

Cardinal Zen: Now, there are so many different people in both communities. If there’s an agreement, that means the Vatican is accepting the official church and the patriotic association – that means the control of the government.

Then what happens to the underground? Now many people in the underground may come into the open and join the official church because the Vatican says “okay”. Because here, now, why are there so many people in the underground? They are in the underground because of their faith. Because they believe that that is the true church. Because they believe we cannot have independent church.

If the Vatican says, “No, no, no. It’s okay. You can join that church,” then many may join, okay? That’s easier because it is less risky, less dangerous. Because it is dangerous to join the underground church as it’s against the law and the government may arrest them, may penalize them, etc. Okay?

But many other people in the underground, they will be very sad and very angry because in so many years they always suffered so many things to be faithful to the church and to the authority of the Pope to be united with the universal church. Now the Vatican comes to tell them that they’ve been wrong. And so it’s an incredible disappointment.

In the official church, the people who are on the side of the government are more and more, and the bad bishops are more and more.

Even some legitimized bishops are not good bishops because they follow the government. They are willingly a slave of the government.

But then there are still some good bishops. They are still in this moment trying to resist in the hope that someday the Holy See may help them to change the situation and so that they may really live peacefully and even openly in their faith. But now if the Vatican says, “No, no, now you just abandon your resistance. You must all obey the government”, they will be very disappointed because in their hearts they know that it’s wrong. It’s wrong, because the government is not going to change. They just want a church completely submissive, completely controlled by the government. So I don’t know what the Vatican has in mind.


Diplomatic Success a Ruse for Religious Liberty

Interviewer: Do you think that the Secretary of State may have been manipulated by the Chinese government?

Cardinal Zen: No. I think he may know very well. According to me, he has no faith at all. He’s a man just after diplomatic success.


Putting Diplomacy Ahead of Faith

Interviewer: Really? He doesn’t have faith at all?

Cardinal Zen: He’s not working for the good of the church. He’s working for his diplomatic success. I don’t believe him because he despises those people who fight for the faith. He didn’t say it in that way, but he said that about the bishops in Eastern Europe during the communist time. And then he described those heroes of faith like Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary, Cardinal Beran in Czechoslovakia, and Cardinal Wyszynski in Poland; he described them as gladiators; he described them as people who systematically oppose the government, and he described them as people who wanted to show up on the political stage. They are politicians, he said. That’s very bad. That means that he has no esteem for those people. So, he seems to want to have more diplomatic success than true faith. So that’s a very bad sign. So, I don’t believe he is working for the real good of the church. Now, maybe the Pope is full of confidence in everybody but I think he’s a collaborator who is not good. And so, I’m very much worried they are not working for faith, not for the improvement of the church, but only for a diplomatic success.


Legitimizing Bad Bishops

Interviewer: You mentioned that there are good bishops and bad bishops. In what terms are there really bad bishops?

Cardinal Zen: Before 2000, it was Cardinal Tomko in the congregation for evangelization.

Now at that time there were many illegitimate bishops ordained by the Chinese government. But then, since there was some possibility of communication, they asked the Holy See to forgive them and to recognize them. Among those were many good bishops. They were accepted to be ordained illegitimately under very serious pressure. Because at that time if you didn’t obey, you were going to prison. And many died in prison.

But then after the year 2000, things changed. So, after that time and since that time, many have been ordained illegitimately without such pressure. The Holy See should not legitimize them so easily.

But unfortunately, Cardinal Tomko’s successors were not good. They very easily legitimized several of those bishops. And then little by little, the Holy See very easily was trying to satisfy the Chinese government, and sometimes the Holy See even accepted those who they know were not good. But then you see that sometimes the Holy See said, “No, we cannot accept,” and then you have these illegitimate bishops.

Now they are talking about legitimizing all the bishops, including very bad bishops. And so, the Holy See has no more correct criteria about who must be the bishops of the people. They are just trying to accommodate the government.

You see, there are candidates which the government absolutely wants. And then finally the Holy See approved. But before that, they said, “These people are not good. We have proof. They will not be recognized forever.”

But then they recognized them after a fake investigation. They pretended to make a new investigation and they said, “Oh, they are not accepting the evidence.” And now even among these seven, they are going to approve them despite the fact that there are three who were excommunicated, and two with wives and children. And so how can they accept these bishops for the people?


The Loss of the Underground Bishops

Interviewer: What really did happen to the bishops who were told they will be replaced by the government-approved bishops?

Cardinal Zen: You see there are seven bishops who are still illegitimate, some even excommunicated. So, the problem is about those seven. But of the seven, in five dioceses, there is no bishop in the underground. You know very well that in these last years the Holy See made very few bishops in the underground. So the underground has very few bishops. Now they have only 30 bishops in the underground. Yes. So, in five of those seven dioceses, there is no bishop in the underground. So they don’t see any problem because they say, “Okay. We just recognize those five.” But in these two dioceses, there is also a legitimate bishop in the underground.

So now the cases come out because these two bishops say, “We have objections. This is not good. It is not right that we give the place to those illegitimate or excommunicated.” But then everybody came to know about this because it became public news. But the problems should also have been aired about those other five. So many people don’t talk about those five. But there are also big problems about the five.


The fate of the faithful

Interviewer: Will all the faithful be submitted to the CCP?

Cardinal Zen: Yes, that’s terrible. The faithful will be submitted to those bishops. The great majority of people are in the underground. Now they will be forced to obey this strange law which is not good at all. How can the Holy See do that? And then there is a question we still don’t know, and I would like to have an answer from the Vatican: What about all the other 30 legitimate bishops in the underground? Probably they will be invited to join the patriotic association. It’s terrible.


The Fate of the 30 Legitimate Bishops in the Underground

Interviewer: That’s highly likely, right?

Cardinal Zen: That’s likely to happen and that’s a betrayal. And so they are not talking about those 30 for the moment.

They say something to the effect that, “We recognize the 7 and the Chinese government would recognize the 30.”

But what do you mean by “Chinese government recognizes 30”? Oh, they may say we will welcome them into the bishop conference. And then using that example we may say they’re invited into the birdcage just as the other ones are already in the “bird cage”. So, it’s not an improvement and this will serve to force these people in the underground into the slavery.


The Official Church Is Completely Controlled by the Government

The Holy See may say, “Okay, if you don’t want to, then you can resign”. So probably they’re going to give them the choice — Either you join the patriotic association or you resign. This is terrible. Because Pope Benedict said you cannot join the patriotic association. Now they’re being invited to join the patriotic association and the things have not been changed. The official church is completely controlled by the government.


The Gospel According to CCP

Interviewer: Do the official churches preach the existence of God in their church?

Cardinal Zen: Oh, sure. They cannot do otherwise, but many times they have to tell the people what is the will of the government in order to preach the gospel, to preach the orders from the government.

I suppose they still preach much of the gospel. But then they have also to preached orders from the government. Because it’s impossible if they don’t even preach God, the faith will abandon them. They must pretend still to be Catholic bishops but not the real Catholic bishops. Because everybody knows that they are slaves of the government and they are willingly slaves of government. Because there are still, in this moment, bishops who are good, who resisted joining the patriotic association, who really preach the gospel. But if an agreement is made they have no possibility to keep their present position. While they also preach the gospel, they also preach the orders of the government and people can see that they are not really the shepherds. They’re serving their own interest. They want to have power and then to have money, and they’re not caring for the souls.


Numbers Mean Nothing

Interviewer: I suppose that the initial purpose of the Vatican to enter this agreement was to increase the number of faithful in China. But on the contrary, this agreement is likely to dissolve the Catholic Church in China, isn’t it?

Cardinal Zen: Sure. What does it mean to increase the number? The number doesn’t mean anything. The whole church becomes a government church. It’s not a Catholic Church anymore.


A Schismatic Church

It’s going to be a schismatic church because if the Holy See has no real control of the church, it’s no longer a Catholic church. They say, finally, the Chinese government recognizes the Pope as the head of the Catholic church. But only in words.

Nothing in reality, because the agreement said that, the choice of the bishops comes from the government.

The Holy Father can only say the last word. But that’s not real authority, because it’s the government who chooses the bishops. What last word can the Pope say? What last word? Okay, you say he can veto, okay? But how many times can he veto? You have to suppose that the government is going to make bad choices. They will only choose bishops they can trust. And with that, it would be hard to choose bishops who would be good shepherds for the people, because they simply don’t understand what is a good bishop.

Interviewer: I very much agree with your proposal that the Vatican should choose the bishops and give the CCP the veto power.

Cardinal Zen: Because it is less evil. Because in that case, it is up to the Pope to make the choice.


Changing the Pope’s Stance on China

Interviewer: Why didn’t the Vatican negotiate in that way?

Cardinal Zen: I really don’t know. Sometimes I say that the Pope may not very well know the Chinese communist. But the people around him, his collaborators, they must know very well. So, I really, I don’t believe that they are acting in good faith. I don’t believe in Cardinal Parolin.

Interviewer: What can we do to change the Pope’s stance on China? Is there anything we can do to change the Holy See’s stance on China?

Cardinal Zen: I hope now that all the people in the world who understand the real situation for them with the bishops, and the cardinals may help the Pope understand better that the suggestion is very wrong. And tell the Holy Father to be more careful because there is really no foundation for optimism. Because the government in Beijing only wants to control the Church. So there is no hope that we may gain real freedom. They just want you to give every power into their hands. That’s the problem. So I hope you may try to encourage your bishops to talk to the Holy Father, to write to the Holy Father, to say, “We are worried because we know the Chinese communists.”


The Vatican and Taiwan

Interviewer: Is it going to happen that the Vatican may sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan?

Cardinal Zen: Well, for Taiwan there’s nothing we can say because the Vatican already decided that a long time ago. And in Taiwan, the bishops know already and the government knows already. So, it’s no surprise. And then the Holy See can keep some other relation — not a diplomatic relation, but a cultural relation — still a very good relation that may be carried on. But they know very well it’s not good. Because the people who are not in the church, they will not understand. For them, it’s evil. It’s a betrayal of an old friend to go with a more powerful one. But then the Vatican said that, “We are sorry to do that, but we have to do it because we have to care for so many faithful in China, etc.” Okay. So the bishops understand. I suppose also the government understands very well.

And so it will not be big problem. In Taiwan, there still will be freedom of religion. There’s no problem. So I don’t want to talk about that too much. I’m sorry for Taiwan, but there is nothing we can do anymore. But for China, I think maybe we are seeing that it’s time to help the Holy Father to understand the real situation. So, I hope you will ask your bishops to help us.


Seven Years in China

Interviewer: I learned from the news that you have had a direct experience in China from 1989 to 1996, is this correct?

Cardinal Zen: Yes. Yes. I’ve spent seven years in China working six months a year teaching in the seminaries in Shanghai, in Xi’an, in Wuhan, in Shijiazhuang, in Beijing, and in Shenyang. Seven seminaries. So for so long time I could see everything, everything. And the government is keeping the church as a slave.


The Government Holds the Church as a Slave

Interviewer: As a slave?

Cardinal Zen: They have no respect for the bishops, even for their own bishops, for the official church bishops. No respect at all.

Interviewer: In what way? Are they enslaved?

Cardinal Zen: They can’t do anything. They have no right to talk, no right to discuss. They have no real rights. They have no rights to make decisions.

Surely they know that the Catholic church must talk about the gospel, otherwise nobody would believe anymore. But about the administration, about the real government of the church, it is the communist government that is leading the church, is running the church. That’s more than obvious for everybody who has lived for a long time in China. I have lived there for seven years, so I can see that everything they say is fake, is not true. So, for example, they say that there is a Bishops’ Conference. There is no Bishops’ Conference, that is in name only.


In Name Only

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Cardinal Zen: When I was teaching in Xi’an, the Bishop was Li Du’an. And then one day I asked him, I said, “Oh, Bishop, you are one of the vice-chairmen of the Bishops’ Conference? When are you next going to have a meeting?” And he said, “Ho, ho, Father Zen, do you think we have meetings? We don’t have meetings. Never.” And I said, “Oh, but you will be going”, “Yes, we are called to meetings. But we don’t have meetings. We go there just to receive the instruction from the government. We are not allowed to discuss anything.” That’s the reality still now. Now you can see photographs where an official from the government is presiding at a meeting. And then to the right and to the left, you have the chairmen of the Bishops’ Conference, and the Chairmen of the Patriotic Association. There are two bishops there, but they just obey. They just obey.


The Sad Reality of the State Church

Interviewer: I see.

Cardinal Zen: They just listen to the instructions. That’s a reality. And they cannot give any order they would obey, except for very few.

And if the Vatican says, “Now we approve this Bishops’ Conference. We approve it.” Then it is finished. But the good bishops who resist will cease to resist, and it will be very sad. And the opportunists will laugh at them because they say, “You see, we have chosen the right path, you see? We collaborate with the government, the government put pressure on the Vatican and we can get anything we like.” Now, we are bishops. You have to obey to us.” Terrible. And the good people will suffer so much.


“Sinicization”: Can There Be Reconciliation of Communist and Church Doctrine

Interviewer: Well, one word that the Chinese government is using very frequently recently is the word “Sinicize”. Can you please explain to me what this word “Sinicize” means?

Cardinal Zen: At the beginning, the people in China tried to explain it just as what we call inculturation, to make a synthesis between the Catholic doctrine and the Chinese culture. But then they said a moment ago, “No, no, no.” That’s a small part. The important thing is to reconcile the Catholic doctrine with the communist doctrine. That’s the point.

Interviewer: I think it can’t really be possible to reconcile Catholic thinking and the Communist Party’s doctrine. How can they reconcile both doctrines?

Cardinal Zen: See, that’s a fact. Now they try to tell everybody clearly. So how can you accept that church? There is no more Catholic church.


The CCP, The Church and Abortion

Interviewer: So, are the CCP going to ask Catholic hospitals to do abortions in church hospitals when it is against the doctrines of Catholicism?

Cardinal Zen: You see, even the good people there sometimes they can just keep quiet. Keep quiet, okay? Even if you are against abortion, you don’t have to say it every day, okay? But the thing is, these other people sometimes may have to say something very bad because they are forced to by the government.


Potential Changes under New Regulations of Religious Affairs

Interviewer: From February 1st, the new regulations of religious affairs were put into effect.

Cardinal Zen: Yes, but not all of them are new regulations. There are old laws, but they didn’t enforce those regulations. But now they say “From the 1st of February, we will enforce the law. For example, Masses in the underground are prohibited, are not allowed. But the government has tolerated them. You know that in Hebei, in Fukan, there are many churches, underground churches. And they have not been destroyed. And the people say mass in those churches. They go to the churches.

In Shanghai, the underground surely cannot have churches. But they have been celebrating mass in private homes on Sunday, and many people go there. And everybody knows. The government knows. The neighbors know. But they have been allowed.

But now no more. So, one faithful in Shanghai, told me, “Oh,” he said, “The priest to whom we go to mass told us, ‘Don’t come anymore because it’s going to be dangerous. Because now they say that we’re not tolerated.'” But from the news, I guess the fear has not yet really stopped the people. But the instruction is there. So, it’s not necessarily a new law. The law was already there, but they did not enforce those laws. Now they are going to enforce the laws.


The Effect on Underground Masses and Baptism

So before they allowed the masses in the underground, but now they will go to arrest people. And then, you know that according to law, the minors, under 18 years of age, cannot be baptized, cannot be Catholics.

After the Tiananmen Square incident in many places, especially I know about Shanghai, the government told the Bishop in Shanghai, it said, “Oh, the Catholics behaved very well. During this time, nobody joined the public rallies. And so now we will reward you. We give you permission to baptize the children, to give them first communion.” Wow. That was fantastic. So the bishops were so happy. That year, I happened to be in Shanghai. I started teaching in Shanghai, and during the summer, they prepared the children. So October, at the Feast of Christ the King, there were 400 children receiving First Communion in the cathedral, and it was a big celebration. But now no more. Now, at the door of the church, there is a new instruction. The minors cannot get into the church. Those under 18 years of age are not allowed to go into the church. So the situation is going to be worse, and will be more harsh for the people.


The Imprisoned Bishops

Interviewer: What is the Vatican’s stance on those bishops imprisoned in China?

Cardinal Zen: There is a bishop, under arrest for many years, 20 years already, and the Vatican delegation last year wanted to mention the case, and the government delegation said, “No, no, no. That’s so sensitive. We don’t talk about that.”

So that means you are surrendering from the very beginning. How can we renounce talking about our bishop? Yes, our bishop is under arrest for so many years. We cannot discuss anything about the case. That’s incredible. I would say I should come back and see when can we talk about the bishop, then we can negotiate?


The Effect on Cardinal Zen

But the problem for me is if they really signed a bad agreement. Then I’m sorry, I will not come out and criticize the Pope. I cannot criticize the Pope. So, if they sign agreements then I will be silent and am going into monastic life and I will disappear. You will not hear from me anymore, because I cannot criticize the Pope, because it’s the principle. Because I don’t want to criticize the Pope and it’s the last principle, otherwise there will be disorder.


But We Remain Catholics…

We must still obey the Pope even if we don’t understand. That’s our principle. So I appreciate the bishop in Fukan, when he said, “Yes. That is not right. But if the Pope wants it so, and I’m sure that it’s the will of the Pope, we have to obey.” And the priests said, “Okay, we will obey. We are sad, but we obey.” And I hope also the people in Shantou are going to do the same. I hope nobody is going to make a revolution. We are Catholics.

And we will remain Catholics. Maybe we have to go home. We may be without the churches. The faithful may be without sacraments, but we remain Catholics. Thanks to God, yes.

The Proposed Vatican-China Deal, “An Act of Suicide”:
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