Crucifix in Catholic church in China © Katharina Ebel (KNA)
Hong Kong’s former bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun (84), views the newly established dialogue between the Vatican and the Chinese government with great concern, he stressed in an interview with the Catholic News Agency (KNA).
CBA: Cardinal Zen, how are you?
Cardinal Zen: Good. Good again. I was sick in the summer. A virus had settled in the lungs, but now it is better again. I was already teaching this morning, then I went to a funeral and then had lunch with an elderly pastor. Afterwards came religious sisters from China who wanted to speak to me. And now you are here.
CBA: To ask you about the relations between the Vatican and Beijing. After decades of hostility, a commission has been sounding out the possibilities of rapprochement for several months now. You criticize this sharply – why?
Cardinal Zen: We should first agree on what a communist regime is. This is a totalitarian regime that wants to control everything. Also the church. But we can’t allow that, the Church can’t let itself be controlled by a government, by a regime.
CBA: From the Vatican’s point of view, the negotiations are being conducted with "good will".
Cardinal Zen: The Chinese are very clever. You can play with words. They have no scruples, and they are not sincere. There is a great danger that the Vatican will be deceived.
CBA: But wouldn’t improving the relationship, as proponents argue, be for the good of all Catholics in China? Especially those who pray in the so-called underground, because they do not want to join the official Chinese church, the "Patriotic Association"?
Cardinal Zen: The Chinese government is tearing down crosses from the roofs and tightening control over believers and priests with new regulations. How can you be hopeful? There is no hope at the moment. As long as the regime does not change, there is no reason to hope either.
CBA: What about compromises? Doesn’t the Catholic Church have to be ready for this as well?
Cardinal Zen: The church must not close itself off to dialogue, and it can also make compromises. But there are limits. We cannot please the regime in Beijing. They want everything, they want a surrender.
CBA: And the Vatican does not see that?
Cardinal Zen: The pope is far away, he doesn’t know China. And he doesn’t know communism in China. But there are people in the Vatican who have the ie on their agenda, and they want success at all costs. They want the historic breakthrough.
CBA: The main point of contention in the talks between the Vatican and Beijing is the appointment of bishops. The Vatican claims this right worldwide, Beijing sees this as interference in internal affairs and in the past has had its bishops ordained by the "Patriotic Association". After the fact, many of these bishops have also received an agreement from the Pope. So there have long been compromises, have there not??
Cardinal Zen: There are many good priests and bishops in the Chinese Church. But they have to obey the state, they are led by the government, on the nose ring. One day the faithful will realize that these are not shepherds, but officials of the state. That they serve not the Gospel but political power.
CBA: If no rapprochement – what then?
Cardinal Zen: The Church must defend freedom. How will people still have respect for the Church tomorrow if it does not defend freedom today and end the persecution of believers? All the years of compromise have weakened the Church’s position. The church should encourage the faithful to be strong, to resist.
CBA: Many see you as a critic of the Pope and accuse you of inciting clergy in China to revolution. Is that so?
Cardinal Zen: I would never criticize the Pope. I criticize the Vatican, but not the Pope. If Francis agrees to an agreement with Beijing, I will stop speaking. I will disappear.
CBA: That is?
Cardinal Zen: I will read my books and I will never appear in public again. And that’s what I told my brothers: withdraw quietly and wait for better times.
CBA: But until that happens, you will continue to criticize?
Cardinal Zen: I am a public person. Many do not like me, many like me. I am a caller in the desert. But I will continue to speak my mind. Because it is my duty and because I am in the position to speak freely. I am also 84 years old. It is difficult to change one’s character. So I am simply myself.