Should an agreement be reached between China and the Holy See, this will certainly have “the Pope’s approval”. But China’s Catholics will not be obliged to take it into consideration if their “conscience” tells them it is “against their principle of faith”. This is according to the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen.
As is widely known, the elderly cardinal is not keen on the kind of Sino-Vatican pax that is apparently being witnessed in the exchanges taking place between Chinese officials their and Vatican counterparts, confirmed by Pope Francis. The Salesian high prelate has lost no time in pressuring Chinese Catholics to choose the path of silent dissociation, also with regard to any potential measures and practices that may be officially approved by the Bishop of Rome, as a last resort, to dodge the implications of a possible future beginning of an understanding between Beijing and the Holy See.
Zen has launched an appeal on his personal blog: “Brothers and sisters of the Continent, we need to do ourselves justice!” the cardinal peremptorily wrote on his blog post addressed to Catholics of the People’s Republic of China. He starts off by identifying his controversial targets: they are those “who are on the government’s side” and the “Church’s opportunists” who “are hoping that the Holy See will sign an agreement to legitimise the current irregular situation”. Zen claims that these individuals have been speaking out about the need to “be ready to hear the Pope” and obey “his every word”. They even go as far as to suppose that a rejection of choices approved by the Pope could come from some of those who have always reproached others with a disloyalty to the Pontificate and the Roman Catholic Church.
In the face of this new landscape, Zen is urging people to “keep calm” first of all. He then goes on to provide his “continental” brothers and sisters with some guidelines and advice on how to deal with this delicate moment, as they wait for better times to come along. He insisted that “it is the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, who holds supreme authority” in the Church. He recalled that for many years, especially during Benedict XVI’s pontificate, he himself, repeated right, left and centre “that the Holy See does not represent the Pope. Of course, Zen acknowledged, “in the event of an official agreement being signed” between China and the Holy See one day, “then that agreement would most certainly have the Pope’s approval”. Should that happen – the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong preliminarily suggests, outlining the course of action to be followed – “we should not criticise anything the Pope approves”. Any reaction that may be recognised and indicated as a criticism directed at the Successor of Peter is to be avoided. But “for sure”, Zen hastened to add, “at the end of the day, one’s conscience is the ultimate criterion for judging our behaviour. So, if your conscience tells you that the content of whatever agreement goes against the principle of our faith, you should not go with it”. Zen backs his case – which encourages people to dissociate themselves from any potential agreements made between China and the Holy See carrying the Pope’s approval – by offering an unfaithful summary of Pope Benedict XVI’s original Letter to the Church in China (June 2007). This states that the Church’s principles of autonomy, independence, self-management and democratic administration, as advocated by the Patriotic Association and other such bodies inspired by Chinese politicians, are “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine. Brothers and sisters of this Continent, you must never adhere to the Patriotic Association”. Towards the end of his brief message, the elderly cardinal predicted an underground future for those who refuse to accept the agreement between China and the Holy See and in his opinion, they should be prepared to give up on public practice of the faith and Church life as ordinary Catholics know it.
Zen compared the effects of a possible Sino-Vatican agreement to the conditions experienced by Chinese Christians in the dark and ferocious years of the Cultural Revolution. He explained that “the fear is that in the future, you will no longer have a public place of worship but you will be able to pray at home; and should you be unable to receive the sacraments, the Lord Jesus will still enter your hearts; and should you no longer be able to practice the priesthood, you can still go home and work the land. A priest remains a priest forever.” Zen’s message ends with words of reassurance: the “resistance” he proposed in the event of an agreement between China and the Holy See could be short-lived: “The early Church,” wrote the cardinal from Shanghai, “had to wait 300 years. I don’t think we will have to wait that long. The winter is almost over”.
The “split” advocated by Cardinal Zen in his call for faithful to ignore potential future choices approved by the Pope was to be expected following the high prelate of Hong Kong’s 20-year mobilisation against any steps the taken by the Holy See to foster relations between the Chinese authorities and the Catholic Church, which he did not approve of. The weapons the 84-year-old cardinal makes use of include discreditation of positions that are not in line with his – he always passes them off as ambiguous stances that smell suspiciously of “opportunism” and “connivance” with the Chinese authorities – and above all a set and pre-packaged representation of the case of Chinese Catholics over the past 70 years, which aims to sweep under the carpet any facts that are not useful in the “ongoing struggle”. The “conscientious” objection the prelate calls for in the event of a Sino-Vatican agreement signed by the Pope – which he accuses a priori of “compliance” with government-controlled “patriotic” entities – is obviously just used as a pretext. One need only remember that during their respective pontificates, John Paul II and Benedict XVI legitimised or directly appointed dozens of Chinese bishops who had regular relations with these very entities and even came to occupy important positions within these. According to Wojtyla and Ratzinger, the fact that those bishops were formal members of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics was never an impediment to the full and recognised sacramental communion and hierarchy between those bishops and the Successor of Peter. And no one forced those bishops to formally leave the Patriotic Association as a condition for obtaining a papal mandate for their episcopal ministry. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have always indicated dialogue, rather than contradiction, as the way to attempt to resolve problems faced by Chinese Catholicism in its relationship with the civil authorities.
Be this as it may, bearing in mind the current delicate state of Sino-Vatican relations, the points made by Cardinal Zen, involve everyone, starting with Chinese Catholics: bishops, priests, religious and lay people, so-called “official” Catholics as well as so-called “clandestine” or “underground” Catholics. Each individual with freedom of conscience enlightened by faith can be called to treasure that sensus fidei that was protected in the days of the Celestial Empire, even through tough times of fierce persecution. True communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, continues to be a comfort and a sign this sensus fidei.