His eminence the retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, surely inadvertently, was perhaps not quite accurate in his account of the story at the root of the recent controversy about an agreement between China and the Holy See.
The controversy started because the Holy See agreed to make an adjustment on two bishops, recognized by the Pope, and replace them with two appointed by Beijing. The less controversial case is in Mindong. There, two bishops had been appointed by the two sides, and now one (originally appointed by Beijing) is the head and the other (Rome-appointed) is the auxiliary with the right of succession once the head retires or is moved elsewhere.
The more widely discussed case is in Shantou. Here, the Cardinal said he had received a letter of complaint from the local bishop Peter Zhuang, who was being replaced by another bishop chosen by Beijing.
Certainly Zhuang, 85, had long passed retirement age, and reports circulating from Hong Kong failed to mention that Zhuang was the head of the Beijing-sponsored Jiexi Patriotic Association, for decades Rome’s archenemy, as Gianni Valente wrote.
Moreover, Zhuang’s letter, which Zen brought to the Pope, was also received by the Vatican representative in Hong Kong and from there filed to Rome. It is unclear whether the letter was first sent to the representative and then to the Cardinal, or vice versa, or at the same time. However the crucial point is that even without the Cardinal’s intervention, the Holy See was well aware of the situation.
All these discrepancies certainly originated in good faith. What is reason for surprise and perhaps even shock is that after a confidential meeting with Pope in early January, the Cardinal decided to report to the press his version of the talks he had.
This is not customary for confidential meetings with the Pope and mostly unheard of for a meeting between the Pope and a cardinal. The Cardinal’s red robe is symbolic, because he swears to protect the Pope even with his own blood. Disagreements are not the issue, the issue here is that confidential meetings between the Pope and cardinals or bishops should remain so—confidential.
The decision to make public the content of a meeting breaks the trust between the Pope and a cardinal or bishop.
Apparently the Cardinal decided to break this trust to further push against a pending agreement between the Holy See and China.
Disagreements, of course, are not the problem and are healthy, but not so if the minority side tries to bend the majority against its own will. That is the formula of dictatorships. In the Holy See the majority is by definition the position of the Pope. This may be right or wrong, but that is the crux of the Catholic faith, for which Protestants broke off in the 16th century.
Of course this perhaps is an exceptionally different agreement if the Beijing government is “evil,” as some argue in Hong Kong, and thus this agreement would also be evil.
We tend to believe however that the Church has an inclination for unsavory deals with unsavory characters; it all started with Jesus, who allowed the Romans to capture and crucify him rather than lead a rebellion against them, as Judas Iscariot would have liked. Why? Because, he said, “my kingdom is not of this earth.”
Unbelievers may or may not like it; we may find it outrageous and oleaginous, but that is what the Church is. People don’t like it? They are welcome to criticize it (as they do) but the Church will do what it thinks is best.
The new bishops appointed by Beijing are undeserving, or have girlfriends? Everybody sins. The Pope has forgiven them, and it is now up to them not to sin again.
For Beijing, does everything have to do with politics? Yes, fortunately, because if it wanted to interfere in religious matters, there could be no agreement.
The motives of the agreement with the Vatican for China? Very simple: the Holy See is a super soft power, and China can’t be great without ties with this super soft power.
But then the deep crux of the matter is the Catholic people in China. Basically all dioceses are torn by feuds between factions, and there are not just two (official vs. underground). In one diocese, we counted five feuding factions (well beyond the easy good-bad divide).
The Catholics (who believe in forgiveness, mercy, and unity) are not such if there are these divisions, and there can be no conversion. A possible convert would be recruited into a faction. But someone goes to Church to look for spiritual answers, not to fight for or against a faction.
So there are few or no converts, and the Church can easily die, even without any intervention by the Chinese government (which certainly doesn’t make things easier).
The Catholic Church believes that the issue is not right or wrong (those were the Manicheans, Christians inspired by Zoroastrian beliefs). It is that when you quarrel with someone, you take a step back (turn the other cheek some also say) even if you are right—especially if you are right—because you want to keep and treasure unity with the other person. So bishops are supposed to do the same, at least according to Catholic logic.
Please, dear Cardinal, forgive us and pray for us.