In an interview Wednesday with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Emeritus Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun accused the Vatican of being naïve in its dialogue with Beijing, saying that the Church is preparing to give away too much. “Italians in the Roman Curia don’t know the Chinese dictatorship,” he said, “because they have never experienced a Communist regime.”
“I always trusted [Vatican Secretary of State] Parolin,” he added, “until I found out that he too was in favor of an agreement, which at this stage would only be unconditional surrender.”
The 83-year-old Zen is a something of a folk hero to Chinese Catholics, for his outspoken support of the underground Church and willingness to stand up to the Communist leadership. He was bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, and was made a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006
Zen’s comments follow on Tuesday’s news that Beijing had formally reached out to the Vatican Secretary of State, asking for dialogue with Pope Francis in an effort to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two states, which were broken off in 1951.
“Beijing doesn’t want to dialogue,” said Zen. “Their delegates put a document on the table to sign and our people don’t have the ability or the strength to make different proposals. Do we want to sacrifice the nomination and consecration of Bishops for a bogus dialogue?”
According to reports, the Chinese proposal would allow the Holy See to choose between two candidates for bishop proposed by the administration for religious affairs in Beijing.
Last November Beijing leaked to the press a new willingness to offer a compromise in the contentious issue of how Catholic bishops are appointed in China, which represented an important departure from Beijing’s hardline position of “no interference” from the Vatican in religious affairs as a condition for relations.
On February 18, 2014, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei had said that “China is willing to develop relations with the Vatican if the Vatican severs its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and refrains from interfering in China’s internal affairs… particularly the interference in the name of religion.”
In Wednesday’s interview, Zen noted that the Chinese still have two very elderly bishops in prison, one of whom is rumored to be dead, a rumor that the government has refused to address.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Chinese government “continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” When the commission released its 2014 Annual Report, it once again recommended that China be designated as a “country of particular concern,” based on what it termed “systematic, egregious, ongoing abuses.”
The US Commission also found that since 2011, “more than 100 human rights defenders from China, many of whom often work on religious freedom cases, were forcibly disappeared, tortured, detained, stripped of legal licenses, or sentenced to prison terms.”
Zen also criticized the Pope’s decision not to receive the Dalai Lama in January so as not to ruffle Chinese sensibilities.
The move was a big mistake, said Zen, and “just shows fear.” According to the Cardinal, “when the Communists see that you’re afraid they crush you.”
A better approach, said Zen, would be “to encourage our persecuted in China to be brave. Those in Rome who are anxious to succeed at all costs are moving toward a compromise that is really an unconditional surrender, exactly what Beijing wants,” he said.
“We should beat our fists on the table,” said Zen, “and strengthen our Catholic Church and our clergy in China, because regime officials are afraid when we show unity, they are terrified by the prospect of having problems with their superiors, because every political leader in China is both emperor and slave who can crush those beneath him but fears those above.”
Zen said that the curial representatives dealing with Beijing are in over their heads, and likely to make big mistakes.
“Those carrying on discussions on behalf of the Curia don’t even know who the Chinese representatives in front of them are: men of former president Jiang Zemin or chosen by Xi Jinping?” he said.
On the other hand, “the Chinese delegates,” said Zen, “are like a broken record: always repeating the same speech and demanding a signature.”
Zen says he met with Pope Francis for a 45-minute face-to-face conversation, and joked that the Pope calls him “the man who fights with a sling,” alluding to the biblical character of David, who slew the Philistine giant Goliath by hurling a stone at him with a sling.
The Pope “showed complete confidence with me,” Zen said. “The Pope is not a naive, in these conditions he will not give in.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.