The redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen has denounced proponents of an “imminent” accord between China and the Vatican, saying that the Church is setting itself up for a major disaster.
The present historical reality we face in China is that of “a tiny flock being persecuted by a gigantic atheist power,” Zen said in a March 19 essay, and a Vatican capitulation to the terms of President Xi Jinping is the equivalent of “surrender,” something the Church has no reason to do.
“Why surrender?” Zen asks. “Doesn’t the Vatican see that many churches survive in the underground community, such as in Hebei and Fujian?”
“Doesn’t the Vatican know that in cities like Shanghai, many priests celebrate Sunday Mass in private homes for their faithful? There is still a certain degree of freedom for the ‘birds outside the cage.’ But now things are going to change. The Vatican is coming to help the Government to push everybody into the cage,” he added.
In his essay, Cardinal Zen was responding to several recent articles critical of his position and supportive of full integration with the government-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a church set up by the communist party in 1957 as an alternative to the Church of Rome.
In one of those articles, Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian missionary priest and advisor to the Vatican, wrote that if the Vatican signs an agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops, “then 2018 may become the ‘Year of Truth’ for the Church in China.”
The signing of an agreement would be a “blessing” for the Catholic faithful in China, Fr. Heyndrickx asserts, “because it will enable them to openly celebrate their faith in one community,” something that is “crucial” for all Christians.
In his article, the priest criticizes “Catholic experts” who have expressed reservations regarding the pact, especially the claim (which Cardinal Zen has often repeated) “that the Vatican does not know China from the inside.”
These critics have the situation backward, Heyndrickx claims, since Vatican experts have “visited China personally several times,” they have met with Chinese bishops “both official and nonofficial,” and they have “discussed problems personally with civil authorities.”
“There is no other place in the whole Universal Church — not even in Asia — where more information on the real situation of the Church in China can be found” than in the Vatican, he states, adding that “nobody is better informed on the Church in China than the Pope.”
The problem with Fr. Heyndrickx’s assertion is that recent statements made by the pope and his closest co-workers suggest that their knowledge of the situation of the Church in China may not be as comprehensive as he thinks.
Last year, Pope Francis publicly defended Communist China’s practice of religious liberty, insisting that in China churches are full and religion is freely practiced, an assertion contradicted by reports by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as well as Christian persecution watchdog groups.
“In China the churches are full,” Francis insisted. “You can practice your faith in China.”
In its most recent annual report, however, the USCIRF once again designated China as a “country of particular concern,” noting that the Chinese government is guilty of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
“As the Chinese government aggressively asserts itself on the global stage, at home it aggressively violates the human rights and religious freedom of its citizens,” said USCIRF Chairman Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
The pope is not alone in his seemingly naïve assessment of life in China. The chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, fellow Argentinean Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, shares the pontiff’s rosy outlook on Chinese society, and recently declared that China provides the best model of a country that implements Catholic social teaching.
The Chinese “look for the common good and subordinate other things to the general welfare,” Sánchez insisted.
“You don’t have shantytowns, you don’t have drugs, young people do not take drugs. There is like a positive national consciousness, they want to show that they have changed, and now they accept private property,” he said.
In his essay, Cardinal Zen said he could not help reacting to Fr. Heyndrickx’s “pathetic sermon,” referring to him derisively as the “Godfather” of China experts.
Saying that 2018 could be “the year of truth” for Chinese Catholics is ironic, the cardinal notes, since the truth is on very short supply in China.
“The truth doesn’t enjoy good health or high esteem nowadays in China,” Zen wrote. “Everything is fake, from food to medicine. You are not expected to tell the truth, just say what the boss wants to hear.”
As for the signing of the agreement being a “blessing” because it will enable the Catholic faithful in China “to openly celebrate their faith in one community,” Zen is not convinced.
“Where? In a church registered with the Patriotic Association, under surveillance cameras, listening to a priest preaching the latest instruction from the reigning President-Emperor?!” Zen wrote.
“Surely this is not a normal way to profess the faith, as it is done in any Catholic church in the world!” he added.
“Fr. Heyndrickx has learned a lot from the Chinese, who are masters of word play,” Zen said. “Beautiful words: ‘To openly celebrate their faith in one community,’ and ‘restoring church unity and normalization in China.’”
“The Reality is this,” Zen concludes. “People who for years, bearing all sorts of discrimination and harassment, kept their loyalty to the true faith under the authority of the Pope, are now forced by the Vatican into the same ‘prison,’ led by Government officials dressed up as ministers of God.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome