Cardinal Zen: Pope John Paul Believed in ‘Forceful’ Resistance to Communism

Polish religious leader Pope John Paul II stands with arm upraised during a visit to England, in Coventry, Warwickshire, May 1982. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty

ROME — The redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen has denied assertions that Pope John Paul II would have approved of the Vatican’s new conciliatory approach to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

On Monday, Cardinal Zen published an open letter to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the Dean of the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, denying the latter’s allegations that the Holy See’s current strategy with the CCP is in continuity with that of Francis’s predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

His letter came in response to a February 26 letter from Cardinal Re to all his brother cardinals, which has been interpreted as a call to “isolate Cardinal Zen.”

Veteran Vatican journalist Riccardo Cascioli wrote that Cardinal Re’s letter constitutes “a fierce and unprecedented frontal attack” against the 88-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who has been an “intrepid opponent of the secret agreement between China and the Holy See.”

In his brief response, Cardinal Zen suggests that the new Dean, who was named to the post by Pope Francis on January 18, is out of his depth in his analysis of Vatican-China relations.

“I admire your courage in venturing into problems you yourself acknowledge to be complex, thus, risking the prestige of your newly inaugurated high office,” Zen wryly declares.

The crux of Zen’s response is that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI believed that the only effective way to deal with Communism was through strength, not naïve accommodation.

Citing the 2017 book Last Testament: In His Own Words, a transcribed interview between Pope Benedict and German journalist Peter Seewald, Zen noted that both Benedict and John Paul concurred that the conciliatory approach of Pope Paul VI and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, had been “a failure.”

“The new line pursued by John Paul II was fruit of his own personal experience, living under that regime,” Benedict states, in reference to his predecessor’s experience under Communism in his native Poland.

“Obviously, nobody could expect the Communism (in Europe) to collapse so soon. But anyway, instead of being conciliatory and accepting compromises, it was necessary to resist it forcefully,” Benedict said.

“This was the fundamental vision of John Paul II which I shared,” he concludes.

Cardinal Zen employs this evidence to suggest that neither Benedict not John Paul would have approved of handing over any authority in the naming of Catholic bishops to the Communist Party.

Zen also takes issue with Re’s claim that the meaning of the word “independence” when referring to the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association has fundamentally changed.

I am afraid this epochal change “might exist only in the head of the Most Eminent Secretary of State,” Zen proposes, “maybe caused by an erroneous translation from Chinese.”

“What I have to say is: the facts are there for everybody to see,” Cardinal Zen concludes.

“I have strong evidence to believe that Parolin is manipulating the Holy Father,” he adds, in reference to the Vatican’s current Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

As a useful invocation for these times, Cardinal Zen proposes the prayer for the pope “Oremus pro Pontifice,” which concludes with “et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum ejus” (“and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies”).

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