Vatican-China deal would create a ‘fake’ church, says Hong Kong cardinal, escalating war of words

A retired Hong Kong cardinal today persisted in his attacks of the Vatican’s efforts to strike a deal to normalize relations with China, saying that the agreement would create a “fake” church under Beijing’s authority.

Former Archbishop of Hong Kong Joseph Zen last month sparked a war of words with the Holy See, after accusing it of “selling out” Catholics in mainland China by seeking a deal with Beijing on the appointment of bishops.

He also revealed details of a meeting with Pope Francis in January, suggesting the Holy Father had been left in the dark by his collaborators negotiating with China.

This was refuted by the Vatican, which said it regretted people in the church creating “confusion and chaos.”

At a press conference today,  Cardinal Zen said he continued to believe the Pope was not informed of “the reality” of China’s suppression of followers of the Church and the merits of the reported deal.

The agreement would pave the way for the normalization of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing, almost 70 years after the communist party cut dies after coming to power.

But in their eagerness to succeed, Zen said Vatican negotiators were making a “mistake” that would leave people “worse” off. He called for the Vatican to walk away from the negotiations.

“In this moment, there is no reason to suspect there is much good will on the other side; they just want [the Vatican] to surrender,” he said.

“If you can’t get anything, why give up the little freedom you have and help the government oppress our own people,” he said.

Currently, China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are only legally permitted to worship at churches sanctioned by the government, which has jailed priests and ordained its own church hierarchy under the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, many of which are not recognized by Rome.

Many followers, however, attend a network of underground churches, led by bishops loyal to the Vatican.

According to a Reuters report in January, the deal under consideration would allow the Vatican to “have a say” in ordinating bishops in China. It would also, under a “gentleman’s agreement,” recognize several bishops already appointed by China.

As part of this, the Vatican has asked two underground bishops to step aside by the Vatican to make way for Beijing-appointed prelates. 

Zen — who had been in Rome in January to deliver a letter from one of two bishops —  called for the Vatican to walk away from the negotiations.

He said while mainland “underground” Catholics were oppressed, they were often “tolerated” by local authorities. 

He said he was “in the dark” about the specific details of the deal, but judging by what had been reported, he believed it would allow Beijing to propose ostensibly elected candidates for the Pope’s final approval.

And such an arrangement would be a sham, he said.

“It’s all fake,” he said. “It’s the government who will decide who will be the bishop…they’re not going to make a good choice for the church, they are interested in politics. They choose the one they prefer, that means the one who always obey to the government.”


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