Vatican intervention in China bishop appointments ‘bad deal’

Vatican intervention in China bishop appointments ‘bad deal’ Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong
Charles Collins


A Chinese cardinal is warning that an alleged Vatican request to underground bishops to resign in favour of bishops belonging to the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association would “be giving the blessing on the new strengthened schismatic Church”.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 86-year-old retired Bishop of Hong Kong, wrote an open letter on Facebook responding to a story published in AsiaNews stating Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a long time Vatican diplomat, requested that two underground bishops recognised by the Vatican resign their positions in favour of their state-sanctioned counterparts.

The two bishops being asked to step aside are 88-year-old Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou in southern Guangdong province and 70-year-old Jospeh Guo Xijin of Mindong in Fujian Province. The two state-backed bishops – who were excommunicated when they were consecrated illicitly – are Bishop Huang Bingzhang and Vincent Zhan Silu.

According to the report, Zhuang was in tears when the request was made, and Guo was told signing the document was a condition of his release from detention.


In his Facebook post, Zen said “many different versions of the facts and interpretations are creating confusion among the people. Many, knowing of my recent trip to Rome, are asking me for some clarification.”

Zen said he asked Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, the former secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and now Vatican ambassador to Greece, to speak to Pope Francis about the case in October, and stated the Pontiff was “surprised and promised to look into the matter”.

“Given the words of the Holy Father to Archbishop Savio Hon, the new facts in December were all the more a shocking surprise to me,” Zen wrote.

The cardinal said he had a private meeting with the Pope on January 12, and the Pontiff assured him he told Vatican officials “not to create another Mindszenty case”.

Cadinal József Mindszenty was a Hungarian archbishop imprisoned by the Communist government from 1949-1956. During the short-lived Hungarian revolution, he escaped to the US embassy in Budapest, where he lived for 15 years. In 1971, he was allowed to leave the country, and died in exile in Vienna four years later.

“I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China. His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me,” Zen said.

“Please, notice that the problem is not the resignation of the legitimate Bishops, but the request to make place for the illegitimate and even excommunicated ones,” Zen wrote. “Many old underground Bishops, though the retirement age law has never been enforced in China, have insistently asked for a successor, but have never received any answer from the Holy See. Some others, who have a successor already named, may be even already in possession of the Bulla signed by the Holy Father, were ordered not to proceed with the ordination for fear of offending the Government.”


The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association was established by the Communist government in 1957 to oversee Catholic churches independent of the Vatican. An underground Church loyal to the Pope exists parallel to the state-sanctioned entity.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a landmark letter in which he said full reconciliation “cannot be accomplished overnight”, but added that “for the Church to live underground is not a normal situation”. The letter said there was only one Catholic Church in China and encouraged unity in their profession of Faith, granting some validity to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and permission for Catholics to participate in the official Church.

On occasion, the two sides have mutually agreed on individual bishop appointments, however, current President Xi Jinping has made efforts to re-assert government control of religion in the country. Late last year, the Communist Party revised its ‘Regulations on Religious Affairs’, which will be implemented February 1, and it calls for greater ‘Sinicisation’ of Chinese Christians.

“I acknowledge myself as a pessimist regarding the present situation of the Church in China, but my pessimism has a foundation in my long direct experience of the Church in China,” Zen wrote in his Facebook post.

“From 1989 to 1996 I used to spend six months a year teaching in the various Seminaries of the official Catholic community. I had direct experience of the slavery and humiliation to which those our brother Bishops are subjected.”

Zen served as Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002-2009. The former British colony has religious freedom as part of the agreement with Britain leading up to the transfer of the territory to China.

The cardinal is considered one of the leading proponents of taking a hardline approach with the Communist government in China, as opposed to seeking an accommodation with the regime.

Those seeking accommodation seem to have the upper hand in the Vatican’s Secretary of State, which has been trying to resolve this issues with China, including the appointment of bishops, freedom of worship, the regularisation of the state-sponsored Church, and the establishment of diplomatic relations (currently, the Vatican has relations with the ‘Republic of China’ on Taiwan).

Zen previously said he thought Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin had a “poisoned mind” on China and is more interested in diplomacy than he is the Catholic faith.

In his Facebook post, Zen reiterated his stance, saying the Vatican is “selling out” the Catholic Church in China.

“Some say that all the efforts to reach an agreement is to avoid the ecclesial schism. How ridiculous! The schism is there, in the Independent Church!” Zen wrote.

“The Popes avoided using the word ‘schism’ because they knew that many in the official Catholic community were there not by their own free will, but under heavy pressure. The proposed ‘unification’ would force everybody into that community. The Vatican would be giving the blessing on the new strengthened schismatic Church, taking away the bad conscience from all those who are already willing renegades and those others who would readily join them,” he continued.

Zen also acknowledged his public criticism of the Communist Party and the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts are causing problems in the healing of the rift between the two sides.

“Am I the major obstacle in the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China? If that is a bad deal, I would be more than happy to be the obstacle,” the cardinal said.