Cardinal Joseph Zen, the most senior Roman Catholic figure in China, says he is deeply skeptical about a reputedly imminent agreement between Chinese leaders in Beijing and Pope Francis in the Vatican.

Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, told VOA he is most concerned about the possibility that a rapprochement between China and the Vatican will give China’s government a role in the nomination of Catholic bishops there.

A deal between the church and the communist government would be seen by many as a diplomatic coup for Pope Francis, after more than six decades of difficult relations with China. But it is feared such an agreement could carry with it a resolution in China’s favor of the highly controversial issue of selecting bishops.

Pope choice of bishops is key

Reports of an agreement between the church and the Chinese leadership have been building for months, but details of what that agreement might consist of are still unverified.

Zen, who retired in 2009, freely admits he is an outspoken opponent of China’s communist-dominated system of government. 

“In the present situation,” he told VOA, “I cannot see how there might be a good deal” to be struck between the Vatican and Beijing.

In earlier interviews, the 85-year-old senior cleric has spoken more pungently, telling Britain’s Guardian newspaper, for example, that giving Beijing’s secular authorities a role in choosing Catholic bishops would be a “surrender” by the Vatican, and that “the people sooner or later will see the bishops are puppets of the government and not really the shepherds of the flock.”

Zen, interviewed by telephone from Hong Kong, told VOA the only acceptable way to include Chinese authorities in the choosing of new bishops is “if nomination starts and ends with the pope.”

If Beijing accepts the primacy of the Vatican in ecclesiastical matters, Zen said, “there’s hope to have a good agreement. But if it begins with the government, it is not acceptable.”

Troubled church-state history

China expelled Catholic missionaries after the Communist Party took power in 1949 and broke relations with the Vatican in 1957. Since then, the government has allowed Catholics to practice only in churches overseen by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, an official organization staffed in part by communist officials.

“Patriotic Catholics” do not recognize the pope’s authority in the appointment of bishops or other church matters, despite Catholic doctrine that requires bishops to be named and appointed by the Vatican. Bishops in China are, in effect, appointed by the government.

That dilemma prompted many Chinese Catholics loyal to the pope to go underground years ago.

The Catholic News Agency reported that an agreement with China is a major effort of the current pope, and the highly charged issue of which entity will have greater say in appointing bishops is central to talks that have been under way for months. Those talks hit a bump in December, however, when a bishop supported by the Beijing government but not approved by the Vatican ordained a new group of senior Chinese clerics.

The current leader of the Hong Kong diocese, Cardinal John Tong, wrote in his diocesan newspaper three weeks ago that if Beijing and the Holy See agree that both sides have a role in appointing bishops, Chinese Catholics will have “essential freedom” but lack “entire freedom.”

‘Genuine or fake freedom’?

Zen likened this stance to elections in Hong Kong, where voters want universal suffrage and the right to directly nominate candidates for the former British territory’s chief executive. China insisted that candidates would not be chosen by a popular vote, but rather picked by a pro-Beijing committee. 

“It is the question of genuine or fake freedom, not the question of full or partial freedom,” Zen told VOA.

Zen said he believes Catholics who remain loyal to the pope and who have long worshiped underground are concerned that the Vatican may abandon them. 

“If there’s a bad agreement, the underground believers, and even some priests and believers belonging to the official church in China would feel that they have been betrayed … because they have suffered for so long just for being loyal to the Roman Church and the Holy See.”

To Zen, the key issue in China-Vatican relations centers on whether Beijing is willing to relinquish control of religious affairs.

“The government is going to control the church, which is a big problem,” he said. “The government has no plan, or will, to give up control over the church. They have been doing so for so many years, so how can they let it go? There’s absolutely no reason, right?

“The most important thing for the Communist Party is to control,” he said. “You can only do what the party allows you to do.”

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