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A Tale of Two Churches


Alton Pelowski

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong holds a news conference in 2007 regarding Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to Catholics in mainland China.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was born in Shanghai in 1932 and moved to Hong Kong 16 years later at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Free from Communist rule, Zen entered the Salesians and was ordained to the priesthood at age 29. He later taught at seminaries in China for seven years, before being named the coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Ten years later, Pope Benedict XVI elevated him to the College of Cardinals.

Although retired since 2009, Cardinal Zen continues to be a strong advocate of democratic reform and religious liberty, most recently undergoing a three-day hunger strike in October in protest of a court decision that threatens the autonomy of Catholic schools in Hong Kong. Of particular concern to the cardinal is the ongoing conflict between the Holy See and the government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. In November 2010, for the first time in four years, the Chinese government carried out the ordination of a bishop without the Vatican’s approval. Subsequent illicit ordinations followed in June and July of this year.

To help educate people about the conflict, Cardinal Zen traveled to the United States over the summer to meet with bishops, politicians, media and Chinese Catholic communities. During his visit to New York City, the cardinal met with Columbia’s managing editor, Alton J. Pelowski, and encouraged the Knights of Columbus to become more informed about and to pray for the Catholic Church in China.

Columbia: What events have led to the current situation of the Catholic Church in China?

Cardinal Zen: The Communist regime, from the very beginning, tried to separate the Church from Rome. Many Catholics said, “No. The Church is one, and unless we are with the pope, then we are not Catholics.” The Catholics who said this were all put in prisons or labor camps. Others, however, thought they had to compromise, and they accepted control by the government. After a few years, even those who accepted compromise were put in prisons and labor camps, such that the Church disappeared completely during the Cultural Revolution.

At the end of the revolution in the 1970s, the prisoners finished their sentences. You can understand that those who chose not to obey the government had no reason to change their position, so they went “underground.” But others were called back to run the churches, which were reopened, resulting in two communities.

The “official” — or “aboveground” — church was completely dominated by a Patriotic Association established by the Chinese government. Between each diocese, the situation may be very different. A bishop may still have some authority, but at the national level there is no other authority than the Patriotic Association.

Columbia: How many Catholics are there in China today?

Cardinal Zen: We don’t know the exact figure, but surely the figure presented by the government does not correspond to reality. They always say five million, but it must be at least twice that amount, with more in the underground.

Columbia: How has the Vatican approached this complicated situation?

Cardinal Zen: In the Holy See, two departments take care of the Church in China. One is the Secretary of State, which includes the foreign affairs of the Holy See. The other is the Congregation for Evangelization.

In the 1980s, after the Cultural Revolution ended, the Secretary of State was more favorable to the aboveground church, while the Congregation for Evangelization favored the underground community. Little by little, with more information, it became clear that it was not fair to distinguish between these two parts as absolutely opposed to each other. With more context, those who were more favorable to the aboveground church realized that the situation was not good, because bishops were not free. And the others realized that many of those in the official community were in their hearts loyal to the Church. So, the two departments came to a very good accord in their understanding and their strategy.

The Holy See also started a very generous policy toward the aboveground church. When the bishops ordained illicitly asked for legitimization, or when the newly-elected young bishops asked for approval before ordination, the Holy See, after due investigation and consultation with the underground bishops, many times granted such legitimization and approval.

But in 2000, something very sad happened. At the beginning of the year there was an ordination of illegitimate bishops. They planned to have 12 bishops, but only five showed up. And then in September of that year, there was a very harsh campaign against the canonization of the martyrs in China.

In the years that followed, some illegitimate bishops were perhaps legitimized too easily. During those years, the underground church received very few new bishops, but in the aboveground church, there were many with the approval of the Holy See. … In 2010, there were many ordinations with mutual consent of the Holy See and the Chinese government. Some people were very happy to see that, but I was rather suspicious. …

I am afraid that there was too much compromise. In fact, the Holy Father has called Chinese bishops who chose to be more on the side of the government than the Church “opportunists,” because of the money or social position they received. … The situation became very bad. The government was very happy because they knew they could do anything, ordaining bishops with the condition that sooner or later they will be legitimized.

There is now a new prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization. He worked for many years recently in Hong Kong, so he knows the situation very well. And the new secretary of the congregation is Chinese. He has also been to China to teach in the seminaries and has lived many years in Hong Kong. But now it’s very difficult to change the situation, because the government will not accept defeat. The government knows there is a different attitude now — you might call it the “hard position” — and they want to challenge that. The most recent illegitimate ordinations are more serious than before because the position of the Holy See is now very clear with the sanctions of canon law. So, I say that before getting better, it may get worse.

Columbia: What effect have these ordinations in the past year had on unity in the Church and the potential for dialogue?

Cardinal Zen: It’s very sad and it’s very dangerous, because the government brings legitimate bishops to ordain illegitimate bishops, and according to canon law, even those ordaining bishops will be excommunicated. Now, there must be a dozen such bishops, which means a dozen dioceses are paralyzed with their bishops excommunicated.

I hope they are not able to carry out many more such ordinations. Otherwise, it will be a real disaster, and I hope those bishops who took part really reflect on the seriousness of the situation. I don’t know how they can submit to the government after the clear statement from the Holy See. The sad thing is that half of them are forced to go, but half of them are very willing to go. I think in this moment the Holy See must keep firm. Otherwise, it will become a schismatic church.

A man prays during Mass at a Catholic church on the outskirts of Changzhi, China.

Columbia: What would happen if a Chinese bishop were to speak out against the Patriotic Association?

Cardinal Zen: That’s a very important question. Before, they would kill him. They would put him in prison. Now, an official bishop would surely not be put in prison. They may limit his freedom. They may punish him financially or do something nasty. There are harsh consequences, but not as harsh as before — especially if several bishops stand up together, there is some hope that the government will listen.

Now even scholars, not Catholics, are saying something very daring. One Chinese professor, in an annual report on religion, argued that the Communist regime has gone too far. She said that the Catholic Church in China must constantly justify itself to the world because it is so different from the Church everywhere else. Let it be like the rest of the world, with the bishops leading the Church.

Columbia: What is the significance of Pope Benedict’s 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics?

Cardinal Zen: The letter is a masterpiece because its principles are clear: The Church is one. The Church is apostolic. The Church must be guided by the bishops. And in China, it is not. So this situation is wrong.

In his messages about China, the Holy Father is always very careful and concise in his expressions. You must read them carefully. He mentions several times: “courage,” “loyalty,” “fidelity.” I think this is important.

The letter unfortunately could not have its full effect, however, because a distorted interpretation was given — claiming that everybody should come into the open so that the underground church would disappear. The manipulated translation was changed, but only after two years. What the Holy Father actually said is that it is almost always impossible for the underground to come out into the open, because the government would impose unacceptable conditions.

On the first day of publication, the letter appeared on the Internet so everybody in China could download it. Some people copied and distributed it. But on the second day, the government closed the website. People were very happy to receive that letter, but it was also to be expected that there were many discussions and interpretations. And the most dangerous is the one saying that the underground should come into the open.

Underground, the people are not afraid of persecution or even of martyrdom. But some are frustrated and afraid that the Holy See may be telling them, “You are wrong. You have been wrong all this time. Why don’t you compromise?”

Columbia: What has been the everyday experience of Catholics who have chosen to practice their faith clandestinely or “underground,” rather than cooperate with the state-sponsored church?

Cardinal Zen: Many of the faithful simply don’t understand such complicated problems about illicit ordinations. They just go to church. They are happy that churches are open. They are happy that there are Masses.

But then there are many others who care for clarity. So now it’s a moment where the faithful are organizing themselves to defend the Church, and the priests are helping the bishops to be wiser.

In July, the bishop of Shenyang was ordered to perform an illicit ordination, and his priests surrounded him and did not allow him to go. They came back to the cathedral with all the faithful, and prayed with the Blessed Sacrament exposed. Police surrounded the cathedral, but they didn’t dare arrest the bishop. So now it’s the people power. We rely on the faithful.

Columbia: Is the aboveground church also oppressed by the government?

Cardinal Zen: The bishops are kept as slaves — they have no authority. That’s persecution! When Archbishop Anthony Li Duan [of Xian] — a holy and wonderful man — was vice chairman of the Patriotic Association and chairman of the bishops’ conference, I asked him, “When will the next meeting of the bishops’ conference be?” And he laughed. He said, “Oh, Father, you believe we have meetings? We meet together only when the government calls us to give us instruction. But we have no say at all!” That’s the situation. …

The government wants to control everything. You can’t do anything if you don’t let yourself be controlled by them. They even give you money, provided they can control you. That’s the Communist Party.

Columbia: What needs to take place for there to be authentic dialogue and movement towards unity?

Cardinal Zen: When talking about unity, I always try to make a distinction. … When the Holy Father talks about reconciliation, it must be about reconciliation of hearts, of spirits. So, the underground church should not say that all the people in the aboveground church are devils. They are not. Many are good people. And the aboveground church should not say that the underground is full of troublemakers. No. They are in the correct position — they are loyal to the Holy Father. So let them approach each other to be reconciled.

But can you demand that the underground go into the open to surrender themselves to the government? No. So, real unity is not yet possible because the government will not accept change. For now, it is working in hearts for reconciliation, for mutual understanding.