Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong, addresses a rally outside government headquarters in Hong Kong in 2014. CNS photo/Liau Chung-ren, Reuters

Opinion: Cardinal Joseph Zen is a voice for China’s Catholics

  • February 17, 2017

Recent developments regarding the Catholic Church in China brought to mind the Canadian visit of the Chinese Church’s most outspoken pastor in 2013.

Four years ago I had the honour of hosting Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong, in both Toronto and Kingston. I had invited him because of my admiration for his courage in defending the religious liberty of Chinese Catholics against the regime in Beijing, and because I thought it was good for Canadian Catholics to learn about the pressures facing the Church in China.

That he accepted my invitation was something of a surprise. We had only ever met in passing and had no relationship. He was retired as bishop, and already over 80. He still taught in the seminary and kept very active, so a trans-Pacific trip was not easy to work into his schedule. When word came that he would come, I was delighted and also surprised.

He explained his decision in Kingston, where he addressed our annual St. John Fisher Dinner, a fundraiser in support of the missionaries of Catholic Christian Outreach and their work on campus at Queen’s.

“Why does an 80-year-old man travel half way across the world to come here?” he asked. “When I got the invitation, I knew I must come. I did not know anything about your work here, but I had to come to a dinner named after St. John Fisher. We need his example today. We need many bishops like St. John Fisher.”

St. John Fisher was the only one of the English bishops to resist King Henry VIII when the latter made himself head of the Church in England. The king imprisoned Fisher in the Tower of London for his refusal to acknowledge the king’s claimed authority over the Church. Pope Paul III created Fisher a cardinal in May 1535, hoping that the honour would persuade Henry to release Fisher. Henry famously remarked that there would be no need to send the red hat to England for Fisher; he could as easily send Fisher’s head to Rome.

Cardinal Fisher was beheaded by Henry on June 22, 1535; Thomas More’s execution followed on July 6.

Cardinal Zen’s admiration for St. John Fisher is easy to understand. The Chinese communist regime will grant Catholics the ability to practice the faith freely only on the condition that they belong to the “Patriotic Association”, a government bureau of religion, and do not acknowledge the full authority of the Holy Father over the Catholic Church in China.

During his visit to Canada in 2013, Cardinal Zen was openly critical of the most senior Vatican officials for their naïveté about the Chinese regime. He claimed that in seeking a modus vivendi with the regime in Beijing, they would be forced into betraying those Catholics in China who had remained faithful, at great cost, to their communion with the Holy Father. Cardinal Zen has maintained that no deal should be made with Beijing unless there is a change of position, allowing full religious liberty, or there is a change of regime.

But recent developments seem to indicate that Cardinal Zen has lost that argument. His successor in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Tong Hon, wrote last week that negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing are drawing close to a conclusion.

“The dialogue between China and the Holy See implies that changes have already taken place in Beijing’s policy on the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Tong wrote in the Hong Kong diocese’s Sunday Examiner. “It will now let the Pope play a role in the nomination and ordination of Chinese bishops. Beijing will also recognize the Pope’s right of veto and that the Pope is the highest and final authority in deciding on candidates for bishops in China.”

Cardinal Tong thus appears to confirm that a proposed arrangement will allow the Chinese regime to choose future bishops, with the Holy See possessing a veto. Cardinal Zen has denounced such an arrangement as giving too much power to the government over the Church.

Cardinal Zen’s assessments no longer carry the day in Rome. In a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Pope Francis said appreciatively that “in China the churches are full … one can practise religion in China.”

The Holy Father is right; churches in China are full. Yet the “practice of religion” is limited to what the government will permit. And it does not permit full Catholic practice.

Just last year the Vatican acknowledged the death of five bishops from China who served time in prison or labour camps, either dying there or after their release from the toll taken on their health. International observers share a consensus that Chinese religious freedom is getting worse, not better, in recent years.

Cardinal Zen is not as lonely a voice as was St. John Fisher in 1535. But he is not carrying the day in Rome. Which makes it all the more important that we hear his voice in Canada, as we did four years ago.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ont.)

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