Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, who at 90 was recently arrested by Chinese authorities for collaborating with foreign forces. Photo by Michael Swan

Cardinal Zen a martyr for democratic, Catholic ideal

  • May 18, 2022

I’ve spoken to Cardinal Joseph Zen a couple of times. He’s a difficult interview — hard headed, spoiling for a fight and rather in love with his own opinions.

He’s right about many things. He’s right when he proclaims the essential Asianness of the Gospel. He’s right when he speaks of a desperate and immediate need in China for a set of values untethered to the materialism of Asia’s win-at-all-costs capitalism, or the materialism of a cynical form of Marxism bizarrely twinned with bigotted nationalism.

He’s wrong about some things, too. He’s wrong about the Vatican’s deal with Beijing — negotiated over many years, beginning under Pope John Paul II, picking up steam under Pope Benedict XVI and then finally confirmed under Pope Francis.

Zen doesn’t like the deal, but never answers the question about how else Chinese Catholics are to be provided with bishops without dividing the Church.

After declaring a People’s Republic in 1949, it took a couple of years for the young government of Mao Zedong to get around to whatever was going on in Catholic China. It was a foreign world to them. What they discovered was that the King of Portugal formally had the right to appoint bishops in China. The Portuguese hadn’t had a king since 1932, so the Holy See had taken on the job until such time as the Portuguese might acquire another king.

The young Communists who had endured the long march (9,000 kilometres over more than a year) to take their country back from foreign influence and corruption weren’t going to stand for foreign and reactionary forces appointing mostly foreign leaders to powerful, important posts in their country. If there were to be Catholic leaders in China they would be Chinese and chosen by Chinese and their allegiance would be to China — not some spiritual monarch on the other side of the globe.

For a year I taught the children and grandchildren of those Chinese revolutionaries who didn’t quite get the Catholic Church. The university where I taught just outside Chongqing had been built by idealistic, intelligent and very determined young people who in the 1950s organized classes under the trees in the morning, then spent their afternoons cutting stones, mixing cement and building their university. At night they studied, they argued, they dreamed of a better China, a new society.

That spirit was very much alive when I arrived in 1994. Members of the Communist Party I dealt with were not mafia dons and political power brokers plotting their rise to dominance over the people. They may have played politics. They may have sometimes said things they didn’t really believe. They may have cultivated alliances and promoted their interests. They were just like our politicians.

But they also believed in something. They knew the degrading, grinding poverty China was emerging from. They knew how the British Empire, the Japanese Empire and American capitalism had stolen the wealth of a great people with 5,000 years of civilization behind them. They believed in a better world — right here, right now, beginning with the peasants who had for too many generations lived a ghost of a life for 40 or 50 years until they were buried in the soil they worked, beneath next year’s crop.

Intelligent, grounded in their own history, idealistic and ambitious for their people, China’s communists are not to be underestimated.

So when the Chinese Communist Party reaches out and arrests a 90-year-old man who no longer holds any effective office in the Church, it’s not the mistake of a gang of dumb thugs. They’ve arrested Zen for collaborating with foreign forces. And they’re right.

The problem is not that Zen occasionally attracts donations from rich Americans. China currently owns more than $1 trillion in American debt. They’re not afraid of the yankee dollar.

The foreign force Zen collaborates with is democracy. It’s that set of ideals that says the dignity of human beings is the product of freedom — freedom we exercise together and for each other. This dignity found in freedom is not created out of the will of an economic system or a state that seeks to shape that system. Nor is it mere individuals indulging their wills. It is in what we speak and think and believe and share with and among each other. Democracy is a social force that builds a new reality, beginning at the cellular level of our identity. It is who we are and who we aspire to be.

What could be more dangerous to an authoritarian system?

Ever more in love with control, the Communist Party of Xi Jinping cannot abide democracy and cannot abide this hard-headed old man who proclaims that China needs new ideals. With an Asian instinct for narrative faith, Zen knows that when Jesus told His followers to abide in Him as He abides in His father, the anointed one was proclaiming a new society — a new way of being human, deeply connected to each other and to God by our freedom.

Zen was a martyr for this ideal — a democratic ideal, a spiritual ideal and a Catholic ideal — long before his arrest. We must see his witness for what it is and pray for China.

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