HONG KONG—As a priest in the 1980s,
helped revive links between the Vatican and Catholics in China after decades of religious repression by the Communist government. Now, the retired, octogenarian cardinal is trying to block
Cardinal Zen calls a Vatican plan to recognize seven bishops appointed by Beijing a betrayal to Chinese Catholics who have refused to recognize the authority of government-backed church organizations and faced persecution for their participation in “underground” communities loyal to the pope.
“You are telling them, ‘You are stupid for being loyal for so many years. Now surrender,’” Cardinal Zen said in an interview in the Hong Kong seminary he joined seven decades ago.
Vatican officials and Chinese supporters of the plan say healing the 70-year-old rift with Beijing is a way to bring together China’s state-backed and unauthorized church communities.
Pope Francis’ recognition of the excommunicated bishops would open the way for an already-negotiated agreement with Beijing to give him the right to veto its future appointments.
Cardinal Zen, 86 years old, lives and keeps a paper-filled office in the Salesian House of Studies, an airy, four-story neoclassical building perched on a steep slope on the east side of Hong Kong island.
His blog posts, interviews and a personal appeal in Rome last month to oppose bowing to Beijing on Chinese bishops have put the Vatican on the defensive and stoked debate in Catholic communities in Asia about compromising with an authoritarian government.
He ramped up his opposition to the plan after Vatican officials in December asked two underground bishops to cede authority to two Beijing appointees.
“They are appointing bad people to be the shepherds of the flocks. How can you do that?” he said in the interview, closing his eyes and shaking his fists. “You’re putting wolves before your flock, and they are going to make a massacre.”
Cardinal Zen says the Vatican risks making the same mistake with China as it did in compromising with Communist regimes in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. His critics call his fierce anti-Communist stance a relic of the past.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal
in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa last month, said repairing ties with Beijing would help all Catholics in China to be in communion with each other and the pope.
Cardinal Zen once shared that view. In the 1980s, after Pope
John Paul II
called for building bridges to Catholics in China recovering from persecution under Mao, Cardinal Zen forged ties with the government-backed church community, teaching in official seminaries.
At the time, he was optimistic for an acceptable compromise. Under Pope John Paul’s successor, Pope
—who elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 2006—Cardinal Zen tried to negotiate the long-sought breakthrough with Beijing.
He thought the two government-run organizations overseeing China’s Catholics could be modified to become acceptable to the Vatican. He later became convinced that Beijing wouldn’t allow it.
“I had been one of the very first to plead with the Vatican on behalf of the aboveground church,” he wrote on his blog in February 2012.
By then, he was disillusioned, having reached the conclusion that Beijing was unwilling to cede any meaningful authority to the Vatican, a view he still holds.
“The atheist government absolutely did not change its policy of total control of religion,” he wrote at the time.
The last time the Vatican appeared close to a deal with Beijing, in 2016, Cardinal Zen said it would be better to pray alone than join churches that take their orders from Beijing.
“You can pray at home,” he wrote. “Even if you can’t be a priest anymore, you can go home and plow the fields. A priest is always a priest.”
Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zen Ze-kiun grew up during the Chinese Civil War and left shortly before the Communist victory and the beginning of Mao’s 27-year rule. He arrived alone in Hong Kong to join the Catholic Salesian order in 1948.
Taking contentious stands became a familiar role. His fellow Salesians dubbed him “tiger” for his sharp tongue, according to longtime acquaintances.
After his appointment by Pope John Paul II as assistant and designated successor to the bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, shortly before the British colony’s handover to Chinese rule, he urged people to defend their civil liberties against its new rulers in Beijing.
At 79, he held a three-day hunger strike to show his disapproval of new Hong Kong government oversight of Catholic schools.
“The reason why I am talking so much,” he wrote on Feb. 5 on his blog, “is because I’m afraid pretty soon I won’t be able to talk anymore.”
Write to Eva Dou at [email protected]