When Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old former Bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested by Chinese authorities on Wednesday and charged with ‘collusion with foreign forces’, the White House called for his immediate release. Lord Patten of Barnes, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said the arrest was ‘yet another outrageous example of how the Chinese Communist Party is hell-bent on turning Hong Kong into a police state.’ Human rights activists lined up to defend the cardinal, who although released on bail faces the prospect of spending his last years in a Chinese jail cell.
You might expect the loudest protest of all to come from the Vatican. Not so. In fact, it didn't protest at all. It merely said: ‘The Holy See has learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention.’
And even that raises the question: how much ‘concern’? In 2020, Cardinal Zen – a champion not just of democracy in Hong Kong but also of persecuted Catholics on the mainland – went to Rome to tell Pope Francis how worried he was about the Vatican’s 2018 pact with Beijing, which gives the Communist party the power to appoint Catholic bishops. The Pope refused to see him. Apparently he was worried it would upset Beijing. For the same reason he has barely condemned the persecution carried out by the Chinese government, which since 2018 has herded a million Muslim Uighurs into concentration camps and submitted their women to a genocidal programme of forced abortions.
No one doubts that Cardinal Zen, who stepped down as bishop of Hong Kong as long ago as 2009, is a source of severe diplomatic embarrassment to the Holy See. But it has only itself to blame. Its secret pact with Beijing – the precise details have never been revealed – abolished the distinction between the Communist party’s puppet Catholic Church, known as the Chinese Patriotic Association, and underground Catholics who were loyal to Rome and particularly the person of the Holy Father.
What an irony, therefore, that it should have been the Pope himself who swept away that distinction. His diplomats argued that the boundary between the official and underground churches had become blurred over the years, which was true. The great prize for the Vatican was that, although the CCP would henceforth nominate bishops, their appointments would have to be approved by the Pope; they would be proper Catholic bishops, recognising his spiritual authority.
Cardinal Zen, a native of Shanghai, saw through this instantly. As early as 2014, he had warned the Vatican that ‘even if under these conditions Beijing was to extend a hand, it would be a trick under these circumstances'.
And so it proved. Last year, the Chinese government published its new rules for administering religions, including Catholicism. It makes no mention of a papal right to approve or veto the appointment of bishops. But as Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute Centre for Religious Freedom pointed out in National Review, it did require all clergy to recognise the complete independence of religion in China and to promote the Communist party in all worship.
The Pope’s spiritual authority – supposedly enshrined in a never-published pact with Rome – was therefore non-existent. But by then the Vatican had worked that out: all Francis had been allowed to do since 2018 was rubber-stamp the appointment of party apparatchiks as bishops. Yet it still publicly maintained that the deal was a success, even as Catholic churches were being demolished across China. ‘One wonders: from which planet did our leaders in Rome descend?’ asked Zen.
That’s a good question, and not just in the context of China. Since this pope was elected 2013, the Vatican has been kowtowing to authoritarian rulers around the world. Francis fawned over the Castro brothers in Cuba and happily accepted a hammer-and-sickle crucifix from Bolivia’s Marxist president Evo Morales. He has refused to condemn Islamic attacks, arguing that ‘if I speak of Islamic violence then I have to speak of Catholic violence.’
Most recently, he struggled to issue an explicit condemnation of President Putin’s actions in Ukraine, instead prioritising warm relations with the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church over the fate of Ukrainian Catholics. In the words of Yurii Pidlisnyi, head of political science at the Ukrainian Catholic University, the Vatican’s position ‘looks like a sacrifice of truth for the illusory profit of Ostpolitik'.
That is Cardinal Zen's judgment also – and, even though the Vatican clearly regards him as a troublemaker, it can no longer conceal the fact that any profits from the Beijing pact were completely illusory. The deal has to be renewed every two years and, as Ed Condon reports in the Catholic website the Pillar, the signs are that ‘the Vatican might finally be ready to revisit what many see as a very bad deal for Rome, and for Chinese Catholics.’
The problem for Pope Francis is that, having surrendered his own freedom of manoeuvre to the world's most calculating superpower, there is nothing he can do to stop members of his flock being arrested and tortured while their churches are either demolished or stage Communist services in which hymns are sung to President Xi.
Even before this week, Beijing seemed to hold all the cards. But now, just to be on the safe side, it has acquired another one: a 90-year-old hostage in the form of Cardinal Zen.