MIAMI – In a new interview, Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong and a vocal opponent of Pope Francis’s approach to China, has called his contacts with the Vatican during his time as a cardinal “disastrous” particularly on the issue of engagement with Beijing.

He also blasted former top Vatican officials, accusing two successive heads of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, also known as Propoganda Fidei, the Vatican’s missionary department with responsibility for China, of shoddy, ineffective policies that did “almost nothing” to help Catholics on the ground.

Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who has consistently voiced harsh criticism of the Vatican’s secret 2018 agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops, voiced his frustrations anew in an interview with New Bloom Magazine, an online publication following social and political events in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific region.

Referencing the ongoing, and, at times, violent protests that have gripped Hong Kong since June and put in doubt the future of the territory and its status as an autonomous diplomatic territory, Zen said that at the moment, he is “much more” concerned about the Vatican’s recent deals with China.

“The whole Church in China – terrible, terrible. Terrible. Terrible,” he said, adding that “unfortunately, my experience of my contact with the Vatican is simply disastrous,” he said.

Zen was named bishop of Hong Kong in 2002. He got his red hat from Benedict XVI in 2006 and retired in 2009. In his retirement, Zen has become the public face of what can arguably be called the “resistance movement” in China and among Catholicism’s more conservative camps when it comes to the papacy’s approach to China.

Noting that he was appointed cardinal by John Paul II, Zen said that his red hat was not necessarily of the pope’s own accord, but was encouraged by the then-head of Propoganda Fidei, Slovakian Cardinal Josef Tomko, who oversaw the department from 2001-2007.

At the time Zen said China had a more open policy toward religion, and church officials had been able to exchange unofficial contact with the government thanks to Tomko’s firm, but “open,” policy on engagement with the Chinese Communist Party.

“Tomko was a very balanced man. He started from a hard line to defend the Church from persecution…but he was open to reason,” Zen said, adding that some compromise was necessary, but most important was “to say the right position of the Church.”

“Unfortunately, in the Church there’s a law regarding an age limit. So at 75, Tomko had to retire. Then the successor was no good. And the successor of the successor, even worse,” Zen said, referring to Italian Cardinal Crescenzo Sepe, Tomko’s immediate replacement and the current Archbishop of Naples, and the late Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias, who succeeded Sepe and later died in 2017.

“Sepe was no good,” Zen said, explaining that in his view, Propoganda Fidei “did almost nothing” on his watch, but rather attempted weakly to continue Tomko’s strategy, “but not really in that spirit.”

When Dias stepped in, the decision was applauded given his extensive experience serving in so-called “mission territories,” both as a bishop and a papal diplomat.

However, Zen criticized Dias’s approach to China, saying he was “a disciple” of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, a former Vatican Secretary of State who was a firm supporter of an Ostpolitik approach to dialogue with communist nations.

At the time Dias was in office, the Vatican’s current Secretary of State and the author of the Vatican’s recent agreement with China on episcopal appointments, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was working as an official of Propoganda Fidei and in that role, was deeply involved in the Holy See’s negotiations with China.

As he has in the past, Zen criticized Parolin and his methods, saying “nobody can be sure” of what he wants at a given moment.

“It’s a real mystery how a man of the Church, given all his knowledge of China, of the Communists, could do such a thing as he’s doing now,” Zen said, adding that in his view, “the only explanation is not faith. It’s a diplomatic success. Vainglory.”

Zen also criticized Francis’s approach, arguing that in his view, given the pope’s moves on China, “he has low respect for his predecessors.”

“He is shutting down everything done by John Paul II and by Pope Benedict,” he said, accusing Francis’s allies of giving “lip service” when they insisted the pope’s moves are in continuity with his predecessors. “But that’s an insult,” Zen said.

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Zen said that in 2010 Dias and Parolin pitched a draft agreement with China to Benedict, but it was never signed. Zen voiced his belief that Benedict XVI “refused” to sign the document, however, he admitted that he has “no evidence” to back this theory up.

Regarding the current agreement, which has been in force since September 2018, Zen said that although he is one of two Chinese cardinals and has been to Rome three times since rumors of the agreement began to circulate in early 2018, he has yet to see it and, like most, does not know the terms.

Despite his opposition to Francis on the China issue, Zen said that personally they enjoy “wonderful relations,” noting that he dined with the pope in July. However, “he doesn’t answer my letters. And everything that happened is against what I suggested.”

The main topics Zen said he takes issue with are the agreement, the lifting of the excommunication of seven illicitly ordained bishops as part of the deal, and what he said was the subsequent “killing” of the so-called underground church, composed of those who refused to register with the official, government-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association (PA) in a bid to stay faithful to Rome.

“You cannot cheat yourself. You cannot cheat the Communists. You are cheating the whole world,” he said, because a person registers PA, “you accept to be a member of that church under the leadership of the communist party.”

Referring to Francis’s remark on a flight back from Madagascar in September, when he said that while he doesn’t want a schism he’s not afraid of one either, Zen insisted that if he gets the chance, he’s going to tell the pope that he is “encouraging a schism. You are legitimizing the schismatic church in China.”

In terms of peacefully practicing their faith independently in Communist China, Zen said that because of the Catholic Church’s global dynamic, “there’s no hope, no hope at all.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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