In a new letter, retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen says Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin is “manipulating” Pope Francis on the issue of China.

Zen, a fierce critic of a 2018 Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops in the communist country, was responding to the contents of a letter by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the new dean of the College of Cardinals.

In a Jan. 26 letter to the rest of the cardinals obtained by La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, Re defended the China deal, which is an attempt to unite the Catholic Church in mainland China, which has been divided between a state-sponsored “Patriotic” Church not under the authority of the pope, and an “underground” Church pledging allegiance to Rome.

Although the details of the accord are secret, it is believed it allows the Communist regime overwhelming influence over the selection of bishops in China.

Re also defended guidelines issued by the Vatican allowing for clergy in China to civilly register with the government.

While registering, Catholic clergy must align themselves with Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a creature of the Communist government which the Vatican has always maintained is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Zen claimed the Vatican was putting pressure on Chinese priests to possibly violate their consciences – and even apostatize – by issuing the document.

In his letter, Re said the guidelines were designed to “safeguard” the faith in complicated and difficult situations.

Moreover, the Italian cardinal claimed the basic structure of the deal had already been approved by Pope Benedict XVI before his resignation from the papacy.

In his Mar. 1 response, Zen expressed doubt Benedict had approved the agreement, citing the retired pontiff’s support for St. John Paul II’s muscular stance against communism in Europe.

“If you want to prove to me that the recently signed agreement was already approved by Benedict XVI, you just have to show me the text of the agreement, which I am barred from seeing till now, and the archival evidence which you say you could verify. Then there remains to be explained why it was not signed at that time,” Zen writes.

The Hong Kong cardinal then repeated his longstanding accusation that Parolin, the Vatican’s chief diplomat, is misleading the pope on China policy.

“I have strong evidence to believe that Parolin is manipulating the Holy Father, who always shows so much affection to me when we meet, but never answers my questions,” he writes.

Turning to the Vatican guidelines for clergy registration, the Hong Kong cardinal said he “could not understand” them.

“When many of my brothers in despair come to me for advice, I tell them: Don’t criticize those who follow the guideline from Rome. But since the guideline leaves room for objection of conscience, you can quietly retire into the state of catacombs and don’t resist by force to any injustice, you could only suffer more losses. Am I wrong in all these?” Zen asked.

The Vatican also faced criticism for its China deal from the last British governor of Hong Kong last week.

Chris Patten, who served in Hong Kong from 1992 until the 1997 handover to Beijing, said the Vatican had “got it badly wrong about China,” citing the anti-religion policies of President Xi Jingping.

Patten is one of the most prominent Catholics in UK public life, and advised the Vatican on the reform of its communications operations during the first years of Francis’s pontificate.

“I find myself sympathizing hugely with Cardinal Zen on this and with others,” he told The Tablet on Feb. 26.

“I admire those in Rome who have been trying for decades to improve relations between the Vatican and China. I know these issues aren’t easy. But I just think this was an extraordinary time to be doing this with an administration in China which has gone back on human rights,” Patten said.

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