HONG KONG – He’s been called “the conscience of China,” lauded by some for his indefatigable promotion of democracy and loathed by others for his hard-line position against the Beijing authorities. At age 85, Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, is hardly living out his retirement in quiet.

Zen greeted me on Saturday at the city’s Salesian House of Studies, which, he informed me, is the same age he is. Born in Shanghai in 1932 to devoutly Catholic parents, Zen moved to Hong Kong to escape Communist rule and to prepare for the seminary.

The house is where he began his career as a young novice in 1948, it’s where he returned for a second tour of duty in the 1970s to teach at the seminary and later serve as provincial for the Salesians, and now it’s where he’s returned a third time — in this case, he says, “for good.”

While the residence is inhabited by other priests and seminarians, Zen answered the main door to welcome me on his own. It seemed an apt metaphor for a man whose career has been characterized by independence, and a willingness to go it alone.

I arrived in Hong Kong at a time when much of the world is focused on Asia and the mounting crisis between the United States and North Korea. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s seeming inability to deescalate tensions over North Korea’s nuclear capacities has dominated headlines for weeks.

Curious to hear what Zen — a man who is not shy about expressing his opinions — had to say on the matter, I asked how he thinks the whole thing will play out.

“I don’t know what anyone can do, I haven’t followed the whole thing much,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Everybody knows that China is always supporting North Korea, so now they should keep control of their ally, but it seems to be going out of control,” said Zen, “but no one is so mad as to really start a war.”

A possible rapprochement?

For the most part, Zen has one thing on his mind — and it’s the very thing that’s arguably made him one of the Church’s most consequential prelates over the past two decades: the Vatican’s relationship with China.

Since the takeover of the Communist party in China in 1949, the Church has been divided into what is referred to as “the underground Church” and the official government sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The Holy See and China have not had diplomatic relations since 1951, but in recent years there’s been much speculation that this would soon change.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a landmark letter in which he said full reconciliation “cannot be accomplished overnight,” but added that “for the Church to live underground is not a normal situation.” The letter said there was only one Catholic Church in China and encouraged unity in their profession of faith, granting some validity to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and permission for Catholics to participate in the official Church.

Since then, the primary sticking point for re-establishing diplomatic relations has been the appointment of bishops. The Chinese government has been unwilling to relinquish control, wanting all bishops appointed by Rome to be approved by Beijing. Rumors swirled in 2016 that a historic agreement was close to being reached, but it seems rapprochement has been indefinitely stalled — much to Zen’s satisfaction.

To help me understand the problem from his perspective, Zen took me back to Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who was appointed by Pope John Paul II in 2001 as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (more commonly known as “Propaganda Fide”), a post he held until 2006. That department oversees Church affairs in so-called “mission territories,” including China.

Zen said Sepe was “no good” for Chinese-Vatican relations.

“Everyone knows that,” he said. “He’s an Italian, no experience, very young … with Sepe, everything stopped for five years.”

Benedict replaced Sepe with Cardinal Ivan Dias, who Zen says came with impeccable diplomatic credentials, but was a disciple of former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, which Zen believes crippled his ability to understand the complexity of the situation with China.

In 2006, Benedict made Zen a cardinal, “not so much for Hong Kong,” says Zen, “but for China.”

“I could not do anything, though, because from the very beginning, Dias said, ‘You, just keep out,’” he recounted.

While Benedict continued to move ahead in trying to improve relations, most notably with his 2007 letter, Zen accused Dias of manipulating the process — including changing the Chinese translation of the letter by omitting a phrase Benedict had included, which said the state “almost always” places conditions on your conscience.

Banging his hand on the table, Zen lambasted the fact that it took over a year for Dias to change the translation to include this critical caveat.

During this same time, Benedict set up a commission to work on improving relations with China, with Zen as a member, but he said it was ultimately of “no use because the power was in the hands of Dias.”

“Theoretically, the Secretary of State [Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone] should have had power, but Bertone had no power, he was an outsider. Even the pope himself was an outsider…the people that work at the Vatican obeyed Dias more than Bertone.”

These allegations bring us to the current problem with the Holy See’s approach to China, as Zen sees it: the then-Undersecretary of State, now Secretary of State under Pope Francis, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Parolin’s “Poisoned Mind”

Prior to his resignation, Benedict terminated negotiations with China, presumably due to the poor conditions that were being offered. Parolin had previously been responsible for establishing contact with Beijing as undersecretary, and with Francis’s enthusiasm for the eastern Church, Parolin was charged with once more attempting to broker an agreement.

“Pope Francis does not know the real Communist Party in China,” Zen tells me, “but Parolin should know. He was there [in the Secretariat of State] so many years, so he must know. He may be happy to encourage the pope to be optimistic about the negotiations … but that’s dangerous. Pope Francis needs someone to calm him down from his enthusiasm.”

Soon after taking office in 2013, Zen said he met with Francis for forty-minutes to make his case why the Church must be cautious in what it is willing to offer Beijing.

“I didn’t talk about Hong Kong, only about dialogue with China,” he said.

Zen said he’s grateful for that meeting, and that the pope “was very kind to me,” allowing him to speak for forty minutes, while asking five minutes of questions at the end.

“I told him that people are saying I’m against dialogue. That’s ridiculous, I’m dialoguing all the time. It’s necessary, but dialogue has limitations,” Zen told Francis.

To bolster his case, Zen reminded me that he’s fully aligned with Francis.

“Remember in Korea, the pope said there are conditions for dialogue, that we must first be faithful to our own identity,” he said.

Again, Zen bangs his fist on the table as he told me, “You cannot start a dialogue with the idea that we must have a conclusion. That may not be possible. If the other party is unreasonable, then you cannot have a reasonable solution, you just have to say I’m sorry, we’ve failed and we’ll go home.”

That’s something Zen believes Parolin has been unwilling to do.

“It seems the Secretary of State wants to have a solution anyway. He is so optimistic. That’s dangerous.”

I asked if he’s had a chance to speak with Francis since their initial meeting. “No, but I write many letters,” he says with a smirk. “Many letters,” he repeats.

“I told the pope that he [Parolin] has a poisoned mind. He is very sweet, but I have no trust in this person. He believes in diplomacy, not in our faith.”

Francis rethinks China

Zen believes that Francis’s position on China has modulated since first taking office when he said he would like to visit China “even tomorrow.” Zen said more recent remarks from this past spring, when Francis asked the faithful to pray for him so that he might know what is truly good for the Church in China, shows that he has become more cautious.

As he chronicled this shift in thinking, Zen said, “Aha! See, he has doubts on the advice he has received, so I am writing strong letters.”

I asked Zen if the focus on an official relationship between the Church and China has been a distraction from the Church’s mission to save souls. Evangelical and Protestants churches in China have experienced impressive growth in recent decades, while the number of Catholics appears to be in decline.

“Some say that we are always so keen on the Vatican-China diplomatic relations, and accuse us saying ‘that’s not the point, the point is to evangelize.’ I say ‘no, that’s also important, but it’s about leadership of the Church,” says Zen.

“But I’m always telling the people of China you cannot help the Vatican, not even me as a cardinal, not even having a big commission, you cannot help. You just have to pray for that. Evangelization is always possible, but in case of a bad agreement, then it may be an impediment for evangelization and it would give the wrong impression of the Church.”

Despite being well into his eighties, Zen still considers himself a student. This past summer he spent three weeks in former Eastern bloc countries in Europe, trying to better understand how the faithful lived under Communist rule. He’s also spent time in Vietnam, getting a sense of how Church leaders there responded to government control over the Church.

There were bishops in Vietnam who cooperated with the government, but did not betray the faith, Zen tells me. It seems he is still pondering what this might look like in a Chinese context, but is unsure.

“We have very strong people, but they are such a small minority. There are so many opportunists,” he said. “They are telling everyone to compromise, but that would be suicide.”

A life of peace and freedom and a megaphone

Zen told me he still keeps in contact with Pope Benedict XVI, whom he visited most recently this past June. He was delighted when Benedict sent him a signed copy of his interview book with journalist Peter Seewald. He says he particularly liked one page where the pope emeritus says the Vatican’s Ostpolitik had been a failure — which he believes is a strong indication of Benedict’s current thoughts on the situation with China.

When Benedict gave Zen his red hat, it seems he also gave him a megaphone, and one that he is unwilling to put down.

“I’ve been so fortunate, and I’ve lived so many years in peace and freedom … I know so many things that nobody knows, both in China and the Vatican. Very few people really know the Vatican, and very few people really know China … with all of my years of direct experience, I have to speak out,” says Zen.

“Nobody can tell me to shut-up, except the pope,” he concludes. “And he is not going to do that, so I can talk.”