Pope Francis is in constant contact with Vatican officials dealing with issues surrounding China, and it is “surprising” that others in the Church are stating the contrary, according to a statement released Tuesday by the Vatican press office.
The statement comes a day after Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 86-year-old retired Bishop of Hong Kong, wrote an open letter on Facebook criticizing a request by a Vatican diplomat visiting China that two bishops belonging to the underground Church loyal to the pope step down in favor of two bishops belonging to the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
The cardinal said the Vatican was “selling out” the Church in China.
In his post, Zen said he met with Francis to discuss the issue on Jan. 12, and the pope assured him he did not want “another Mindszenty case,” referring to Cadinal József Mindszenty, the Hungarian archbishop imprisoned by the Communist government from 1949-1956, and later exiled to the U.S. embassy in Budapest, before dying in Vienna in 1975.
Zen also said Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, the former secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and now Vatican ambassador to Greece, spoke to Francis about the case in October, and stated the pontiff was “surprised and promised to look into the matter.”
The Jan. 30 statement by Greg Burke, the head of the Vatican press office, said: “The pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues, and is informed by them faithfully and in detail on the situation of the Catholic Church in China and on the steps in the dialogue in progress between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, which he follows with special attention. It is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy.”
Burke said he issued the statement with “reference to widespread news on a presumed difference of thought and action between the Holy Father and his collaborators in the Roman Curia on issues relating to China.”
Zen served as Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002-2009. The former British colony has religious freedom as part of the agreement with Britain leading up to the transfer of the territory to China.
He has long been suspicious of making any deals with China’s communist regime, stating this is based on his “direct experience of the slavery and humiliation to which those our brother Bishops are subjected,” while teaching in the country in the 1990s.
Zen has especially been critical of the Secretariat of State, which is the diplomatic arm of the Vatican.
Speaking to Crux in October, Zen said he thought Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin had a “poisoned mind” on China and is more interested in diplomacy than he is the Catholic faith.
The People’s Republic of China broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951 and established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to supervise Catholics in the country in 1957.
The CPCA does not recognize the authority of the pope, and a parallel “underground” Church exists which recognizes papal authority.
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.
In his Facebook post, the cardinal said if the Vatican recognized the bishops of the CPCA, it “would be giving the blessing on the new strengthened schismatic Church, taking away the bad conscience from all those who are already willing renegades and those others who would readily join them.”