HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s retired archbishop recently warned that a deal between the Vatican and China that cedes too much power to Beijing would place the country’s Catholic followers in a big “birdcage.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen said the Holy See should abandon talks with China over contentious bishop nominations if it would have to compromise too much to please the country’s Communist rulers.
Zen compared China’s “underground” Catholics to birds and said Beijing wants “the Vatican to help them to get all those birds into the cage.”
Zen’s comments come as tensions rise over a possible deal between the Vatican and Beijing.
The Roman Catholic Church is pushing for a historic breakthrough in relations with China but negotiations have touched off a bitter dispute inside the church.
Zen, 86, said there’s no reason at the moment to believe in any goodwill from Beijing on working toward a reasonable compromise.
The feisty and outspoken Zen, who retired in 2009, has been a longtime critic of China. In recent blog posts, he has slammed the talks as a catastrophe and described making a desperate journey to Rome in a personal effort to prevent a legitimate underground bishop from being replaced by an excommunicated one favored by Beijing.
“The Communist government just wants the church to surrender, because they want complete control, not only of the Catholic church but all the religions,” Zen told reporters at the hillside Salesian monastery where he lives. “If that’s true then there’s no hope of getting a good agreement and … at a certain moment you must say we cannot solve the problem, the problems are there so we go home, when we have anything new we come again.”
China broke off relations with the Holy See in 1951, after the officially atheist Communist Party took power and established its own church.
The Vatican, particularly under Pope Francis, is has been eager to reach a deal with the Chinese government and unite the churches. A sticking point in the secret negotiations is whether Rome or Beijing has the final say over bishop appointments.
Unconfirmed reports say the Vatican is close to a compromise with China, which has an estimated 12 million Catholics. About half worship in underground churches that recognize only Rome as their highest authority while the rest belong to state-authorized churches with clergy named by Beijing.
Though the Vatican has claimed bishop ordination as its right, both sides had an unwritten agreement allowing Beijing to pick candidates that the Holy See would consider and then tacitly endorse. Though the deal wasn’t always adhered to, it generally prevented Beijing from appointing bishops that the Vatican would consider flawed for personal or doctrinal reasons.
Zen weighed in on recent news reports suggesting that such an arrangement would be formalized, effectively giving the pope veto power over future bishop candidates.
“Sounds wonderful, but it’s fake,” Zen said, adding that if the pope uses his veto too often, “the Chinese government will say: tell the whole world the pope is not reasonable.”
He added that he would prefer giving the pope the power of appointment and letting China veto.