In an unusual move the Holy See press office issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the Pope was being “faithfully informed on the steps in the dialogue process” with China. The statement followed accusations made last week by China’s most prominent churchman that the Vatican was “selling out” Chinese Catholics following a series of moves involving bishops aimed at pleasing Beijing.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a long time critic of any Holy See rapprochement with China, flew to Rome last month to discuss the case of Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian, 88, who has reportedly been lined up to be replaced by Bishop Huang Bingzhang, who was excommunicated in 2011 and has close ties with the Communist party. He also raised the case of Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin, in communion with Rome, reportedly to become a co-adjutor to the illicitly ordained Bishop Vincent Zhan.
The independent Catholic news agency ucanews.com said on 1 February that it called Bishop Zhuang and he admitted that he went to Beijing "in December, where I met with four Vatican officials" but he was reluctant to say much more. The Chinese Government is well-known for its monitoring of communications.
After raising both matters during a 12 January audience with Francis, Zen said the Pope told him he had warned aides about “creating another Mindszenty case”. Hungarian Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty was the Archbishop of Esztergom who sought asylum in the US embassy in Budapest following his outspoken opposition to communist rule. But under pressure from the Government the Holy See urged him to leave the country in 1971 and he was stripped of his title.
However, Zen’s reporting of what the Pope told him in private, with its implication that the Pope may have been badly served or badly advised, may have prompted the Vatican response.
“The Pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State [under Cardinal Pietro Parolin] on Chinese issues and is informed by them faithfully … on the steps in the dialogue, which he follows with special attention,” the statement said, before delivering an apparent rebuke to Zen: “It is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy.”
Nothing in the statement denies that a deal had been reached between Vatican representatives in China and the Beijing Government regarding the reported “exchange” of bishops.
“I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China. His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me,” the cardinal wrote in a Facebook post and on his personal website.
“I think it was most meaningful and appropriate for the Holy Father to make this historical reference to Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, one of the heroes of our faith.”
Under Pope Paul VI the Vatican adopted a policy of Ostpolitik, which was an attempt to make deals with Soviet powers in order to improve conditions for Catholics.
The Holy See has pursued a similar deal-making approach with Beijing in its attempts to re-establish diplomatic ties with China, although it has come under harsh criticism from Cardinal Zen and others in the process.
The major hurdle for any deal between the Holy See and China is over the appointment of bishops, with any agreement likely to involve Vatican recognition of illicitly ordained bishops for the state-sanctioned arm of the church, known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Cardinal Zen and his supporters are speaking out for the underground Catholics – those loyal to Rome – who have suffered persecution for their faith.
Pic: Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun discusses issues of Sino-Vatican relationship and a variety of topics relating to political freedom in Hong Kong, during an event ''A Talk with Cardinal Joseph Zen'' in Los Angeles, on Friday, August 25, 2017 Pic credit: Ringo Chiu/Zuma Press/PA Images