Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong, has warned the Vatican against forging an agreement with the Chinese government that would grant it significant power over the Catholic Church in the country. Cardinal Zen has stated that he would consider any such deal a betrayal by the Holy See of the underground Catholic faithful in China.
It is estimated that millions of Catholics in China are forced to worship underground as they refuse to register with the state's official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). These "underground" Catholics recognize the authority of the Holy See and opt to worship clandestinely due to the risk of harassment from authorities. Meanwhile, the communist-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association operates under the supervision of the central government and the activities of its clerics are strictly monitored.
Cardinal Zen has explained that priests and bishops in the so-called underground church have been thrown in jail for submitting to the Holy See rather than the state-overseen church. If a deal is approved between the Chinese government and the Catholic authorities in Rome, it is feared that the agreement would amount to an official recognition by the Vatican of the government-controlled Church. The deal would grant the government the power to nominate bishops, although Beijing would have to submit its nominees to the Pope for ultimate acceptance or rejection.
Cardinal Zen has expressed concern that Pope Francis may be misinformed about the true situation for Catholics in China. "We are very much worried because it seems that the Vatican is going to make a very bad agreement with China. And I can understand that the pope is really naïve. He doesn't know the Chinese communists," he told LifeSiteNews.
"Unfortunately, the people around him are not good at all. They have very wrong ideas. And I'm afraid that they may sell out our underground Church. That would be very sad," he added.
In its desire for total control of the Church, Zen said Beijing is painting a negative picture of the underground faithful as "troublemakers."
Zen ultimately fears the deal would "give too much decision power to the government," endangering Catholics in the country who do not want to submit to state oversight in their worship.
However, the current Catholic Archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon, has defended the new deal proposals. He has said the agreement would mean China would be put in a position where it must now recognize the Pope as the supreme head of the Church, as the deal would mean the pontiff, not the Chinese state, would have final authority on who was appointed as a bishop in the country.
Zen though, disagrees, and believes granting Bejing the power to choose nominees for Church leaders in the country would be a betrayal of those currently forced to worship in secret in China.