Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Zen Is Now Zen Is Now

Zen Is Now

At a Cardus-Convivium event five years ago, China’s Cardinal Joseph Zen warned sharply of dangers to the Catholic Church in courting the Communist regime. Fresh events, Father Raymond de Souza notes, show the Cardinal was prescient as he was pointed. 

Raymond J. de Souza
4 minute read

A rather unusual dispute, and unusually public, has erupted in the last weeks about the relationship of the Catholic Church and China. The dispute is not so much between the Church and China, but rather a pitched argument within the Catholic Church about how to relate to the Chinese State. And figures familiar to Convivium readers are at the heart of it.

It’s been nearly 70 years since the People’s Republic of China made the Catholic Church in China illegal, broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and erected the “Patriotic” Church, which permits Catholic practice but under the supervision of the state bureaucracy and independent of the “foreign” influence of the Holy See.

The result is that the Catholic Church in China has lived a twofold reality: that of the “Patriotic” Church, which is acknowledged by the regime, and the underground Church, which is persecuted by the regime.

It’s a complicated tale, especially when it comes to bishops. There are many “patriotic” bishops who profess their bonds with Rome, and are recognized by Holy See as legitimate. There are also some (a minority) who are recognized by the State as legitimate, but not the Church. Finally, there are about a half-dozen who are recognized by Rome, but not Beijing. Sorting all this out has been a decades-long struggle, but recent reports have indicated that an agreement might be in the offing.

Papal biographer George Weigel, who wrote extensively about Vatican relations with the Soviet empire in his work on St. John Paul II, gave a most critical assessment of papal diplomacy in this regard. Convivium readers will recall that we hosted Weigel for a wide-ranging conversation, held in Toronto in March 2015. He argued then, as he has argued elsewhere, that moral witness is the true driver of history, not economics and politics, as important as they are.

But the key figure in this very public argument is Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, who traveled to Rome in January in a highly publicized attempt to persuade Pope Francis to change the course of the negotiations with Beijing.

Cardinal Zen has since turned up the volume, writing a blistering attack upon the Holy See’s top diplomat:

The Secretary of State of the Holy See says: ‘We understand the pain of Chinese brothers and sisters yesterday and today.’ Alas! [Does] this man of little faith knows what real pain is? Mainland brothers are not afraid of losing homes and properties, not afraid of being imprisoned, also not afraid of shedding blood. Their greatest pain is to be betrayed…”

Needless to say, cardinals do not usually speak of each other that way in public.

Convivium readers were apprised of all this exactly five years ago when Cardus hosted Cardinal Zen in Toronto for a large dinner on Feb. 7 2013. At that event, Cardinal Zen delivered a similar warning, arguing that it was folly to negotiate with the Chinese regime. In his typically pungent style, he has likened it to Joseph negotiating with King Herod after the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem.

Indeed, at our Toronto event, Cardinal Zen broke with the usual protocols and niceties, flatly claiming that the Vatican bureaucracy did not understand how to deal with the Chinese regime, and therefore risked breaking faith with those loyal Catholics who have suffered and died for the faith.

It was quite a talk, and a bit of correction to even what I had expected. In Toronto, I proposed as the title of the cardinal’s talk: The Church in China, Hope for the 21st Century. It’s the kind of title that allows the speaker sufficient latitude to go where he desires, and has a vaguely upbeat tone. “Hope for the 21st Century” was probably used on an Obama campaign poster.

Cardinal Zen was not feeling upbeat, vaguely or otherwise. He first gave us a bit of Latin lesson.

When I was studying Latin in the seminary I remember our teacher pointing out that the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s “pastoral constitution on the Church in our times” were notable for being composed of four consecutive nouns, all of different declensions. Gaudium et spes, luctus et angor – “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

We always refer to that landmark document by its first words, Gaudium et spes – Joy and hope. That’s fair enough, but it is easy to elide over the luctus et angor, the grief and anxiety. The document has been accused of taking rather too sunny a view of the human condition in its fallen state, and perhaps the problem began with the nomenclature. It may have been better if the document was known as Gaudium et luctusJoy and grief – a more balanced view of our condition.

Cardinal Zen remembered all four words. As he began his remarks that night, Cardinal Zen noted that my emphasis on hope was perhaps rooted in the vision of Gaudium et spes. He then quickly reminded us of the luctus et angor, and said that is speaking of the Church in China, it was more accurate to speak of grief and anxiety. Five years later, Cardinal Zen will not permit that grief and anxiety to be forgotten, or diplomatically set aside. He is making his argument loudly in Rome now. But he made it in Toronto too, five years ago.

We were proud to have invited him in 2013. The honour of hosting him then has only grown since.

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