Added voice suits Cardinal Tong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am


The role of a cardinal in the Catholic Church is to advise the pope and elect his successor. John Tong Hon, the head of the church in Hong Kong, would seem to have expanded the job definition, using his elevation to the position, to advise our government on where he thinks it is going wrong. In a lengthy pastoral letter published in this newspaper on Sunday, he pointed out perceived failings in education, housing, health care and retirement protection, while calling for a well-defined population policy and earlier implementation of universal suffrage than wanted by Beijing. Such sentiments would seem to be over-stepping his duties, but there is nothing wrong with a religious leader having such public views, particularly if they are delivered in such a measured, constructive manner.

It is a matter of style rather than substance. The church's leader in Hong Kong has a demanding role trying to balance serving the city's 350,000 Catholics with dealing with the government, while being a bridge for the church on the mainland. Important issues can be raised at opportune times. That is a guaranteed right of free speech for us all, no matter what our standing in the community. How he or she goes about the job is what counts.

What Tong had to say was not revolutionary or even unusual. His predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, expressed such sentiments regularly during his six years and 204 days as bishop of Hong Kong. Anyone who seeks social equity, human rights, the right of citizens to elect their leaders and religious freedom on the mainland, as both have, is to be applauded. But what sets them apart is that while Tong strikes a mild tone, Zen was apt to be abrasive and confrontational.

Tong has not shied away from trying to make the community of which he is a part better. Generally, he has made a point of not commenting on politics. But he has weighed in on occasion, such as in a sermon in 2009 when he advised Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a staunch Catholic, to better communicate with the people of Hong Kong. He has a non-confrontational style that has served him well in working to mend the decades-old rift between Beijing and the Vatican. Mainland officials are comfortable with such an approach and it is by far the best way to make Hong Kong's government pay attention.

Tong's inclusion among the 22 new cardinals is a welcome move for Chinese of the Catholic faith the world over. It raises his profile and gives him added voice. Since becoming bishop, he has balanced his roles well, steering clear of the outspoken ways of his predecessor. His new position means he has a greater ability to make a difference, although that does not mean that he should be any less measured about how he goes about attaining his aims.