Zen’s mentality is long past its use-by date

The retired cardinal claims Pope Francis “doesn’t understand the Chinese Communist Party”. But it seems it is he who doesn’t know the history of Roman Catholicism or contemporary international politics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 1:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 1:45am

Never one to keep quiet, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has recently claimed that his boss, Pope Francis, “doesn’t understand the Chinese Communist Party”. Otherwise, the Vatican wouldn’t be pursuing diplomatic negotiations with Beijing by compromising on its demand for the sole prerogative of appointing bishops in the country.

Actually, it sounds more like the good bishop from Hong Kong doesn’t know his own history of Roman Catholicism – or contemporary international politics.

The Chinese communist state is not alone in seeking a say in appointing bishops; communist Laos and Vietnam have had such arrangements with Rome for years. This has meant not only improved relations, leading to, for example, the appointment of Laos’ first cardinal in May. More importantly, it means Catholics in those countries can congregate and worship much more openly, relatively free of persecution and tight surveillance.

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Nor are such arrangements peculiar to communist states. In its millennial history, the Vatican had found it expedient to compromise with territorial powers when the need arose. I won’t bore you with such medieval topics as the Investiture Controversy. Suffice it to say the practice of joint selection of bishops and other important religious positions had been the case throughout European history. It was only in the late 19th century that some western states started to relinquish this power. But it was not formalised until the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council that Rome and its ecclesiastical authorities overseas had sole power to nominate and appoint bishops.

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This was no doubt due to the rise of liberal democracy in the West, when governments decided they had no business in religion. But contemporary communist states are not liberal democracies; it’s pointless to demand they behave like one. The hand-wringing of people like Zen betrays a cold war mentality long past its use-by date. The Hong Kong bishop is still longing for the good old days of the late Pope John Paul II when he helped Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to stare down Soviet Communism. That was a one-off event.

Today, Francis is more anti-capitalist, especially after the global financial crisis, than anti-communist. The suffering of the underground Catholics in China is well-documented. Here is a chance to improve their conditions. Zen’s successors, John Tong Hon and Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, in fact agree with the Vatican on the need to improve relations with China; and rightly so.