Don’t count Joseph Ha out of church race

  • Cardinal John Tong Hon may have been brought back as acting head of Hong Kong’s Catholic community, but despite his pro-democracy credentials Ha may still prove the right man to lead the local church
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 10:38pm

Some critics seem surprised that auxiliary bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing wasn’t made the acting head of the Hong Kong diocese. Instead, the 79-year-old Cardinal John Tong Hon was brought back from retirement to take up the temporary post. Tong was head of the local church from 2009 to 2017.

The replacement was made necessary after bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung died unexpectedly last week. The conventional view is that the move was to placate Beijing.

By convention, Ha should have taken up the acting post. The auxiliary bishop’s job is practically designed for such eventualities. But Ha is a bona fide pro-democracy advocate and supporter of the Occupy protest movement. On the other hand, Tong is politically neutral, much like Yeung was. Moreover, he supports the ongoing attempt at rapprochement between Rome and Beijing.

But the real question is whether Ha is still in the race to take over the Hong Kong diocese. I believe he remains a hot contender. That’s precisely why Rome brought in Tong – to buy time in the current complicated diplomatic dance between Beijing and the Vatican. Another likely candidate is Stephen Lee Bun-sang, who is currently the Bishop of Macau.

Shock as Vatican brings former bishop out of retirement to lead diocese

The historic, if provisional, deal reached between the two states in September has made life rather difficult for the Holy See.

Led by the hard core anti-communist Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, many Catholics in Hong Kong and on the mainland think Rome has sold out to Beijing. Though the Pope is now recognised as the head of the universal church and will have the final say on the appointment of Chinese bishops, Beijing will draw up the list of candidates.

Much hard bargaining lies ahead, including the scope of Rome’s ability to veto Beijing’s choices.

Now who will be the next head of the Hong Kong Catholic Church should be entirely up to the Vatican under the “one country, two systems” principle.

This doesn’t mean Beijing will not try to influence the outcome. However, Pope Francis will be denounced by critics such as Zen if he picks someone perceived to be too congenial to Beijing’s views.

Ha has undeniable pro-democracy credentials but is not a fanatical anti-communist like Zen. He will probably fight for Hong Kong’s input on future negotiations between Beijing and Rome, but will probably be amenable to reasonable compromises.

That makes him a good fit for the top job in Hong Kong.