A new report out of China yesterday indicates that the Vatican has now, for a second time, asked a legitimate bishop to step down and give his episcopal see to a Communist government-appointed bishop who was excommunicated in 2011 after being illicitly consecrated without a papal mandate.
Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou was forced to travel to Beijing last December where an unnamed Vatican prelate — which sources speculate to have been Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a negotiator between the Vatican and China — asked him to step aside to allow Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association Bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang to take his place. He had received a prior request from the Vatican just two months previously in October of 2017.
Though it has gotten far too little attention in the wider Catholic world, OnePeterFive has been covering the developing situation in Vatican relations with China since early 2016 — a situation that has prompted a number of voices to be raised in concern, the most most notable being that of Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. (Zen has been outspoken for far longer, but recent developments have given him more specific cause for concern.)
In light of this week’s news, we feel that it is critically important for Western Catholics to know some background on the situation, and how every step of the way, Zen has spoken out as a prophetic voice, warning of what would come if the Vatican continued on the diplomatic course begun under Francis.
Zen asked in January, 2016:
Do our officials in Rome know what an election is in China? Do they know that the so-called Episcopal Conference is not only illegitimate, but simply does not exist? What exists is an organism that is called “One Association and One Conference”, namely the Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference always work together as one body, which is always chaired by government officials (there are pictures to prove it, the Government does not even try more to keep up appearances, it starkly flaunts the fact that they now manage religion!). Signing such an agreement means delivering the authority to appoint bishops into the hands of an atheist government.
Zen went on, speaking of the Vatican’s developing Ostpolitik with Beijing:
What makes me restless is the sight of our Eminent Secretary of State [Cardinal Pietro Parolin] still intoxicated by the miracles of Ostpolitik. In a speech last year, at a Memorial for Card. Casaroli, he praised the success of its predecessor in having secured the existence of the Church hierarchy in the communist countries of Eastern Europe. He says: “In choosing candidates for the episcopate, we choose shepherds and not people who systematically oppose the regime, people who behave like gladiators, people who love to grandstand on the political stage.” I wonder: Who had he in mind while making this description? I fear that he was thinking of a Cardinal Wyszynski, a Cardinal Mindszenty, a Cardinal Beran. But these are the heroes who bravely defended the faith of their people! It terrifies me to realize this mindset and I sincerely hope that I am wrong.
On the day that an agreement is signed with China there will be peace and joy, but do not expect me to participate in the celebrations of the beginning of this new Church. I disappear, I will start a monastic life to pray and do penance. I will ask the forgiveness of Pope Benedict for not being able to do what he was hoping that I could do. I will ask Pope Francis to forgive this old Cardinal from the peripheries for disturbing him with so many inappropriate letters.
The innocent children were killed, the angel told Joseph to take Mary and the Child and flee to safety. But today would our diplomats advise Joseph to go and humbly beg for dialogue with Herod!?
In a blog post in June, 2016 — no longer available online — Cardinal Zen told Chinese Catholics that they could not follow the pope into an agreement with Beijing.
According to La Stampa journalist Giannie Valente, who quoted that post in a disapproving piece that same month, Zen had advised the faithful in China that any agreement between the Vatican and Beijing would “most certainly have the pope’s approval,” and that “at the end of the day, one’s conscience is the ultimate criterion for judging our behaviour. So, if your conscience tells you that the content of whatever agreement goes against the principle of our faith, you should not go with it”.
In August, 2016, in which he devoted much effort to fending off the attack of for his opposition to the Church’s new direction in China under Pope Francis, Zen made clear that he foresaw today’s events, and that, in his view, they would bring about a “catacomb situation” for faithful Chinese Catholics. He wrote:
We know that in China the atheist regime has always wanted to totally control the religions. Until now large groups of Catholics, both underground and in officialdom, making great sacrifices, remain faithful to the Church founded by Jesus on Peter and the Apostles. But today a specter appears in the horizon, of a statement coming right from the authority of the Church, that tells them to change course. What was declared as opposed to the doctrine and discipline of the Church will become legitimate and normal; everyone will have to submit to the Government that manages the Church; everyone will have to obey to bishops who until today are illegitimate and even excommunicated. So, they have been wrong for decades these poor “confrontationists”?
My appeal is to prepare the minds for such an eventuality, which once seemed impossible, now it looks very likely. What to do? Accept to go back, as Valente says, to the catacomb situation, which is not the ordinary situation. But, when the ordinary is illegitimate and the legitimate is not allowed, there is no choice but to hold to the legitimate in a extraordinary way.
In October, 2016, during a visit to the US, Zen beat the drum again:
“The Chinese government has not made any concessions in the negotiations,” he told the Chinese-language World Journal in New York. “There are some things that we cannot make compromises.”
He told the newspaper that Pope Francis was from South America and was sympathetic to communists: “He does not understand the Chinese Communist Party at all.”
During his visit, Zen had said that he believed it was only a matter of time for the Vatican and Beijing to establish diplomatic ties.
“Taiwanese people should make preparations for ‘being abandoned,’ or losing diplomatic relations,” he said.
Veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister also confirmed in August, 2016, that the pope was
preparing…to grant the communist authorities the privilege of selecting candidates. And he is exiling to an island in the Pacific the highest ranking Chinese archbishop in the curia, contrary to the agreement.
The exiled archbishop was, according to Magister, Zen’s
fellow countryman bishop and friend Savio Hon Taifai – he too a Salesian like the cardinal – called by Benedict XVI from Hong Kong to Rome in 2011 as secretary of the congregation for the evangelization of peoples, but now dispatched by Francis to an island of the Pacific Ocean, as apostolic administrator of Guam, with an unexpected appointment last June 6.
The term of Hon’s appointment in Guam lasted until October of 2016, when he was named Apostolic Nuncio to Greece — keeping him out of China, where he said in 2011 that
the planned ordination of priests by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association meant “division … causes great pain to the entire body … [the] whole body is scarred and bleeding”, because no bishop can be validly appointed without a papal mandate. He added that those who have resisted the will of the party, such as Monsignor Li Lianghui (Cangzhou, Hebei) are now in isolation, forced to undergo political re-education classes. He said that Chinese priests and bishops must show “some backbone” and resist government pressure out of love for Church unity and the memory of the many heroic witnesses to the faith of the past decades. Hon has sought without success to win the release from prison of two imprisoned bishops, James Su Zhimin of Baoding and Cosma Shi Enxiang of Yixian.
This is what the Vatican is capitulating to. Political re-education. A government that persecutes priests and bishops. A decade ago, the late Cardinal Kung said:
I believe that most if not all of you who are here today understand that there is no religious freedom in China. Yet you may be shocked to learn that all of the approximately 40 underground bishops in China have been either arrested and are now in jail, or under house arrest, or under strict surveillance, or in hiding, or simply have disappeared.
We know for sure that six bishops are now in jail. … They are all in their 70’s or 80’s. Three of them have disappeared. (HAN, Shi and SU). Out of these three, Bishop Su has disappeared for approximately 10 years, Bishop Han has just disappeared approximately one year ago after being detained approximately 5 years, Bishop SHI has disappeared almost six years. We do not know whether they are dead or alive.
Priests, seminarians, nuns and laypersons face similar harassment. We know for sure that there are approximately 25 of them in jail or in labor camps. This list is by no means complete, because of the difficulties in obtaining details. Many cases are not reported here. My educated guess is that there are hundreds in jail. Sometimes, the government simply removes a priest or bishop and do not place them into the jail system, so that there is no official record of this religious prisoner. This is one of the new methods of persecuting the underground church.
Returning to the present issue, the Vatican’s most recent orders for the 88-year-old Bishop Zhuang to step down came with an empty concession:
The Holy See delegation demanded Bishop Zhuang to retire just as what was in the letter dated Oct 26 but with one addition term seems to console the elderly bishop, and that is, he could nominate three priests for Bishop Huang to pick one as his vicar general, the source continued.
“Bishop Zhuang could not help his tears on hearing the demand,” the source said, adding that “it was meaningless to appoint a vicar general, who is still a priest that Bishop Huang could remove him anytime.”
Meanwhile, another similar move was taking place elsewhere in China:
While Bishop Zhuang was summoned to freezing Beijing, the Vatican delegation reportedly went southward to eastern Fujian province to meet with Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, one of the seven illicit bishops awaiting the Vatican to recognize.
Local sources said Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin, the ordinary bishop of Mindong belonging to the underground community, was asked to downgrade himself as assistant of Bishop Zhan, with one of the sayings was that he has to downgrade to become a coadjutor bishop.
One of the sources said, signing a document to accept “voluntary” downgrading himself as the coadjutor bishop was also one of the conditions the government officials put forward to Bishop Guo in order to recognize him when he was under one-month detention before the Holy Week in 2017.
Bishop Zhan declined to confirm the meeting or disclose details about his recognition progress with the Holy See.
The meeting in Funjian province was apparently kept a secret from the underground clergy:
An underground priest in Mindong said he did not know about the Vatican delegation’s visit. “We of course feel hard to accept but do we have the rights to oppose the Vatican?” he said, but adding that if thing goes that way, “I may consider to quit and leave my priesthood.”
According to the AsiaNews report, the Holy See was considering recognizing seven illicit bishops, of whom three were publicly excommunicated for being consecrated without a papal mandate, in exchange for the Chinese government’s recognition of 20 bishop candidates put forward by the Holy See.
Thus far, Cardinal Zen has remained silent on the recent developments. One is left to wonder if he is simply honoring his word in the face of a hopeless situation:
On the day that an agreement is signed with China there will be peace and joy, but do not expect me to participate in the celebrations of the beginning of this new Church. I disappear, I will start a monastic life to pray and do penance. I will ask the forgiveness of Pope Benedict for not being able to do what he was hoping that I could do.
Pray for China’s Catholics. We are all weary and heartbroken by the scandal of the present pontificate, but theirs is a suffering far more tangible than most of us will likely ever experience.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.