On July 22, 2007, Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong lunched with Benedict XVI in Lorenzago di Cadore to update the pope on the reception of his Letter to Chinese Catholics . Later that day, the cardinal returned to Venice, where Raphaela Schmid discussed with him the current state of play in Rome-Beijing relations.

Schmid: The letter of the Holy Father has been out now for over three weeks. Could you give assessment of the reception of this letter?

Zen: The reception by different people is different. We in Hong Kong are very happy, and also in Taiwan; I met Cardinal Shan and he too is very happy. Both Cardinal Shan and myself gave immediate, positive responses: We admire the balance between a passion for truth and the loving kindness of the Holy Father. We don’t know as much about the reception in the Church on the mainland, but from the contacts we have, it seems that it also had a good reception there: They are also happy, both in the underground church and in the open church. But that doesn’t mean that it will be easy for them to draw out all the consequences from that letter.

More surprising is the response from the Chinese government. The Holy Father was very clear on Catholic principles. And so you may say that it is a very strong position and we could expect some not very kind reactions to it. But actually, the reaction of the government was very mild. This is an encouraging sign. Maybe the Holy Father really succeeded in making them understand that what he says is nothing personal: It is simply the doctrine of the Church, from Jesus Christ and the Apostles until today, and it is accepted in the whole Church. So maybe this is a new beginning for the Church in China.

Schmid: Do we have any idea how many Chinese Catholics have the letter?

Zen: I am not sure. We know that, after the publication, for the first day, people could get it from the Internet. But we know that the next day, the government closed all these Internet sites, so now people cannot get it anymore. But I think at least the bishops and priests got a copy. Now we in Hong Kong, we are also doing something: We printed many copies of the letter in simplified characters, and when people go to China, they can bring them, because it’s pocket size. Very handy.

Schmid: What do you think is the next step in the normalization of relations between Beijing and Rome?

Zen: The letter of the pope is something very, very important for the clergy in China. You see, the bishops, they can never meet, they can never sit down and talk together. They are always controlled by the government, and the so-called bishops’ conference only meets when the government calls them for a meeting, chaired by the government. And so they can never share their ways of seeing things and their plans to solve problems. But this time, everybody has got a letter by the Holy Father and it is addressed to all of them. And they know that even the government has a copy of that letter. Everybody knows this letter: So now, there is a starting point. The clergy, especially the bishops, can be united on the basis of this letter. And they can try to talk to the Chinese leaders, starting from the letter.

I think that the biggest problem in China is that the voice of our bishops can never reach the real leaders. Liu Bai Nian [the vice-president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association] is in the middle. He speaks in the name of the Church, but he doesn’t represent the Church. Our bishops represent the Church, but they have no voice. And so the leaders only hear the voice of Mr. Liu Bai Nian. Now I hope the bishops will try to get some access to the real leaders and to talk to them on the basis of this letter.

Schmid: Do you think that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will eventually be abolished?

Zen: That’s what we really hope is going to happen, because by now it is evident that this body cannot be accepted anymore. The Holy Father said so expressly in his letter. Especially after the illegitimate ordination last year, it is really inconceivable that we still tolerate such a body doing such evil things. They are not working for the good of the Church in the country. At this moment, it is clear that they are trying to preserve the status quo, just to defend their own interests.

Schmid: Western Catholic charities and missionaries are increasingly operating within China and also in cooperation with the Patriotic Association. What do you think Western charities and missionaries have to be careful of and take into consideration?

Zen: I have made known to people the side effects of that cooperation. In the past, cooperation was necessary. If you wanted to do anything, you had to pass through the Patriotic Association; and so, for some time, we all agreed that we had to accept this reality. But after so many years, we can now see the bad effects. First of all, it is strengthening the position of Mr. Liu Bai Nian. Now he is powerful in front of the Chinese government because he can tell them that all Catholics must accept his conditions. And he is powerful in front of the bishops because, if you behave, then he will send you abroad for some meeting; if you do not behave, then you never have this chance. So we now realize that it was not all right to collaborate with this man.

Schmid: How is the Patriotic Association funded, and does the future of the Patriotic Association depend more on economic considerations than ideological reasons?

Zen: Surely, they have power, and with that power they have money. If they control the Church, they also control the finances of the Church. And the government is willing to support them in spending money to support activities like the illegitimate ordination of last year. The Patriotic Association paid money to the bishops who took part in the ordination. So I think money has a lot to do with that. But then I also think that they [the Patriotic Association] really made it impossible for people to accept the continuation of their existence. Because not only do they control the Church, but they even humiliate our bishops, and they use ugly methods to force people to take part in those illegitimate ordinations, like deceit, threats, and even kidnapping.

Schmid: Benedict XVI’s letter says that "the clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church’s life." Can you explain that? Because some commentators have read this sentence as an invitation for all underground Catholics to come out into the open.

Zen: I think all commentary should be based on a close reading of the pope’s letter, first of all. Now, the Holy Father explains very carefully that to be underground is not normal¯absolutely it is not normal. We have the right to operate openly! But, he says, people are forced to take that position, to avoid undue control from outside. And so if today that undue control from outside is still there, then there is reason to remain in the underground. And it is absolutely false to say the letter encourages the underground church to come above ground, because the Holy Father only allowed bishops to make their own choices, saying that this choice is very difficult. So there is no encouragement. And all the pope’s long reasoning before that statement is only advising caution. Because the letter says that, though in principle to be recognized by the government is all right, in concrete cases many times, almost always, it is impossible because the government would ask you to do things against your faith. So it is no encouragement at all.

Schmid: And vice versa, is there a problem that some of the bishops who have been reconciled with Rome after being illegitimately ordained are not very clear about this? Do you think there could be practical measures taken to achieve more transparency in the open church?

Zen: I think it is not that serious a problem. Because I think all the priests and the faithful know about their own bishop and whether he is reconciled [with Rome] or not. People in the other dioceses may not know this, and so it is good for them to declare publicly whether they have been reconciled [with Rome] or not. But at the very beginning, you can understand that it was very wise, very generous of the Holy See not to demand that bishops make public their legitimization, because at the beginning there were few: If they had made it public, there would have been a danger for them to be put into prison. But, by now, since it is known that almost all the bishops are already reconciled [with Rome], I think they can make this public without fear. Because the government surely would not fire them all. But the Holy Father also says something else: He says these bishops must perform actions to prove their new condition. So, surely, it is contradictory for them to be reconciled with the Holy See and still go to participate in illegitimate ordinations of bishops.

Schmid: Is it possible that the Chinese government will ever allow a priest formed in the underground church to serve as bishop for the open church in a particular diocese and unify all Catholics under his care?

Zen: I don’t see any impossibility because, if that underground priest accepts to come above the ground and operates openly, and if the government is ready to recognize him without demanding that he participates in the Patriotic Association, or that he declares to run an independent church [from Rome], or that he concelebrates with an illegitimate bishop, then that will be all right. But I think that it is very difficult. It’s not impossible but difficult.

Schmid: What does the future hold then?

Zen: You can never make any prophecy about what is going to happen in China: Everything is unpredictable. And at this moment, actually, we are still worried, because the first reaction [from the government] was moderate¯we may even say there was no reaction. So maybe they are still discussing among themselves to reach a conclusion. And we don’t know what that conclusion will be. And several bishops, already elected and approved by the Holy See, are still waiting for ordination. What are they, the Patriotic Association and the Religious [Affairs] Bureau, waiting for? So we still cannot be that optimistic in this moment. We have to pray.

Schmid: A new bishop has just been elected in Beijing. How can we know whether what’s happening with this bishop is good news or bad news for Sino¯Vatican relations?

Zen: I think in the light of the pope’s letter, the Vatican is going to be very understanding in this case. Because they understand that we still have no real agreement [with Beijing]. But for several years, there has been a tacit agreement to reach tolerance, compromise. So, in that spirit, I think, if the one chosen is acceptable to Rome, then the Vatican would be very willing to approve him. But then there is the reaction from the Chinese side: If they really accept the letter of the Holy Father, then they would quietly accept the approval from the Holy See. But if they decide not to follow the spirit of the letter, then they can make trouble in many different ways. So I am still a little worried. And I really hope that they are not going to do anything irrational in this case and that both sides try to make this a good opportunity to come to a better mutual understanding.

Schmid: How can one ensure that financial aid from abroad helps to strengthen the Church in China and not the Patriotic Association?

Zen: I don’t think there is any easy way. I tell you frankly, there was a certain attempt, by an organization of the official church, to get recognized as Caritas China. But I was strongly against that. Because Caritas everywhere in the world is always supervised by the bishop: If it is a diocesan Caritas, then by the diocesan bishop; if it is a national Caritas, then by a bishops’ conference. Now this proposed body of the official church is supervised by no bishop, and thus I don’t think they are really in a position to be Caritas China.

I would advise Westerners who want to help financially to go with their money to China and not just to give money to somebody¯to go with their money, to see where the money is going. I think if they go there, they can be sure that their money is actually going to the poor. They can also get help from someone who knows the situation, like those at the Holy Spirit Study Centre [in Hong Kong] who can give you good advice about where to spend money: They have the data, they know the situation. Because it is possible that sometimes you are not helping the right people. The underground church needs more help, because it is difficult to send money to them. I really hope that anyone who can do so will help the underground more. But I know that it is difficult, but they need it more, I think. Yes, they are more in difficulty.

Schmid: Cardinal Zen, you are sometimes presented as the advocate of the underground church in China. How far is this correct and what is your relation to the open church?

Zen: Oh, I don’t think that’s correct, because I have so many friends in the open church! And I think that I contributed to the betterment of the Holy See’s understanding of the open church during those years [ca. 1989¯1996], when I went to teach in the seminaries of China. While living there and having many contacts, I wrote so many reports and I think I changed the mind of the Holy See. We all used to have very rigid categories: "the good ones" and "the bad ones." But actually this was wrong. They are all good with very few exceptions. So I am sure that the people in the open church are my friends. There is no doubt about this.

Schmid: One open-church bishop recently said: "I can’t speak freely like Cardinal Zen because I must protect my diocese." What do you think of this assessment?

Zen: I agree that we are in the very different situation in Hong Kong because of the "one country, two systems." We are not controlled by anybody like Patriotic Association or by the Religious [Affairs] Bureau. We can speak frankly. But in China, that would not be convenient, because the government would not accept the truth. But now that the letter of the pope is known by everybody, I think that, even in China, the bishops should be able to tell the government whatever is in the letter of the Holy Father.

Schmid: Cardinal Zen, is Liu Bai Nian right when he says that you are a threat to the Chinese government, like John Paul II was to the communist regime in Poland?

Zen: I really feel flattered. But I think that is ridiculous, because it is a different situation. In Poland, we have a Catholic nation; in China, we are a very small minority. And I am not the pope!

Raphaela Schmid is director of the the Becket Institute for Religious Freedom and the author of a recent documentary God in China , made in collaboration with the ROMEreports TV agency.

Articles by Raphaela Schmid

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