Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen, and five others, were put on trial yesterday morning, 9:30 a.m. local time, at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ court. Charged with the relatively minor offense of failing as trustees to properly register an aid fund for pro-democracy demonstrators, they pleaded not guilty. This should not be confused with a separate, ongoing investigation of Zen on accusations of colluding with foreigner powers under the territory’s vague national-security law, which could bring him a life sentence. The charge before the court now is punishable by a fine, not a prison term.
Nevertheless, Zen’s arrest is widely understood as political — a reprisal for his vocal opposition to the regime’s crackdown on religious rights and democratic freedoms. The aid fund under consideration by the court today was linked to such dissent. Even under Mao, the Chinese Communist Party never forced a Chinese Catholic cardinal to stand trial on political charges. Now, this persecution of the venerable cardinal, who is 90 years old and the veritable face of the Chinese Catholic Church, comes as negotiations are underway for the renewal of the Sino–Vatican agreement on the appointment of bishops and must be seen in that context.
In 2018, the Vatican heralded the signing of the provisional agreement as “historic.” Its negotiations had spanned three papacies, and it was said to be the path for the Church’s normalization in China. It is proving to be anything but.
The agreement was concluded just as President Xi Jinping was ushering in a new era of religious repression that he euphemistically termed “Sinicization.” The Vatican ignored the threats and maintained that its goals in the agreement were limited and achievable. In a September 26, 2018, letter to China’s Catholics, Pope Francis defined the agreement with China in narrow terms that served the Church’s core interests. He wrote that it was to provide “good shepherds” for preaching the Gospel in China and “reestablishing full and visible unity in the Church.” Two years later, during a press conference at the first renewal of the agreement, Vatican secretary of state Pietro Parolin dodged a question about the Uyghur genocide and made it clear that the deal’s concerns — contained in provisions that are kept secret to this day — are merely narrow pastoral ones, and not about larger, thornier human-rights issues. In an Italian media interview on August 8, 2022, Parolin reiterated that the agreement reinforces the Church’s ability to appoint bishops that are “authentic shepherds according to Christ’s heart,” an issue that the Vatican press L’Osservatore Romano called of “vital importance for the life of the Church, both locally and universally” in 2020.
But even on its own limited terms, the provisional agreement has been a raw deal for the Vatican. Under it, there have been only six new episcopal appointments, the last one made over a year ago. Vatican observers point to credible evidence that Pope Francis accepted two of the six after the fact, playing no role beyond giving his approval. Moreover, eight of China’s bishops appointed with a papal mandate are now detained, disappeared, on trial, or forced from their ministries because they reject the Patriotic Church and criticize its pledge of “independence” from the Vatican — a pledge to which Vatican guidelines in 2019 permit conscientious objection. Most have been repeatedly detained, typically in secret locations known as “black jails,” and subjected to political indoctrination. [Their names are listed below.] Along with the natural deaths of several others, there has been a net loss in the number of China’s bishops since 2018, and one-third of China’s 90-plus dioceses are estimated to remain in need of episcopal appointments.
In 2018, President Xi directed Chinese Catholic Church unity to occur within the Patriotic Catholic Church, under the leadership of the CCP, through its United Front Work Department. Chinese authorities have exploited the secrecy of the agreement’s contents to falsely tell Chinese Catholic clergy that the Vatican requires them to join the Patriotic Church and submit to its pledge of “independence” from foreign powers, which would implicitly renounce fealty to the pope. It enforces this with the cruel coercion of conscientious objectors. All bishops are closely surveilled, subjected to indoctrination in CCP principles, and required to make Xi’s sayings part of their sermons. Bishop An of Baoding, who himself was subjected to long imprisonment and “reeducation,” recently threatened to deny sacraments to anyone in his diocese who resisted joining the Patriotic Church, without protest from the Vatican. And under the agreement, the CCP effort to stamp out the Catholic underground has been reinvigorated with the cooperation of the Vatican, just as Cardinal Zen predicted.
Beijing began blatantly ignoring the agreement soon after the October 2020 renewal, which it agreed to by note verbale, that is, without signing. The following month, China issued a nation-wide order regulating the selection, approval, and ordination of episcopal candidates with no mention of a papal role. In spring 2021, Xi visited Rome and snubbed the pope. This August in Wuhan, the important Tenth National Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, the first such gathering since the agreement, posted “official” Church documents without any mention of the papal agreement.
During his visit to Kazakhstan two weeks ago, Pope Francis publicly declared his intent to seek renewal of the agreement which is set to expire in October. He expressed overall satisfaction with it, saying it is “moving well,” though “not ideal.” As for the pending trial of Cardinal Zen, Francis downplayed its significance, remarking that the cardinal “says what he feels” and freedom has “limitations.” Cardinal Parolin bluntly laid out the Vatican position last May, when he urged that the shocking arrest of Zen not be read as “a disavowal” of the agreement. Despite Beijing’s hardening authoritarian control and demonstrable untrustworthiness in this and other agreements, Vatican officials eschew any criticism of it, including by raising awareness or encouraging prayers on behalf of Cardinal Zen and other persecuted Chinese bishops and priests. This has long been Vatican policy. Leading Vatican negotiator with Beijing, Monsignor Claudio Celli, told me while visiting Washington in the 1990s not to advocate for imprisoned Chinese Catholic bishops in order to protect his dialogue efforts, though he conceded that, as a lay person, I have the right to do so.
Lately, the Vatican has offered to move its valued study center in Hong Kong to Beijing. It hints that it would withdraw diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. High-level Vatican officials have even tried kowtowing — by affirming that China’s church is not persecuted, only “regulated” (Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State); praising Beijing for “defend[ing] the dignity of the human person” (Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, then-chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences); and publicly criticizing the bishops who reject the Patriotic Church as having a “psychological barrier” (Bishop Javier Herrera Corona, the Holy See’s then-representative in Hong Kong).
None of these tactics are working, and the Vatican certainly knows this. Xi is ideologically opposed to recognizing papal authority over China’s Catholic Church, and friendly diplomacy is not changing his mind. As someone involved in the Vatican negotiations anonymously told Catholic News Agency this month: “The Holy See extends a hand, but it knows on the other side there is a knife, and the blade is directed toward our hand.” Taken together, these developments reveal that the vaunted agreement is a legal fiction — one that has come at a high cost. The underground leadership is being devastated and, as occurred under the similar (and discredited) Ostpolitik policy of collaborating with Soviet Communism, the integrity of the Church is being compromised. However this trial ends, Cardinal Zen will be silenced and held hostage by the regime and China’s Church will continue to lose good shepherds.
The eight Chinese bishops currently being persecuted are listed below, in alphabetical order:
1. Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin, of Mindong, Fujian province, was demoted by the Vatican to auxiliary bishop in 2018, to make way for a bishop whose excommunication was lifted as an agreement precondition. In January 2020, as Covid spread, Chinese authorities evicted Bishop Guo from his home, forcing the then-61-year-old prelate to sleep on his church’s doorstep. After international pressure, he was allowed access to his apartment, only to find that its heat, water, and electricity were shut off. Thwarted in his episcopal ministry, he resigned and returned to his family’s village.
2. Bishop Augustine Cui Tai, Coadjutor of Xuanhua Diocese, Hebei province, disappeared following an arrest on June 19, 2020, after being freed from detention that January. The 72-year-old bishop had spent most of the last 15 years under house arrest or in secret detention without due process.
3. Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, of Zhengding, Hebei province, born in 1935, was sequestered for indoctrination on August 10, 2020, and subsequently disappeared. He defied recent regime directives to ban children from church and for 30 years had run an orphanage for disabled children. He had spent decades in prison and under house arrest with tight surveillance. Internet reports that he has died have not been confirmed.
4. Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin is the 59-year-old bishop of Yongjia (Wenzhou) diocese, Zhejiang province. He has been detained in secret locations six times since 2016, including between October 25 and an unknown date in November 2021. He reportedly was detained again on April 7, 2022, and forced onto a flight to an unknown destination.
5. Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen, the 93-year-old bishop of Tianjin, is under house arrest and has been for several years. In September 2022, a Vatican delegation that arrived in Tianjin to negotiate the agreement was able to give him a pectoral cross from the pope.
6. Bishop James Su Zhimin, Baoding diocese, Hebei province, is among today’s longest serving political prisoners. While leading a religious procession in 1996, Bishop Su was taken into police custody and imprisoned without trial in 1997. Nothing has been learned about him since. On November 15, 2003, he was spotted under guard in a Baoding hospital by relatives. His nephew Su Tianyou stated that Guo Wei, a China religious-affairs official involved in negotiations with the Vatican, said to wait for an improvement in China–Vatican relations for Bishop Su’s release. Despite the 2018 agreement, though, no release of and no information about the 90-year-old bishop has come. Under Mao, Bishop Su had been imprisoned for 26 years and severely tortured.
7. Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang, Henan province, was arrested in May 2021 while convalescing from cancer surgery and detained without due process in a black jail. His arrest, along with that of ten priests and a number of seminarians, occurred during a raid by over 100 public-security officers on a former factory where the bishop ran a seminary for fellow conscientious objectors. While the others were released, the 63-year-old bishop remains detained in a secret location. He has been previously arrested and jailed.
8. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, is the most senior Chinese hierarch ever arrested by the CCP. (Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei of Shanghai was not made a cardinal until 1979, after his 1955 arrest, political show trial, and two decades of imprisonment, which continued until 1988.) On May 11, Cardinal Zen was arrested by security police on accusations of “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces,” under Hong Kong’s sweeping national-security law. While that investigation continues, he faces trial on charges that, as a trustee, he and five others failed to register a now-defunct aid fund for pro-democracy protestors.