Cardinal warns against sacrificing Church's principles in dialogue with China

By Benjamin Mann

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The former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, has warned that the Vatican must not sacrifice its fundamental principles in the effort to improve relations with the Chinese government.

“Dialogue and compromise are necessary, but there must be a bottom line,” wrote Cardinal Zen in an April 1 essay outlining his concerns about the Vatican's approach to China.“We cannot renounce the principles of our faith and our basic ecclesiastical discipline, just to please the Beijing government.”

Cardinal Zen's views put him at odds with others, including the Belgian priest Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx, who believe that the Holy See should not regard a series of recent provocative acts by the Chinese government as a serious obstacle in their ongoing dialogue.

In December 2010, government officials forced many bishops loyal to the Vatican to attend state-sponsored meetings of a unauthorized group claiming to be the “Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China.” During the previous month, a smaller group of bishops were reportedly coerced into participating in the consecration of a bishop without the approval of Pope Benedict XVI.

The unauthorized consecration prompted outrage from Cardinal Zen, who stated at the time that the government's “fascist method” and “gangster-style” tactics had “brought shame on our noble nation.” A Vatican communique described the event as a “grave violation of Catholic discipline” that had caused Pope Benedict “deep regret.”

But Fr. Heyndrickx, who has worked extensively with China on behalf of the CICM missionaries, wrote in a March 2011 essay that the illicit consecration “should not block the 40-year-old dialogue policy of Rome.” The Belgian priest believes the Vatican should model its current relationship with China on Pope Paul VI's interaction with communist regimes under the policy known as “Ostpolitik.”

Cardinal Zen, however, blames precisely this kind of approach for the ongoing oppression of the Catholic Church in China.

“Our Church in China is now in a disastrous situation, because during the last years some have blindly and stubbornly pursued that same policy of Ostpolitik,” he wrote in a public response to Fr. Heyndrickx.

“Our bishops needed some supply of courage,” said the former Bishop of Hong Kong. “But instead they received much misplaced compassion, which pushed them deeper and deeper into the mire of slavish subjection.”

“Somebody told these our brothers, 'We understand you.' This meant, obviously: 'We understand you, even if you, under pressure, obey to the orders of the Government.'”

But Cardinal Zen pointed out that some government orders – like last November's illicit episcopal consecration –  are contrary to the nature of the Church. “In this case, to obey the Government means to betray grievously the loyalty due to the Pope and to the communion with the Universal Church!”

The cardinal noted that some of the bishops involved in the illicit ordination and the government-led bishops' gathering had deeply regretted their participation. He acknowledged the repentance of those who had found themselves in a complex and difficult situation.

“But there are others who, as Father Heyndrickx confirms, were enthusiastic of the present situation,” Cardinal Zen said. “I am afraid these people do not belong to our Church any more.”

“It is only out of kindness, that the Pope refrains from calling that part of the Church 'schismatic,' when they proclaim solemnly the will of being an independent Church and of carrying out episcopal ordinations without pontifical mandate,” the cardinal argued.

Actions that divide the Church, he said, cannot be tolerated blindly even in the course of an ongoing dialogue.

“The dialogue is surely of paramount importance,” he acknowledged. “But in our case, people have rudely slammed the door in the face of their all-too-gentle interlocutors.”

At least 100 bishops who currently belong to the state-run “Catholic Patriotic Association” have sought and achieved communion with the Holy See after declaring their loyalty to the Pope. While the Vatican does not regards individual members of the association as schismatic, Pope Benedict has condemned the association's claim of independence from Rome as “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”

In his 2007 “Letter to Chinese Catholics,” the Pope called attention to the ongoing question of episcopal consecrations, as an issue that “touches the very heart of the life of the Church, inasmuch as the appointment of Bishops by the Pope is the guarantee of the unity of the Church and of hierarchical communion.”

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