Cardinal Zen has history on his side, and he knows China better than any in the Vatican diplomatic corps

Joseph Cardinal Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, will not go away quietly. Which makes it difficult for the Vatican diplomats to go quietly and cut a deal with Chinese regime. What is playing out now, as the Holy See reportedly nears a deal with China on normalising relations, revisits a centuries-long debate about how the Church should deal with hostile, persecuting powers.

More specifically, the very public denunciation of Vatican diplomacy by Cardinal Zen revisits the Ostpolitik practised by the Holy See during the 1960s and 70s. The “eastern politics” of Vatican diplomacy sought to achieve breathing room for the Church under communism by ratcheting down the anti-communist rhetoric and reining in the underground Churches faithful to Rome. The Ostpolitik was the attempt by Blessed Paul VI to try a different path than that of Venerable Pius XII, who shut down all official contacts with the Soviet empire and its satellites.

In practice, Ostpolitik was bitterly opposed by the much of Catholic leadership who had suffered persecution behind the Iron Curtain. To do a deal with the Devil was to betray the witness of the martyrs. Or, as Cardinal Zen puts it with characteristic frankness, it is like St Joseph negotiating with King Herod after the massacre of the innocents.

Blessed Paul VI’s Ostpolitik was a cause of suffering for him; while he believed it was right, he took no pleasure in either dealing with the Devil or opposing the heroic pastors who daily bore the brunt of the battle. It was not, he conceded, a “policy of glory”. It was employed on the grounds that it was, according to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, the best way to salvare il salvabile – to save what could be saved.

The policy did not save much. It did not strengthen the Church behind the Iron Curtain, though it did secure the release from prison – at the cost of permanent exile – of several bishops. The one local Church that remained steadfast and strong under communism was in Poland, and there the primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, insisted that he, and he alone, would deal with the Polish communists. Such was his towering stature that he kept Vatican diplomats at bay for some 30 years, blocking the ne plus ultra of Vatican diplomacy, a full-status nunciature and exchange of ambassadors. He judged the price of that to be too high.

Cardinal Zen has rather the same view. The difference today is that we are able to hear the disagreements openly.

“In the Church there is a full right to disagree and to tell one’s own criticisms, and that the Holy See has a moral duty to listen to them and to evaluate them carefully,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said in defending his China policy. “It is legitimate to have different views over the most appropriate responses to the problems of the past and present. That is entirely reasonable.”

Cardinal Parolin may well think that a “far eastern politics” will succeed where Ostpolitik failed. But he acknowledges that his view is not the only one, and that those who have suffered most are in disagreement with him. Whereas under the original Ostpolitik the Vatican’s diplomats could do their work in secret, and the underground Church had little recourse, today Cardinal Zen ensures that the betrayal of the Church in China – as he sees it – will have to be accomplished in the open.

After Cardinal Parolin’s defence of the Holy See’s China policy, a senior official – perhaps the cardinal himself, but certainly someone authorised by him – gave a lengthy interview to America magazine in which he laid out the path ahead with the Chinese regime.

“It is a suffered accord; it is not a good one, it is not the one we would like, but it is the best that we can get at this moment,” anonymous source said. The best that we can get. Salvare il salvabile.

Cardinal Zen argues that no accord is better than a bad accord. Don’t save what the communists will let you save, he argues. That is an illusion offered by fraudsters. The better way is to save your integrity and the fidelity of Catholic witness.

I am inclined to side with Cardinal Zen. He has history on his side, and he knows China better than any in the Vatican diplomatic corps. But I also am inclined take his side because he is man who speaks clearly and has evident courage.

In 2013 I hosted Cardinal Zen in Kingston for our annual dinner in support of our mission on campus, the St John Fisher Dinner. I invited him – without having any relationship with him – because I admired him greatly. Yet I was shocked when he accepted. For a retired octogenarian, the trip from Hong Kong was long and tiring. Why did he accept?

He explained at the dinner that it was foolish for him to travel so far at his age; and, after all, he had to re-arrange the classes he was now teaching to seminarians. But he “had to come” when he saw the invitation. Anything to honour St John Fisher, he said, meant that he had to accept. Cardinal Zen came to Kingston in 2013 because the Church needs more men like St John Fisher in the face of persecuting regimes. And that’s why he went to Rome last month to press his case again.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the February 9th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here