All Eyes on the Vatican After Cardinal Zen’s Arrest

The arrest of Cardinal Zen brings to the fore some awkward questions about the Vatican's cozy relationship with Beijing.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired Cardinal Bishop of Hong Kong and one of the world’s leading human rights activists, was arrested on Wednesday evening in Hong Kong along with three others. The four arrested were trustees of the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” an organization that helps Hong Kong democracy activists pay their legal fees. Zen and the others were arrested for “collusion with foreign forces,” an offense which is part of a new security law instituted last year by Beijing to crack down on growing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. They were later released on bail. 

The arrest of a prominent Cardinal by the Chinese government raises some uncomfortable and delicate questions about the cozy relationship that Pope Francis’s Vatican has fostered with Beijing. In addition, one has to wonder if Zen’s own strained relationship with the pope—due in part to that close Rome/Beijing relationship—will result in a muted response from the Vatican about this outrageous act by the Chinese government.

Joseph Zen was born in Shanghai but fled to Hong Kong to escape Communist rule at the end of the Chinese Civil War. After 35 years as a priest, he was named the coadjutor Bishop of Hong Kong in 1996 by Pope John Paul II. He became the Bishop of that city upon the death of Cardinal John Baptist Wu in 2002, was named a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, and then retired from the See in 2009. 

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Zen has been outspoken throughout his life about the Chinese government’s human rights violations, which of course has put him in Beijing’s crosshairs. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, is that this principled stand has in recent years put him at odds with the Vatican. 

For decades relations between the Vatican and Beijing were strained over a number of issues, the first being the appointment of Chinese bishops. Since the establishment of the Communist Party in China in 1949, Catholics in the country were split into two groups: an underground Church in communion with the pope (and with bishops appointed by the pope) and a government-supported “Patriotic Catholic Association” which named its own bishops without input from Rome. 

Until the pontificate of Francis, no solution to this dual setup could be negotiated between Rome and Beijing. But in 2018 the two parties signed an agreement in which the selection of bishops would be jointly decided by the pope and the Chinese government. Immediately after the deal’s announcement, Cardinal Zen condemned it, saying that the Vatican was “giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves.” 

Since then Cardinal Zen has been a thorn in Francis’s side, as he continues to advocate for the rights of Chinese Catholics in the face of the Vatican’s capitulation to Beijing. In October 2020 Zen traveled to Rome for the purpose of urging Francis to appoint a bishop of Hong Kong who, in Zen’s words, could be “trusted by the people.” However, the pope refused to meet with Zen and the Cardinal had to return home to Hong Kong empty-handed. 

Since that failed meeting Zen has not slowed down. His involvement in the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund is just one of many human rights activities for the 90-year-old cleric. He has been outspoken in his criticism of the pope, even lamenting Traditiones Custodis, the apostolic letter restricting the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. 

Zen’s work has made living in Hong Kong dangerous. He considered leaving the city for the safety of Italy, but did want to abandon his people. 

Now that Cardinal Zen has been arrested, all eyes turn to Rome. The relationship between Cardinal Zen and Pope Francis is clearly strained, but will the pope let their differences—and his deal with Beijing—mute his duty and obligation to support a prince of the Church? 

As of this writing the Vatican has only stated that “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention.” 

While initial statements are often short on details, let’s hope that the Vatican does more than just “follow” this situation, but rather acts quickly in Cardinal Zen’s defense. 

If the Vatican doesn’t vigorously act to demand the immediate acquittal of Cardinal Zen—along with those arrested with him—it will set a terrible precedent. When even a Cardinal of the Church is not immune from a politically-motivated arrest by the Chinese government, what is the purpose of any deal or agreement between Rome and Beijing? The worse Zen is treated, the more obvious it becomes that the Vatican is just the lapdog of Beijing.

Further, if the Vatican does not protest strenuously against Zen’s treatment—even to the point of terminating its agreement with Beijing—then it’s open season on all Chinese Catholics. Any illusion that the 2018 agreement would protect the rights of Chinese Catholics to freely practice their religion would disappear. As Cardinal Zen predicted, it would be handing the flock over to the wolves. 

What can we ordinary Catholics do to help Cardinal Zen? First, we must pray and fast for the courageous Cardinal and all persecuted Chinese Catholics. Let’s flood Heaven for this brave witness to the Faith and advocate for the dignity of all men and women.

We can also contact our bishop, the papal nuncio, and even the Vatican directly and insist they do everything in their power to protect the rights of Cardinal Zen and other Chinese Catholics. No political agreement is more important than the rights and freedoms of persecuted Catholics. The pope and the Vatican must be made to see that their snug relationship with Beijing is being exposed right now, and they will have to choose a side.

[Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images]


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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