An eminent Cardinal, but not very prudent


Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun is an eminent prelate who sincerely loves his country and the Church. Born in Shanghai in 1932, ordained to the priesthood in the Salesian Order in 1961, he was appointed Bishop by John Paul II in 1996 and created Cardinal by Benedict XVI in 2006. Between 1996 and 2009 he was coadjutor and subsequently Archbishop of the diocese of Hong Kong, No one knows better than he does the complexity of the political and religious situation in China.

On January 9, 2016, Cardinal Zen, today Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, voiced severe criticism of the Vatican policy towards China which has evolved during the pontificate of Pope Francis. The Vatican reporter, Sandro Magister sums up the situation in these terms: “Since it has been in power, in fact, the Chinese Communist Party has wanted to set up a Church submissive to itself and separate from Rome, with bishops appointed by its own exclusive warrant and ordained without the approval of the Pope, subjugated to a “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association” that Benedict XVI called “irreconcilable” with Catholic doctrine. An “official” Church, therefore, on the brink of schism. Interwoven with an “underground” Church led by bishops not recognized by Beijing and absolutely faithful to the Pope, who however, pay the full price of clandestinity: oppression, surveillance, arrest, abduction.”1.

Cardinal Zen is the voice today that best represents this “subterranean” Church.  “I am the voice of the voiceless not only to protest against the Communist Authorities, but also to put certain questions to our Roman Authorities. All these years actions were posited which offend the doctrine and the discipline of our Church: illegitimate and excommunicated bishops perform pontifical rites and sacred ordinations, legitimate bishops take part in illegitimate Episcopal ordinations up to four times; almost the total participation of the bishops of the official community at the National Assembly of Catholic representatives. No word came from Rome! Don’t our brothers  in China have the right to be confused and pose questions?”2

The subterranean Chinese Church has been sacrificed on the altar of a political strategy that constitutes the comeback in vogue of the Vatican Ostpolitik.  In an intervention on Asia News of February 13th 2018, Zen stated that Parolin, the Secretary of State: “venerates the Ostpolitik diplomacy of his master Casaroli and despises the genuine faith of those who firmly defend the Church founded by Jesus on the Apostles from any interference by secular power.”3

In a subsequent letter to the entire College of Cardinals dated September 27, 2019, the Chinese Cardinal accused the Secretary of State of encouraging: “the faithful in China to be part of a schismatic Church (independent of the Pope and under the command of the Communist Party)”;  he concluded with a dramatic question:  “Can we watch passively this murder of the Church in China by the ones who ought to be protecting Her and defending Her from Her enemies?” 4

With these declarations Cardinal Zen has aligned himself with many courageous witnesses to the faith, starting with Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, who, on November 1, 1973, resisted Paul VI to his face, by opposing, with respectful refusal, the Pope’s request for his demission from the primatial archiepiscopal seat of Estergom. On November 8th of the same year, Paul VI removed him from office, but the Cardinal was not silent and denounced the Vatican Ostpolitik in his Memoirs Rusconi Editore, Milano 1975). Today the cause for his beatification is underway.

Cardinal Zen, however, has weakened the logic of his statements. In a recent interview to CNA he warned against the “danger” of polemical interpretations of Vatican II, by declaring that, after fifty years, “its light still leads the Church through the darkness of her journey today.” 5

The Ostpolitik that Cardinal Zen criticizes, is, in fact, fruit of the Second Vatican Council.  This is historical evidence that does not admit denials.


In the years of the Second Vatican Council , from 1962 to 1965, Communism constituted a threat to the Church and humanity never before seen in history. The assembly of Council Fathers, gathered together to discuss relationships between the Church and the modern world, did not say a word about Communism, despite the fact that hundreds of them had asked for a solemn, public condemnation of this scourge.  Cardinal Zen asked that the texts of the Council be rediscovered and defined them as the real fruit of Vatican II. “Through those documents you hear the real voice of the Holy Spirit, he said, and “the Holy Spirit of today does not contradict the Holy Spirit of yesterday” .

The Holy Spirit nonetheless did not raise His voice against Communism. Therefore many historians and theologians are right, from Monsignor Gherardini to Cardinal Brandmüller, when they say the magisterial value and the binding authority of the conciliar texts has still all to be discussed, without excluding the idea that many of those documents might end up one day in the rubbish bin. But what is more important is that the Second Vatican Council is a historical event which cannot be reduced to muddled and ambiguous texts.  Its distinctive note is the spirit which moved it: a spirit whereby the way in which doctrine had to be presented to the faithful was more important than the doctrine itself.

Cardinal Zen states: “I believe it would be very fruitful to read the opening sermon of Vatican II by Pope John XXIII, where he explained the true meaning of ‘aggiornamento’: facing all the threats of modern civilization the Church must not be afraid, but find the ways apt to show to the world the true face of Jesus, the Redeemer of Man.”

Well, in that speech, which opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11 1962, John XXIII explained that “for the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment, is another thing.” The different  fashion was the  passage “from anathema to dialogue”.  In the case of Communism, decades of condemnation needed to be laid aside in order to pass to the new strategy of an ‘outstretched hand’.  There was the conviction that collaboration with the enemy would have brought about better results more than fighting against it did. And John XXIII’s speech, the one Cardinal Zen likes, was the magna charta of the “détente” policy that he dislikes.

The first expression of Ostpolitik, symbolized by the then [Secretary of State] Monsignor Casaroli, was the “pledge” made by the Holy See to the Soviet government not to condemn Communism in any form whatsoever. This was the condition requested by the Kremlin in permitting the participation of observers from the Moscow patriarchy at Vatican II.

There is no need for great sagacity to understand that Ostpolitik toward Russia was fruit of a precise political choice made by John XXIII and Paul VI, as the Ospolitik towards China is fruit of Pope Francis’ political strategy. Secretaries of State are executors of the indications given by Pontiffs and the Pontiffs assume the responsibilities of the political choices made by the Holy See. In this regard John XXIII and Paul VI, like Pope Francis today, have committed significant pastoral and political errors.

It is not the first time that this has happened in history. The ralliement of Leo XIII to the third Masonic Republic was a devastating error and historians today emphasize its grave consequences. Criticizing the strategic and pastoral errors of a Pope, is however, legitimate and Cardinal Zen does so when criticizing the Holy See’s politics of yesterday and today towards Communism.  Should anyone  object by saying Popes are always guided by the Holy Spirit, he might easily respond that a Pope can fall into error, as has happened, and may still happen in history. And also we are convinced that the Holy Spirit did not assist in the Ostpolitik of Pope Francis, but enlightens Cardinal Zen’s criticism of Ostpolitik.  If however a Pope can err, even more so this can be applied to a Council,  which remains nonetheless a valid Council, Valid yes, but catastrophic, as was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Church.

If, on the other hand, we must accept unquestioningly the spirit and texts of this Council, we will be obliged to accept also Francis’ politics regarding China, expressed in the words of Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the  Pontifical Academy of  Social Sciences: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese […]They hold the common good above all else, everything else comes second to the common good”.  China “is defending the dignity of the person”.6  And with admirable China it is urgent to find the best relations.

Mons. Sánchez Sorondo is one of  Pope Francis’s trusted men whereas Cardinal Zen was harshly criticized by the Vatican  establishment for his position on the agreement between the Holy See and Communist China. In the face of such criticism, last February 29, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote a letter of support to Cardinal Zen wherein he  points out that:  “The Vatican has done everything and more to deliver the Chinese Martyr Church into the hands of the Enemy: it did so by signing the Secret Pact; it did so by legitimizing excommunicated “bishops” who are agents of the regime; it did so by the deposition of legitimate bishops; it did so by forcing faithful priests to register with a church that has succumbed to the Communist dictatorship; it does so on a daily basis by keeping silent about the persecutory fury that has gained unprecedented strength, precisely since the signing of that unfortunate Agreement. It is now doing so with this ignoble letter to all the cardinals, which is aimed at accusing you, denigrating you, and isolating you.  Our Lord assures us that nothing and no one will ever be able to snatch from His hands those who resist the infernal enemy and his acolytes, conquering them “by the Blood of the Lamb” and by the testimony of their martyrdom” (cf. Rev. 12:11).

Monsignor Viganò  is the same prelate, who, along with Monsignor Athanasius Schneider, recently opened up a debate on the Second Vatican Council. If  Cardinal Zen does not concur with the usefulness of this  debate it would have been more prudent for him to stay silent, as his declarations of unquestioning exaltation over Vatican II will not gain him any supporter, but risk making him lose many and most importantly, they offend the truth and undo the credibility of his sacrosanct criticism of the Vatican Ostpolitik.