The predicament of the Catholic Church in China is one of lights and shadows -- improvements in one area, run-ins with the government in others.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun is perhaps one of the most noteworthy spokesmen of this predicament. The 78-year-old cardinal was appointed the coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, taking the reins of the diocese in 2002, until his retirement last year.
Cardinal Zen was in Germany last month for the 8th European Catholic China Colloquium, which brought together representatives of Catholic organizations and initiatives in Europe. The China Center in St. Augustine, near the former German capital Bonn, was charged with the organization this year.
ZENIT spoke with the cardinal at that conference, asking him about the current situation and the future of the Church in China.
ZENIT: What in your opinion is the precondition for true human development in China, including the special administrative regions like Hong Kong? And what is the role of Christians in achieving this?
Cardinal Zen: I think, if the development should be a real one it should be integral and comprehensive, as Archbishop [Reinhard] Marx [of Munich] has said here [at the colloquium] very well. And the Catholic Church can help on the spiritual side. Unfortunately too many people think development means only economic and technological progress. That is not enough. I think on the spiritual level many can contribute, not only Catholics, also for example, Confucianism as a very precious heritage of the Chinese people. But surely we Catholics, or Christians in general, have Jesus Christ as real model of human perfection.
ZENIT: How attractive is Christianity in mainland China nowadays?
Cardinal Zen: There is a little more legal relaxation for Catholic families to baptize their children. Before it was forbidden; you had to reach the age of 18 years. But now you are allowed to baptize your children, which is very good. Concerning the attractiveness for the people from outside, surely it exists. But I do not know how much, I am not informed about the details. But especially the university students, the intellectuals -- they come into contact with Christian doctrine through Western culture. And they are very much interested. I know that there are also academic exchanges between the West and China; that is very promising.
ZENIT: Does the regime try to control this development?
Cardinal Zen: Well, very strange, on the academic level many more freedoms are allowed. The priests are not allowed to preach there, but academic exchange is allowed.
ZENIT: But one day the regime will lose control over the intellectuals, won't it?
Cardinal Zen: It is [already].
ZENIT: Is this maybe the hope for the future?
Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun: Yes, I think so. When Chinese students come for exchange to Hong Kong, to the Hong Kong University, for example, they invite me and I go there and there is no objection because it is on the academic level.
ZENIT: You have recently warned again about the paternalism of the Catholic Patriotic Association. What has been the reason for this?
Cardinal Zen: For me the Patriotic Association, especially on the national level, is very powerful; the bishops have nothing to say and no power at all. This is obviously because the government uses the Patriotic Association to control the Church. Mr. Liu Bainian [vice president of the association] represents the government, to keep the Church and the bishops controlled by him. After so many years they are so powerful and they have so many advantages, so be sure they do not want to change. On the local level it is a very different situation because in some places the bishop has enough power so that the association has not so much power.
But it is obvious that the situation is not for the good of the country because everybody knows that the Church is not really free. They do not respect the Chinese government and they see that there is no freedom there. But unfortunately the association has so many friends in the government, so maybe there is some difficulty for the government to eliminate the Patriotic Association. But we really need a decision because if you keep the association nobody in China or outside will believe [there is] a real religious freedom.
ZENIT: Has the situation improved over all concerning the ordination of bishops and the cooperation between China and the Vatican?
Cardinal Zen: The improvement in these days is that there have been no illegitimate ordinations in the last few months. But is that truly very good? I doubt it, because, what do you mean when you say: "A bishop is accepted by both sides, by the Chinese government and by the Holy See." You can have many different possibilities. One possibility is, what we desire, that the Holy Father chooses bishops and the Chinese government says, "OK, we have no objection." That is the ideal. But is this the case? No. We see that many times the government says, "We want this bishop." Maybe he is not that good but the Holy See says, "In that diocese we want this bishop and if you agree in this case, we say OK in the other case." So it is bargaining and sometimes you get more advantage and sometimes less; sometimes you make more concessions, which is very dangerous. Certainly it is not true that the Chinese government willingly accepts all the candidates of the Holy See.
ZENIT: How long will it take until the Holy See exchanges ambassadors with Beijing?
Cardinal Zen: Actually, all the commentators say it is not very likely because now Beijing and Taiwan are in a better relationship. So, in some way, Beijing allows Taipei to keep diplomatic relations with several small countries and among them the Holy See. If Beijing would accept diplomatic relations with the Vatican, the Vatican would have to abandon Taiwan and so, indirectly Beijing would offend Taiwan. So they may not be in a hurry to have diplomatic relations. But that is not the question. Even without diplomatic relations you must understand that the improvement of the situation, the normalization, is good.