HONG KONG -- After a month of suffering from a lung disease, 84-year-old Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun is back again as a harsh critic of the Communist Party of China. This time, though, he is directing the brunt of his anger at the Roman Curia.
"It's really incredible how they can do such wrong things in Rome," Zen raged during a recent interview with The Nikkei at a Salesian monastery on a hill in eastern Hong Kong. "The new pope doesn't know anything about the church in China, and some people [in the Vatican are guiding the pope] in the wrong direction," he said. "It's a very dangerous situation."
Zen was born in Shanghai. He moved to Hong Kong to study theology in 1948 in the midst of the Chinese Civil War. During his studies in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s, he was exposed to the thinking that the church should be actively involved in social affairs. Since ordained bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong in 2002, he has committed himself to freedom and human rights activities, leading pro-democracy demonstrations.
Zen is worried about the narrowing distance between the Vatican and the Communist Party. The ostensibly atheist China and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951. The Chinese government led by the Communist Party then established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, appointing clerics who were excommunicated by the Vatican.
But the sour relationship came to an end in August, when Zen's successor, Cardinal John Tong Hon, wrote in a local Catholic weekly that Beijing and the Vatican had reached an initial agreement on the issue of appointive powers -- the biggest hindrance in the bilateral relationship.
The two sides are reportedly mulling over the idea, as a compromise, of setting up a new conference to choose bishops in China. Under the proposed system, the conference draws up a list of candidates and the pope makes the appointment. In other words, China does the selecting, while the pope has the power to veto.
Additional reporting said that in several dioceses those bishops appointed by China were also approved by the Vatican simultaneously, suggesting the two sides are increasingly coming closer to each other behind closed doors.
Pope Francis, selected in 2013, places great importance on dialogue with different religions and sects. He is also willing to improve relations with China, though Chinese Catholics number a mere 9 million to 10.5 million, or less than 1% of the population, according to an estimate by the Holy Spirit Study Center. China, for its part, hopes a better relationship with the Vatican, which has diplomatic ties with Taiwan. That will help keep Taiwan's pro-independence government, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, in check.
However, Zen, who taught theology and philosophy in mainland China for many years, is skeptical. "The bishop's conference is fake," he said. "It's a name used by the government." Zen recalled a moment when he visited the ancient city of Xian. He asked the bishop there when the next bishop's conference was going to be held. The bishop laughed and said: "You think we have meetings? We never have meetings. We have meetings, meaning the government calls us and gives [us] instructions. But that is not a meeting. We cannot discuss anything. The government does [everything]."
Another concern is the so-called underground church, a group of unofficial churches that have disobeyed the Chinese government and maintain allegiance to the pope. According to Tong, the new bishop's conference will include bishops from the underground church. Acknowledging this group in public may be a way to improve the situation for underground bishops and congregations who currently face the danger of arrest. Still, Zen said, those in the underground churches are very much afraid that "the church may sell them out [or] betray them."
Despite rumors that Beijing and the Vatican might reach a final agreement in late 2016, no official announcement has been made yet. A person familiar with the inner workings of the Vatican said some in the curia are cautious and believe China still does not have religious freedom.
"[Once] an agreement is signed, meaning the pope approves it, ... I will keep quiet," Zen said. But for now, he added, "I have to speak out because I am in a position to speak out." For the aging cardinal, the lifelong battle against the Communist Party is unlikely to end soon.