Zen Will China Get a Pope?


Zen Will China Get a Pope?

Apr 19, 2005 5 min read

If the October 1978 election of John Paul II is a portent for the future, then the next pope will be Chinese. Poland and Eastern Europe needed a Polish pope in 1978, and China needs a Chinese pope today.

But it will not come to pass. First, the Church in China is far smaller than the Church under the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Second, it is doubtful that even a Chinese pope could sweet-talk the Chinese Communist party into loosening its iron grip on organized religion. Third, no Chinese cardinal I know of is eligible.

The China Secret

The only Chinese cardinal is the 82-year old Paul Cardinal Shan of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. It is possible, though, that the cardinal whom Pope John Paul II secretly named "in pectore" ("within the breast") in 2003 could have been Hong Kong's own Archbishop Joseph Zen.

At the time, members of the international media speculated that Bishop Zen was indeed the secret cardinal. He possesses all the qualifications. He is a devout teacher of the faith, a pillar of the city (a 2002 poll in Hong Kong's Apple Daily listed him as the city's "most significant person"), he bravely confronted the political abuses of Hong Kong's Communist overlords on the infamous "Article 23" sedition legislation and was so outspoken that Gao Siren, Beijing's man in Hong Kong, cautioned him to "learn from [John Baptist] Cardinal Wu," Bishop Zen's mild-mannered predecessor.

Of course, Bishop Zen has been vehement in his blasts against Beijing for the continued persecution of the Catholic Church in China, but that's to be expected. I can only assume that if John Paul had indeed wanted Zen to be the new cardinal from Hong Kong, and had told him so ahead of time (as is the normal practice for naming bishops) the good bishop demurred. A red-capped prince of the Church must of necessity be more circumspect in his dealings with the Chinese than an archbishop does, and the times do not permit the bishop of Hong Kong to be circumspect.

The name of the "secret cardinal" was not revealed in the papal will and the late pope's personal papers will be burned, so it is unlikely that anyone, except the nominee himself, will ever know. But if the Washington Post and The Economist and hundreds of other newspapers were speculating on Zen in 2003, their speculation was no doubt fueled by informed opinion within the curia itself. Which is to say, if the press believed Zen was the man, then so did the College of Cardinals itself. And as every Catholic-school pupil is taught in third-grade catechism, the cardinals can elect any priest they choose to be pope.

Persecution & Reconciliation

Of course, the College of Cardinals has the weight of a global Church resting on its shoulders and cannot expected to make its choice based on the needs of China or even Asia. Today, the Holy See reckons the Catholic Church in China has as many as 14 million members and a history that goes back at least as far as 1557, when a Jesuit padre said his first Mass in Macao.

In the intervening four centuries, the Chinese Church grew and thrived until 1950 when the Communists chased most foreign clergy out of the country and imprisoned the Chinese clergy. By 1957, when the government established its own "Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association" and began appointing its own bishops, the Roman Church in China ceased to function. Loyal Catholics went underground, and the elderly, the infirm, and those who couldn't manage the rigors of a real persecution tremblingly went over to the "above ground" CCPA. During Mao's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," even the CCPA was ruthlessly persecuted, allowed only to resurface after Mao's death - and even then they had to be on good behavior. Meanwhile the underground Church remained persecuted. Its clergy remained in labor camps, as did many of the faithful laity.

Even "Laogai" (camps for "reeducation through labor") were no sanctuary from persecution. When I was a consul in Beijing in 1979, I tried quietly to get another Jesuit, Fr. Francis Xavier Shude Zhu, an exit permit to visit the United States during his Laogai medical parole in Shanghai after completing over 27 years or incarceration. But the very ill Fr. Zhu was not allowed to leave China. Instead, he was sent back to the Baihu Laogai Camp near Shanghai. In 1983 he was convicted of continuing to proselytize among his Laogai comrades and sentenced to another 12 years in a proper prison cell, where he died in 1984.

Fr. Zhu's experience has been the norm for China's underground Catholics ever since. Before the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, the Chinese government relaxed its policies on Catholic worship and acquiesced if some CCPA bishops expressed loyalty to Rome. But the true loyalties of the CCPA priests and bishops remain suspect as they turned blind eyes to government policies on forced abortions and birth control, and tended to approve clearly unqualified novices for the priesthood.

To be sure, Pope John Paul II's 1989 injunction urging China's faithful Catholics to the "delicate task of fostering reconciliation within [China's] ecclesial community" has had the paradoxical result of leaving the CCPA congregations with majority underground populations. Since 1989, many CCPA bishops have found it in their pastoral interests to declare secret fealty to Rome. But this does not mean that the persecution has eased. Every two months, according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation, the Chinese government arrests more clergy, detains more believers, or bulldozes another church. And the pace of the persecution has stepped up, ironically enough, since Hu Jintao took over command of China's military last September.

If the Communist-party politburo has anything to say about it, there will never be a reconciliation between the Holy See and the People's Republic. Even today, there is no such thing in China as a "private" nongovernmental organization. Every gathering of citizens, whether it is a labor union, political party, religious sect, or stamp collectors club must have an official government or Communist-party sponsor, which is responsible to the party for the organization's behavior. As such, the sponsoring unit must control the organization's leadership. Just as firmly, the Holy See must have full authority to appoint its bishops throughout the Church. In the past, as in the Iron Curtain countries, the Vatican seeks civil government approval for its candidates, but has never ceded appointment and selection authority to those governments. China, however, insists on the latter.

At one time, Pope John Paul II believed that the only obstruction to accord with Beijing on this issue was Taiwan. Beijing insisted that the People's Republic would not even sit down and discuss the matter unless the Vatican removed its Apostolic Nuncio from Taipei. But the Holy See now understands that its ties with Taipei are the only remaining leverage it has in Beijing, and it cannot give it up without an agreement on the naming of Chinese bishops.

Taiwan itself means little to the Holy See in the broad spectrum of its world cares. There are only about 300,000 Catholics in the island, and local catholic missionaries bemoan the paucity of ethnic Taiwanese faithful. One priest told me last year that "the Bishops are from Mainland China, the priests from Viet Nam and the congregations are mostly Filipina," referring to the high population of young Philippine guest workers in Taiwan's production lines.

Hong Kong Bishop Zen understands this dynamic himself. In a much-misinterpreted comment following John Paul's death, the bishop was quoted as admitting, "The Vatican is planning to give up Taiwan. There's no other way." Less attention was focused on Bishop Zen's real point - that Vatican ties with Beijing would come only if Beijing was "willing to grant real freedom to the Church in mainland China."

Bishop Joseph Zen would make a superb leader of the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church faces challenges that affect vastly greater populations of Catholics than the relatively minor problems of China. There may well be a Chinese pope in the future, but not this time.

John Tkacik is research fellow for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the Heritage Foundation, Washington.

First appeared in the National Review Online