Pope Benedict XVI's elevation of Hong Kong's outspoken Bishop Joseph Zen to cardinal might be interpreted as a sign that the Vatican is taking a tough line toward Beijing, with which it broke diplomatic relations in 1949.
In the last few years, Bishop Zen has moved to the forefront of Hong Kong's democracy movement, calling citizens into the streets for demonstrations and comparing Beijing's refusal to allow the election of Hong Kong's chief executive and legislature to "a June 4 crackdown without blood," according to a story in the Washington Post's June 5, 2004, edition.
It seems likely, however, that the bishop's elevation fits with Vatican plans to establish formal ties with Beijing by breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan and finding an accommodation with China's official church, the Patriotic Catholic Association.
Hints that both compromises are in the works have come from Bishop Zen himself, 74, who left Shanghai for colonial British Hong Kong as the communists were consolidating power. At the time of the Pope's death last year, Zen indicated that the Vatican had already decided to break ties with Taiwan in return for concessions on freedom to operate inside China. "There's no other way," the Associated Press reported he said at the time.
The other, more contentious issue is the authority to name bishops. That has been a major stumbling block in the past, but on that point too Bishop Zen has suggested that the Vatican and Beijing have already found common ground. Last October, Bishop Zen reportedly told bishops at the Vatican that "the great majority of bishops of the official church have been legitimized through the generosity" of the pope, according to the Washington Post of October 16. The Vatican has reportedly secretly endorsed 49 of 79 communist-approved bishops, USA Today reported in April.
This overlap between the PCA and the underground church is part of the Vatican's strategy to avoid a permanent division among China's Catholics, an estimated 4 million in the communist sanctioned church and 8 million who belong to the underground church.
It also reflects the Vatican's confidence, recounted in George Weigel's biography of John Paul II, "Witness to Hope," that "the traditional Roman loyalty of Chinese Catholics who had aligned themselves with the Patriotic Catholic Association had reasserted itself..." in the form of "cooperation between PCA members and underground Catholics country wide, and ... statements of submission and fealty that many PCA bishops had managed to smuggle to John Paul II in Rome" and even public prayers for the Pope at PCA masses.
At 74, Bishop Zen is small and compact, with a full head of gray hair, glasses, and a placid demeanor occasionally animated by a grin. A few years ago, looking out of place in the coffee shop of the fashionable Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central Hong Kong, Bishop Zen told visitors who asked about pressure from Beijing, that he, not communist authorities, determined whether he felt intimidation or not.
Despite leaving the mainland more than 50 years ago, he has spent considerable time there over the past twenty years, teaching and making contact with Catholics, which suggests he has already reached a modus vivendi with the communist authorities.
If the Vatican and
Beijing do establish ties, it should not be attributed to the absence
of the staunch anti-communist John Paul II. The late pope worked for more
than 20 years to establish a relationship with Beijing, writing directly
to Deng Xiao-ping in 1983 that Taiwan was "a complicated situation
in which the Holy See has found itself, through a series of events, not
always dependent on its own will."
Such a gamble leaves important questions unanswered, such whether Beijing will end the arrest and torture of underground church members, and allow Catholic teachings on abortion and other matters, the implications of weakening Taiwan for the future of freedom in China, and why, if there is so much of a following in the sanctioned church already it is necessary to make any concessions at all.
Beijing and the Vatican have been close to a deal before. The reluctance appears to be on Beijing's side. As Bishop Zen has said, "China doesn't want any compromise. They want a complete surrender," USA Today quoted him as saying in 2005. Any deal the Vatican strikes will be judged against that standard.