Vatican spokesman insists pope, aides are united on approach to China

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Catholics who have accused top members
of the Roman Curia of making overtures to China’s communist government without
the knowledge of Pope Francis are “fostering confusion and
controversy,” said the director of the Vatican press office.

The rumors of division between the pope and his top aides
made headlines in late January after Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired
archbishop of Hong Kong, met personally with Pope Francis to discuss his
opposition to encouraging two bishops to retire so they could be
replaced by two bishops approved by the government, but whose status with the
Vatican has been troubled.

“In spite of the danger of being accused of breach of
confidentiality,” Cardinal Zen wrote on a Facebook post Jan. 29, he had
decided “to tell you what His Holiness said: ‘Yes, I told them (his
collaborators in the Holy See) not to create another Mindszenty case!'”

The late Hungarian Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was arrested by
communist authorities in 1948 and sentenced to life in prison. He was freed
during the 1956 uprising, but when the uprising failed, he took refuge in the
U.S. Embassy in Budapest. Although he could not exercise his ministry, the
cardinal’s presence in the country was a nuisance to the communist government.

In the interest of helping negotiations, Blessed Paul VI
asked the cardinal to leave Hungary, and in 1972 the primate moved to Austria,
although he retained his title as archbishop and primate of Hungary. After further
negotiations with the government, Blessed Paul declared the See of Esztergom
vacant in 1974, opening the way to normalization of relations between church
and state. Cardinal Mindszenty died the following year.

Cardinal Zen said, “I was there in the presence of the
Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China,” so Pope Francis’
reference to Cardinal Mindszenty “should be rightly understood as of
consolation and encouragement more for them than for me.”

But Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said
any “presumed difference of thought and action between the Holy Father and
his collaborators in the Roman Curia on issues relating to China” were

Burke did not, however, make any comment regarding the accuracy or inaccuracy of reports about the proposed transfer of bishops in China.

“The pope is in constant contact with his
collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues,
and is informed by them faithfully and in detail on the situation of the
Catholic Church in China and on the steps in the dialogue in progress between
the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, which he follows with special
attention,” Burke said. “It is therefore surprising and regrettable
that the contrary is affirmed by people in the church, thus fostering confusion
and controversy.”

Cardinal Zen said he traveled to the Vatican in January to
ensure that Pope Francis personally received letters on the situation in China,
particularly regarding the case of two “legitimate bishops” — those
recognized by the Vatican — “being asked by the ‘Holy See’ to resign and
make place for illegitimate, even explicitly excommunicated, ‘bishops.'”

The problem, Cardinal Zen wrote on Facebook, “is not
the resignation of the legitimate bishops, but the request to make place for
the illegitimate and even excommunicated ones.”

According to, Bishop Zhuang Jianjian, 88, of
Shantou and Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin, 59, of Mindong were asked to step down.
Both are recognized as bishops by the Vatican. Bishop Zhuang was to be
succeeded by Bishop Huang Bingzhang, 51, of Shantou, who had been
excommunicated. Bishop Guo was to be succeeded by Bishop Zhan Silu, 57, of
Mindong, who was ordained illicitly but is recognized by the government.

In the past, Cardinal Zen said, the popes and Vatican have
avoided using the word “schism” to describe those who participated in
the life of the government-approved Catholic community because they knew many
of the people “were not there by their own free will, but under heavy

If the move to replace the bishops goes forward, Cardinal
Zen said, “the Vatican would be giving the blessing” to “the new
strengthened schismatic church.”

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a long letter
to Chinese Catholics. Among other things, it established new guidelines to
favor cooperation between clandestine Catholic communities and those officially
registered with the government, in an effort to promote church unity.

It opened the door to registration with the
government by bishops and Catholic communities, as long as this did not
compromise principles of the faith and church communion. The “clandestine
condition” is not normal or desirable for the church, it said.

For years, the Vatican has worked privately
with Chinese church officials, and many bishops who were ordained illicitly secretly
reconciled with the Vatican. The 2007 letter asked those bishops to make that
fact clear to the faithful.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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