Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Vatican’s craven response to Cardinal Zen’s arrest

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 13, 2022

When Cardinal Zen was arrested, the Hong Kong diocese—which, bear in mind, lives under the heavy hand of China’s new “national security” laws, expressed its “extreme concern,” and added a pointed remark: “We trust that in the future we will continue enjoying religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law.”

Continue enjoying religious freedom? Cardinal Zen has been a target of the Beijing regime for years, precisely because he says that Catholics do not enjoy religious freedom in China. The government, by arresting the cardinal, underlines his point. But no doubt the Hong Kong diocese was choosing its words carefully, having just seen what happens to Hong Kong residents who criticize the government openly.

Other voices, not constrained by the Chinese security forces, were more clear in condemning the arrest. The White House observed that the cardinal had been “unjustly arrested and charged.” The US bishops’ conference remarked that Cardinal Zen was being prosecuted “due to his past role in administering a humanitarian fund for protestors,” and drew the obvious conclusion that the arrest “indicates a downward trend in respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong.” The University of Notre Dame went further, saying:

The weapon that makes a 90-year-old cleric such a threat to the Chinese Communist Party is simply this: Cardinal Zen possesses a conscience fueled by his faith.

But where was the strong statement from the Vatican? A spokesman for the Holy See meekly announced that the Holy See was “following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”

Attention. Not outrage. Not anger. Not fear for the safety of the elderly cardinal, or the freedom of the Catholics of Hong Kong. Attention. There was no denunciation of the cardinal’s arrest, no call for his immediate release. (Maybe the Vatican feared that Cardinal Zen, once free from custody, might show up inconveniently in Rome again, asking for that meeting with Pope Francis which, to date, he has been unable to secure.)

After the cardinal was released, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, gallantly told reporters of his “closeness to the cardinal”—while adding, in a clear bid to ingratiate himself with the Chinese regime, that Cardinal Zen had been “treated well.”

Treated. Well. He was arrested, for pity’s sake. Is that benign treatment, by the Vatican’s curious standards? Rather than denouncing the unjust arrest of a Prince of the Church, the Vatican complimented the security forces for the way they had treated him!

How can we explain this craven response to a Chinese assault on religious and political freedom? In that same session with reporters, Cardinal Parolin offered an answer: “The most concrete hope is that initiatives such as this one will not complicate the already complex and not simple path of dialogue between the Holy See and the Church in China.”

The Vatican has been willing to overlook Chinese offenses, one after another, in order to preserve the secret agreement that has allowed for the appointment of Chinese bishops named by the Holy See (and vetted by Beijing). The goal, we are told, is to preserve the autonomy of the Church in China, and the freedom of those Catholic bishops. Yet as Cardinal Zen has repeatedly warned, the Chinese government continues to restrict the bishops’ freedom. What will happen when Beijing tightens the screws further, and begins tossing recalcitrant prelates in jail? Well, now we know the answer to that question as well.

You cannot promote the religious freedom of the Chinese people by abandoning the most visible champion of religious freedom. You cannot ensure freedom of action for Chinese bishops by downplaying the arrest of a Chinese bishop.

The Chinese government, by the way, was unapologetic about the arrest. A spokesman announced: “I want to stress that Hong Kong is a society with rule of law where no organization or individual is above the law and all offenses shall be prosecuted and punished in accordance with law.” The message came through loud and clear—to everyone, it seems, except the Vatican.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - May. 15, 2022 7:45 AM ET USA

    I'm afraid that the Vatican's "secret agreement" with CPC is akin to the secret agreement Apostle Judas made with the Sanhedrin.

  • Posted by: dcnmthompson7484 - May. 14, 2022 9:52 AM ET USA

    The Vatican seems more interested in stamping out the traditional mass and probably doesn’t have much time left over to worry about dystopian oppression from a communist regime that has made it their mission to attack those of Faith.

  • Posted by: tedi - May. 13, 2022 6:48 PM ET USA

    Not only Catholics, but general HK population is very upset about the arrest of a righteous 90 yrs old. HK Catholics, especially the younger ones, are sadden by the weak gesture of both the Diocese and the Vatican...though it is of no surprise as the Church has been quiet ever since over the recent political injustices, except voices from Cardinal Zen. Very sad. Situation in HK is not good. No one dares to say much anymore. All goes to jail...

  • Posted by: Sciamej1913 - May. 13, 2022 5:55 PM ET USA

    What is the use! We read of the way the Cardinal was treated and yet the commentary by the Vatican officials is trite and ridiculous. Again and again, what has happened to our Church! So many are upset at what they see, hear and read. I do not know you but appreciate all you write in keeping us up to date on what is happening at the Vatican but, again, so disappointing.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - May. 13, 2022 4:22 PM ET USA

    Would that the Lord would extinguish this dumpster fire of a papacy!