Cardinal Joseph Zen (right), one of Asia's highest-ranking Catholic clerics, arrives at court for his trial in Hong Kong on Sept. 26. (Photo: AFP)
Cardinal Joseph Zen is on trial at a sensitive time when the Vatican is trying to renew its controversial secret agreement on the appointment of bishops with Beijing next month.
Shanghai-born Cardinal Zen has been critical of the Vatican-China deal, first inked in 2018, calling it a “sell-out” of China’s underground Catholics, who have faced persecution for remaining loyal to Rome.
His sympathy has been with those Catholics who stood against the Communist Party-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association in China for more than six decades.
Cardinal Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested with five others in May. They were accused of failing to apply for local society registration for the Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided aid to pro-democracy protesters in 2019.
The 90-year-old cardinal arrived at the court in West Kowloon on Sept. 26 using a walking stick.
However, the trial has been adjourned until Oct 26 after defense lawyers this week reportedly tried to counter police witnesses called by the prosecution, significantly delaying the process.
Those accused with Zen, one of Asia’s highest-ranking Catholic clerics, are lawyer Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, activist Sze Ching-wee, and ex-legislator Cyd Ho.
“Cardinal Zen is a ‘man of God’; at times intemperate, but submissive to the love of Christ"
All the defendants have pleaded not guilty and the controversial fund was dissolved in October 2021. But the prosecution said that the fund used part of its resources for political activities and non-charity events.
Cardinal Zen and others were earlier charged with colluding with foreign forces, but that charge was dropped. Instead, they are being prosecuted for the lesser offense of failing to properly register their fund as a society.
If convicted, they face a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,275). The trial is expected to end in early November. China has charged the cardinal under less stringent laws so as not to upset the Vatican and the secret pact is set to be renewed in October.
Cardinal Zen, a vocal critic of China, opposed the National Security Law, introduced to suppress the pro-democracy protests and took part in the protests in 2019, 2014 and 2003. His arrest and the trial have attracted criticism from the world Christian community, though the Vatican has been muted in its response.
But some senior Church men have spoken in support of Cardinal Zen.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, former prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, wrote in support of Zen on Sept 23.
“Cardinal Zen is a ‘man of God’; at times intemperate, but submissive to the love of Christ, who wanted him to be his priest, deeply in love, like Don Bosco, with youth,” Filoni wrote.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, made an appeal on Sept 19 as Cardinal Zen’s trial was scheduled to begin. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco shared his prayer for Zen on Sept 26.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, an auxiliary bishop of Maria Santissima in Astana, Kazakhstan, also offered his prayers on Sept 26.
“Zen is a symbol and he was arrested on a pretext, he did nothing"
On Sept 1, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, shared his disappointment that Cardinal Zen was not present at the meeting of the College of Cardinals in August.
“Zen is a symbol and he was arrested on a pretext, he did nothing, he is an influential, courageous, and much-feared figure by the government,” he said.
Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), offered his support shortly after Zen’s arrest in May.
“My brother Cardinal, His Eminence Joseph Zen, was arrested and faces charges simply because he served as a trustee of a fund which provided legal aid to activists facing court cases,” Cardinal Bo wrote in a statement.
Human rights advocate David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool, tweeted on Sept 26 that China has set up the “same old kangaroo courts,” to crush Cardinal Zen and others.
Pope Francis, however, has declined to comment on Cardinal Zen’s prosecution. Church observers link the Vatican silence to the dialogue it continues with Beijing aimed at renewing the China-Vatican deal, which will lapse if not renewed in October.
"The arrest and delayed trial of Cardinal Zen is all part of a scheme engineered to arm-twist Vatican negotiators"
The original pact was inked as an experiment in October 2018, for a two-year period, and it was extended in October 2020 for another two years.
Many suspect the timing of the arrest and delayed trial of Cardinal Zen is all part of a scheme engineered to arm-twist Vatican negotiators as the Vatican seems to be bent on continuing to have a say in the appointment of bishops.
Since many Catholics are uneasy about Rome’s overtures to Beijing and point to the past to stress that deals with the Chinese communists are as good as not having deals. Chinese Communists follow their own path of action, irrespective of international conventions and diplomatic agreements.
Despite Cardinal Zen's warning that the pact will pave the way for China to hijack the Catholic Church, the Vatican has been focusing on the positive results of the pact, which has helped 12 million Catholics in China to come together as one Catholic Church. The Vatican claimed that with the deal “all the Chinese Catholic bishops in China today are in full and public communion with the Bishop of Rome.”
For the Holy See, a nascent unified Church in China — ending the division underground Church and the state-run Church — is important. But the question remains: if all the Chinese Catholic Church becomes one unified Church, will it ever be out of the control of the Chinese communists?
Will the end result of the deal be worth the moral sacrifices the Vatican is making now?
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.