By Phil Lawler (
) | Sep 21, 2022
The trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen has been postponed, but the indomitable 90-year-old prelate will face judgment soon enough, under the draconian new “security laws” imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government.
Meanwhile Pope Francis faces his own judgment, in the court of public opinion, for his failure to defend Cardinal Zen—or, for that matter, to criticize the regime that is prosecuting him. When questioned about the trial, by a reporter who accompanied him on his flight home from Kazakhstan, the Pontiff gave this utterly unsatisfactory reply:
Cardinal Zen is going to trial these days, I think. And he says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there. More than qualifying, because it is difficult, and I do wish to qualify, they are impressions, and I try to support the path of dialogue.
Cardinal Zen is going to trial, “I think,” says the Pope. A Prince of the Church is being tried as a criminal, by a regime that tramples on human rights, and the Roman Pontiff can only say that he “thinks” he is briefed on the trial schedule? Clearly Pope Francis wants to downplay the significance of this event. Just as clearly, he does not want to make any statement in defense of the embattled cardinal. Thus he offers his “impressions,” as if it were a matter on which he could not make an informed judgment.
Actually, even before giving that non-responsive answer to the question about the Zen trial, the Pope had launched into a broad discussion of relations between the Holy See and Beijing, mentioning the “bilateral Vatican-Chinese commission that is going well” and the “dialogue commission that is going well.” This in reference to the secret agreement between Rome and Beijing governing the appointment of new bishops for the Church in China. Those discussions are going so well that, four years after the secret agreement was signed, roughly one-third of all Chinese dioceses are now functioning without a bishop. Nonetheless, hapless Vatican diplomats seem desperate to renew that accord, and the Pope is anxious to avoid saying anything that might offend the sensitive ears of Chinese Communist leaders.
So, in responding to that question about Cardinal Zen’s predicament, Pope Francis answered questions that the reporter (Elise Allen of Crux) had not posed. Before even mentioning the Zen trial, he devoted more than 200 words to the Rome-Beijing dialogue, the Chinese mentality, and the notion that the Chinese regime is not democratic. Again, notice that this question had not been raised by the reporter; the Pontiff brought it up himself:
Qualifying China as undemocratic, I do not identify with that, because it’s such a complex country … yes, it is true that there are things that seem undemocratic to us, that is true.
Once again we have only the Pope’s “impressions,” rather than clear statements, much less denunciations. He does not want to say that China in undemocratic. He does allow, however, that some of Beijing’s actions might seem undemocratic to our unsophisticated Western understanding.
Does is seem undemocratic when the regime jails an elderly prelate, charging him with the heinous crime of providing legal support for human-rights activists? Pope Francis does not answer that question. In a scathing Wall Street Journal column, William McGurn writes: “The pope declined to even say China was undemocratic. All that was missing was a cock crowing in the background.”
McGurn notes that the trial of Cardinal Zen comes as the Vatican and Beijing are negotiating renewal of their secret agreement. So it might be awkward for the Vatican to criticize the Chinese regime. But Beijing evidently feels no compunction about giving offense to Rome; presumably the government could have scheduled the cardinal’s trial at a more auspicious time. For that matter, Chinese officials might have scheduled the latest round of negotiations for some site other than Tianjin: a city where Bishop Melchior Shi is living under house arrest. We are not privy to the conversations that the Pope says are “going well,” but every available indication suggests a thoroughly one-sided process, with Beijing dictating the terms and the Vatican meekly accepting whatever it can salvage.
But will the Vatican try to salvage the freedom of Cardinal Zen? Or will he be sacrificed to the cause of the Vatican-Beijing agreement—like the bishops of the “underground” Church, who were inveigled to resign their posts so that bishops sanctioned by Beijing could replace them? Leaders of other nations have rallied to the cardinal’s defense. It is scandalous that the Vatican, which he loyally serves, will not speak the truth—the truth that China is undemocratic, the truth the Cardinal Zen is a brave defender of God-given human rights, the truth that will set him free.
By the way, a month has passed since I wrote about the arrest of Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who dared to criticize an undemocratic government in Nicaragua. What I wrote is still true.
Inside sources in Rome say that the Vatican has been working quietly, diplomatically, to secure the freedom of Bishop Alvarez, since police of the Ortega regime surrounded his chancery building two weeks ago. But if that is the case, we could add “ineffectively” to that list of adverbs, because today the police staged a pre-dawn raid and took the bishop into custody. Prompting this immediate response from the Vatican:
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