The outrageous arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen last week — together with the Vatican’s weak response — presages dark days for Catholics under Beijing’s authority.

Nicknamed “the conscience of Hong Kong,” Cardinal Joseph Zen is known and respected throughout the world for his fearless defense of Chinese Catholics and his opposition to communism. As bishop of Hong Kong, he encouraged and celebrated annual masses on June 4 for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre (participation in a Tiananmen Square memorial was one of the “offenses” that put Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai in jail last...

The outrageous arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen last week — together with the Vatican’s weak response — presages dark days for Catholics under Beijing’s authority.

Nicknamed “the conscience of Hong Kong,” Cardinal Joseph Zen is known and respected throughout the world for his fearless defense of Chinese Catholics and his opposition to communism. As bishop of Hong Kong, he encouraged and celebrated annual masses on June 4 for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre (participation in a Tiananmen Square memorial was one of the “offenses” that put Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai in jail last year). This year, the diocese of Hong Kong has canceled the June 4 Tiananmen Square memorial masses, for the first time in over two decades.

In 2020, I had the privilege of attending a mass celebrated by Cardinal Zen at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City. It was a Traditional Latin Mass organized by a group of young Catholics from the New York area, and magnificence was the keynote of the day: magnificent music, magnificent vestments dug out of some pre-Vatican II treasure hoard, magnificent blue incense climbing up to cloud the upper reaches of the stained glass windows and set off the fire alarm.

But the magnificence melted into the background as the cardinal processed to the altar and began the solemn rite. Tiny, fragile, and elderly, he somehow conveyed a sense of fiery strength, seeming to skip with zest down the aisle in his enormous scarlet cappa magna. When he spoke after Mass, it was with great personal warmth. His clear affection for the Hong Kong student protesters joined with heartfelt displeasure at the bad deal Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin had inflicted on the underground Catholic Church in China — without the full knowledge of the Pope, he insisted.

Just a few months later, the National Security Law passed in Hong Kong, effectively ending the “one country, two systems” principle of autonomy. The cardinal could have left Hong Kong. But he chose to remain, stating that he was prepared to suffer the arrest and trials that many of his predecessors had endured — even though the new law meant that he could be extradited from Hong Kong to China, where several Catholic bishops have undergone lengthy imprisonments without due process and have even been tortured and killed. He stayed on, taking care of his people, visiting as many as three prisons a day.

On May 11, the cardinal was arrested on charges of “foreign collusion” in his capacity as trustee of the 612 Fund. Established in 2019 and dissolved in 2021, the fund had provided legal and humanitarian support to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. After interrogation, the cardinal was released on bail and his passport was confiscated. He was given a trial date of May 24.

Was the goal to intimidate the pro-democracy movement? Jimmy Lai’s son Sebastian told the Pillar he doesn’t think so: “All the people they want to be afraid are already afraid…” Lai pointed rather to the huge disrespect towards the Catholic Church entailed in arresting Hong Kong’s most famous Catholic cleric, at ninety years of age.

Disrespect that the Vatican either doesn’t wish or isn’t able to challenge. The Vatican Press Office expressed cautiously worded “concern” about the situation: “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin said he was “very sorry” about the arrest but that his primary concern was to avoid complication of the Holy See’s dialogue with China. He did express his “closeness” with Cardinal Zen, but added, apparently in extenuation of the CCP authorities, that the elderly cardinal had been “freed and treated well.”

Parolin’s response left many unimpressed, including David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China. “I can’t imagine a more unhelpful message to send to a regime that negotiates thru [sic] hostage-taking,” he tweeted. “The Vatican is telegraphing weakness, betraying a courageous priest.”

But pro-Beijing commentators such the South China Morning Post’s Alex Lo crowed delightedly. “No Vatican tears for Cardinal Joseph Zen,” proclaimed his May 15 column in Hong Kong’s English-language newspaper of record. Lo points out that the cardinal made an excellent target for the CCP, because no significant backlash could be expected from the Vatican. Zen’s fierce opposition to the Vatican’s secret deal with the Chinese government had made him persona non grata in Rome as much as in Beijing.

Yet does the Vatican understand the insult is not just to a man they may view as a troublesome cleric, but to the Catholic Church as an institution? By failing to stand up for its own, Rome loses face and accepts a position of humiliated subservience. The Vatican-Beijing deal is up for renewal this fall, and as Mulroney points out, Parolin seems determined to position the Church on the worst possible ground. Then again, there are rumors that Beijing spends a lot of money behind the scenes on Vatican silence.

Aside from whispered-about financial perks, what the Church is getting out of the Vatican-China deal is a mystery. But we know some of what the CCP is getting: the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, its party-controlled “Catholic Church,” was legitimized by Rome, and its bishops, appointed in defiance of papal authority, recognized. All underground Catholic clergy who had remained loyal to Rome were encouraged to join the Patriotic Association. Some underground bishops who had been appointed by Rome were asked to resign in favor of the CPCA bishops.

This — as Cardinal Zen tried to tell Pope Francis, and failing him, the world — was a betrayal of underground Catholics, who had suffered persecution for years in order to stay in union with the pope. They could not speak out without endangering themselves. Also, joining the Patriotic Association required explicit repudiation of the foreign authority of Rome, which would normally constitute apostasy. The Vatican eventually issued guidelines advising clergy to sign anyway while making a written or verbal mention of their fidelity to “Catholic doctrine.”

Why is this Vatican-approved “Sinicization” such a win for Beijing? It’s sometimes hard for us in the West to comprehend how aggressively atheistic communism is. It sees God as a threat to the communist state, which seeks absolute power over the individual. Although communist systems such as the CCP may temporarily allow religious practice to exist, eventual abolition of any meaningful kind of religion is part of their endgame.

Are Catholics in China receiving better treatment as a result of the deal? Reports indicate they are not. Harassment and persecution continue. It is illegal to teach Christianity to children or for anyone under eighteen to go to church. Quotes from Xi are mandatory in every sermon. According to Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, “sinicized” editions of the Bible are issued so that the message does not clash with Party values: for instance, the woman taken in adultery is not forgiven by Jesus; instead, He stones her to death, because there can be no forgiveness for those who disobey the State.

The Vatican’s weak response to Cardinal Zen’s arrest signals that nothing will be done to ameliorate the plight of Chinese Catholics this fall — and, probably, nothing done to defend Catholics in Hong Kong from a similar fate.