God and Man at Hong Kong
The arrest of Joseph Cardinal Zen is likely the beginning of an ordeal that will test not only His Eminence and his church but all the friends of freedom.
The arrest today by communist China of Joseph Cardinal Zen is huge. It is a radical escalation by the communist regime in China. They are targeting a figure revered by those, Catholics and non-Catholics, who cherish the cause of freedom and democracy at Hong Kong, where the Cardinal was seized. The arrest can be seen as the bankruptcy of the policy of the current Pope, Francis, to treat with a regime that is godless.
We understand the communist authorities are trying to put a gloss of due process on the cardinal’s arrest. He was promptly granted bail. That might give the impression that he has a chance. The record, though, is not encouraging for those who have been charged under the national security laws. This is likely the beginning of an ordeal that will test not only His Eminence and his church but all the friends of freedom.
It’s no coincidence, one can speculate, that Cardinal Zen is a friend of the most famous political prisoner in a Chinese jail, the newspaper baron Jimmy Lai. He, too, was swept up in the national security prosecutions that are roiling Hong Kong in the wake of the protests for democracy. The two are close enough that Mr. Lai, a convert to Catholicism, was present at the Vatican when the Cardinal acceded as a prince of the Church.
The 90-year-old cleric was born at Shanghai in 1932 and ordained in 1961, the Vatican reports. He served between 2002 and 2009 as Bishop of Hong Kong, which has nearly 400,000 Catholics. Pope Benedict XVI named him a Cardinal in 2006 as a sign, Cardinal Zen observed, of the Pope’s “concern and affection for all of China.” Cardinal Zen has long been an outspoken defender of democracy and religious freedom.
Cardinal Zen has been a critic of the Vatican efforts to achieve a “normalization” of the Catholic Church on the mainland. In his eagerness to strike a deal, the Pope in 2018 agreed to give Beijing a role in selecting the church’s bishops. This undermined Chinese Catholics, many of whom had worshiped for years in secret because they would not recognize communist-appointed bishops as legitimate.
The arrest of such a high ranking figure in the church is its own testimony against Pope Francis’ strategy. It underscores the illegitimacy of the Beijing regime, which has redoubled its efforts in recent years to bring not only Catholicism but all religions in China in line with communist doctrine. A 2019 party statement decried those who were “believing in ghosts and spirits,” and not “Marx and Lenin.”
As China’s repression was ramped up in Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen lamented that “we can no more freely announce the gospel values” at the former British colony and warned that there would not be “any religious freedom when there is no freedom.” He was reportedly arrested, along with other activists, for his work with the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which sought to pay the legal fees for pro-democracy activists at Hong Kong.
Also arrested were at least three other directors of the Fund, a distinguished pro-democracy lawyer, Margaret Ng, a former legislator; a superstar of Cantonese popular music, Denise Ho, who is also a civil rights activist; and Cantonese scholar Hui Po-keung. Cardinal Zen, for his part, is now likely to enter a pantheon of courageous Catholic priests who have stood for freedom in the face of arrest.
They include József Cardinal Mindszenty, jailed by the Nazis and then, in 1948, by communists for objecting to the Stalinist takeover of the Hungarian church, and Ignatius Cardinal Kung, Shanghai’s archbishop in the 1950s, imprisoned more than 30 years for refusing to pledge fealty to the Chinese camarilla. In 1979, Kung was secretly named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, who himself played a leading role in defeating the Soviet Union.
Why did the Chinese party move against Cardinal Zen? They are scared of religion. Even communists understand how their own lack of legitimacy derives from their godlessness. We’d like to think that Cardinal Zen, Jimmy Lai, and friends will take comfort from the words of President Washington, who warned that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”