VATICAN CITY — The Vatican effectively rebuked the retired archbishop of Hong Kong for suggesting that Pope Francis was out of the loop on negotiations between the Holy See and China, saying Tuesday that the pope was “faithfully” informed about developments and followed the issue with care.
The Vatican said reports to the contrary were “surprising and regrettable” and fostered “confusion and controversy.”
The retired archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, published a Facebook post Monday that revealed the behind-the-scenes drama over contentious bishop nominations in China. Zen’s extraordinary post said the Vatican had asked a legitimate “underground” bishop to stand down in favor of an excommunicated one favored by Beijing for Shantou diocese.
The proposed changing of the guard was the clearest evidence yet of the Vatican’s effort to reach a deal with the state-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to resolve the status of China’s estimated 12 million faithful and their preachers.
The Chinese Catholic community is split between those belonging to the state-authorized churches outside the pope’s authority and those who are part of the “underground” community loyal to Rome.
Zen, a leading critic of the Vatican’s outreach to China, said he was so upset by the Vatican’s request that Shantou Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian, 88, step down in favor of Bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang that he travelled to Rome to raise it with the pope. Huang was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2011 after he was consecrated without papal approval.
In his Facebook post, Zen wrote that when he met with Francis Jan. 14 to discuss the situation, the pope implied that he didn’t favor the outcome and wasn’t fully aware of what his diplomats were doing on the ground.
If Zen’s account were true, it could suggest a rift between the pope and the Vatican secretariat of state, which is handling the delicate negotiations.
The Vatican denied any rift Tuesday and said the pope was fully informed. In a statement, it didn’t refer by name to Zen or to the Shantou issue, nor did it confirm the Shantou changes. But the message was clear.
“The pope is in constant contact with his collaborators,” the statement said. It said the pope received faithful and detailed information about the church in China, as well as progress reports on the dialogue with Beijing authorities “which he follows with special attention.”
Zen, who is still a cardinal within the church, has accused Rome of selling out loyal Chinese Catholics who have endured decades of persecution for the sake of geopolitical expediency.
In his Facebook post, he warned that by uniting the two churches, the Vatican would be strengthening a “schismatic church” and that there was no mutual gain when negotiating with a “totalitarian regime.”