Catholic Cardinal on Trial in China

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Louise Delmotte/Getty Images

Catholic Cardinal on Trial in China

The Vatican sells one of its own to Beijing.

Cardinal Joseph Zen went to trial on September 26 in Hong Kong on charges of supporting pro-democracy movements. He and other trustees of the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund were arrested in May for “colluding with foreign forces” under China’s controversial National Security Law. Authorities later changed the charge to failing to register the fund with the government. Zen and the others pleaded not guilty. Zen, age 90, is the retired bishop of Hong Kong.

Drafted in 2019, Hong Kong’s National Security Law would have allowed extradition of those convicted of certain crimes to mainland China. This would have included journalists. The bill was never passed, so Beijing passed its own National Security Law in 2020. This law allows the government to arbitrarily attack Hong Kongers deemed guilty of “terrorism,” “secession,” “subversion” or “foreign interference.”

If convicted, Zen and his allies face a fine of up to 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (roughly us$1,274). Although a rather minor fine, the evidence being used against Zen would be more appropriate for “foreign interference” charges rather than failing to register with the government. Prosecutors claimed the fund sponsored anti-Chinese lobbying among student groups in Europe and an anti-China group in Taiwan. Some suspect that, if found guilty, Hong Kong authorities would use the conviction as ammunition for later charges under the National Security Law.

Predictably, the Vatican is outraged. At mass the following Sunday, Pope Francis lambasted the Chinese Communist Party for what happened. He said negotiations for normalizing relations with Beijing were over. “We will not stand by while China’s political games interfere with Catholics’ right to worship,” Francis said. “The Chinese government has showed a lack of good faith and we cannot continue this fruitless dialogue.”

This was the expected response from the pope—but the above paragraph is fiction. Instead, there’s barely been a peep of support for Zen from the Vatican.

In mid-September, Francis held a press conference aboard the papal plane while flying back from a conference in Kazakhstan. A reporter asked the pope if Zen’s situation was a violation of religious freedom. Francis refused to respond directly. “To understand China takes a century, and we do not live for a century,” he said. “The Chinese mentality is a rich mentality, and when it becomes a little sick, it loses its richness; it is capable of making mistakes.” To understand China better, Francis said, “we have chosen the path of dialogue.” He said he did “not identify” with calling China “undemocratic.”

Francis even tacitly blamed Zen himself for his predicament. “[Zen] says what he feels,” Francis said, “and you can see that there are limitations there.”

Catholicism is legal in Hong Kong, as a former British colony and autonomous city. But it is illegal in mainland China. There are two Catholic Churches in China: a Patriotic Catholic Association controlled by the government, and a persecuted, underground church loyal to the Vatican. The Vatican also has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which is anathema to Beijing. The Catholic Church’s presence in Hong Kong is its largest sanctioned presence in China.

However, under a shadowy agreement in 2018—the full details of which have not been released—the Vatican and Beijing came to some sort of preliminary agreement. The Vatican would recognize the Chinese Communist Party’s right to appoint Catholic bishops. In turn, Beijing would give the pope a veto over its choices. This effectively legitimizes the ccp’s control over the internal affairs of the Catholic Church. The deal was renewed for another two years in 2020. It is up for renewal again this month.

Cardinal Zen was among the most vocal opponents of the deal, saying it was a betrayal of Chinese Catholics. Zen told the Guardian in 2016:

Maybe the pope is a little naive; he doesn’t have the background to know the Communists in China. … You cannot go into negotiations with the mentality “we want to sign an agreement at any cost,” then you are surrendering yourself, you are betraying yourself, you are betraying Jesus Christ. If you cannot get a good deal, an acceptable deal, then the Vatican should walk away and maybe try again later. Could the church negotiate with Hitler? Could it negotiate with Stalin? No.

Comparing the actions of the pope, the purported “vicar of Christ,” as a “betrayal of Jesus Christ” is pretty strong. Zen might as well have claimed the pope was making a deal with the devil. Zen has been speaking up against the 2018 deal for years now; and the Vatican has snubbed him all these years. Now he’s facing trial, and the pope blames Zen for his predicament. Keep in mind that Zen is a cardinal—a “prince of the church.” If he were younger, he would have the authority to elect the next pope. He has a prestigious position in the Catholic hierarchy. China arresting Zen would be the equivalent of arresting a former United States cabinet member—with Washington pretending not to notice.

Zen’s comparisons with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin are noteworthy. Both were totalitarian, genocidal madmen. China right now is committing genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province. As more and more details come out, it becomes clearer that the scope and brutality of the Uyghur genocide is comparable to the crimes of Hitler and Stalin. Yet the Catholic Church still sees Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping as someone to make a deal with.

And the Vatican is eager to make even bigger deals with China. In a September 14 interview with the Italian daily Il Messaggero, Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin was asked if the church was ready to move its Hong Kong office to Beijing. This would mean opening up a de facto embassy in the Chinese capital. Parolin said: “I don’t think it’s a new idea; we have always made it present. We are waiting for a signal from Beijing, but it has not yet arrived.” So only a few days before Zen’s trial commenced, one of the most powerful men in the Vatican was talking about closing the office Zen was a part of.

Before his trial began, Zen told Catholic magazine Mondo e Missione that he had “lost all the battles.” Perhaps Zen was referring to more than just his battles with the Hong Kong courts. Either way, it seems like the Vatican is willing to sacrifice one of its own if it means staying on Xi’s good side.

A prophecy in Revelation 17 features a “woman” (verse 3), biblical symbol of a church (see 2 Corinthians 11:1-3 and Ephesians 5:22-32). This woman rides a “beast,” a symbol for an empire (see Daniel 7). This woman presides over “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (Revelation 17:15). She is lavishly wealthy, “arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls” (verse 4). She represents a “great city” (verse 18) situated on “seven hills” (verse 9; Moffatt translation).

The Trumpet identifies this woman as the Roman Catholic Church.

The “beast” in Revelation 17 is not the People’s Republic of China. Other prophecies show it to be a strong European empire in the tradition of ancient Rome. History shows this “Holy” Roman Empire to be the Vatican’s favorite steed to mount. But it isn’t the only one. Verse 2 talks about the “kings”—plural—“of the earth” doing business with her. Revelation 18 again refers to her engaging in deals with “the kings of the earth” and “the merchants of the earth” (verses 9, 11). One particular trade she engages in is that of “bodies and souls of men” (verse 13; Young’s Literal Translation).

It looks like the Vatican put Cardinal Zen—and millions of Chinese Catholics—up for sale to “the kings of the Earth.”

“The Roman Catholic Church is the most recognizable and illustrious religion on Earth,” managing editor Brad Macdonald writes in his book The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy. “Worldwide, it has more than 1.2 billion followers, roughly 400,000 priests and some 221,000 parishes. Catholicism has a presence on every continent and in every nation. Tens of millions of Catholics dutifully attend services each week. Around the world, Catholic priests and authorities are invited to contribute to conversations, public and private, on religion, politics, culture, morality and virtually every other subject.

“Yet despite its global ubiquity, colossal fame, material splendor and long history, the Catholic Church is an enigma. Even to lifelong Catholics. … The Catholic religion is the most famous Christian religion on Earth, yet it is shrouded in mystery.”

The church’s “deal with the devil” in Beijing adds to the mystery. No other church on Earth mingles itself with international politics as much as the Catholic Church. Few world leaders could make deals with dictators and at the same time appear as a messenger of light to Western media. The pope is one of them.

Understanding the Vatican is even harder than understanding China. Yet the Holy Bible—the book the Catholic Church claims as its own—removes the mystery. The name of the book of Revelation implies a revealing, an illumination of an otherwise dark and murky subject. And the Catholic Church features heavily in Revelation. To begin to understand the Vatican, one must first begin to understand the book the church claims to follow.

The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy is a good resource to have in this regard. It helps put together the relevant scriptures with Catholic history. By studying both biblical and secular history, one can better understand the Vatican’s current path. Request your free copy today.