China’s Religious War: Cardinal Zen Talks Beijing and the Vatican

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For the third time in a year, China has declared war on the Vatican, according to one preeminent Cardinal. The Chinese government-sanctioned Catholic Church ordained Joseph Huang Bingzhang as a Catholic bishop July 14 in the city of Shantou, in southern Guangdong province. The move was made despite the express opposition of the Pope. This marks the third ordination without papal approval since last November, and has been viewed by the Holy See as an “unnecessary” and “spiteful” course of actions, according to Hong Kong’s Bishop-Emeritus and current Cardinal, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

Zen, who wore a large, silver Jasmine flower pin — a recent Chinese symbol of revolution — on his left side while talking with TIME, said the church’s main objection centers on the Chinese government’s insistence on calling its state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association legitimately “Catholic,” yet impeding the papal prerogative within China.

“You can start a new church, but don’t call it a Catholic church,” says Zen.

For many decades, the officially atheistic Chinese government and the Catholic Church were largely at odds, even while the CPCA’s stated goal was to help the religious community. Estimates of Chinese Catholics have ranged from four million to 14 million people. Two years ago, however, relations between the Vatican and Beijing largely normalized and ecclesiastical leaders leaders dared to hope that they would be allowed some autonomy in China, Zen says.

This proved to be false when the government ordained Joseph Guo Jincai as a bishop against the Pope’s will last November, and then ordained Lei Shiyin as a bishop on  June 26. The latter ordination was the most offensive to the Vatican, according to Zen, because the now-excommunicated Lei was under official investigation by church authorities (several unconfirmed reports say this is for breaking his vow of celibacy by having an affair with a woman that resulted in the birth of a child.)

“All of this brings disgrace on our leader,” Zen said. “This is a war.”

Priests within China have struggled negotiating their allegiance to both the Pope and their country. While the Vatican has made official proclamations attempting to exert its influence, the government has allegedly used rougher measures.

Zen alleged that two separate Catholic bishops have been detained by the government for nearly 14 years, and their families are not allowed to visit them. Whether or not these accounts are in fact rumor, in the past decade, according to Zen, nationalism has begun to win out. “Before there were people, who in their heart were loyal to Rome. Unfortunately, recently, the Holy See has been forced to accept candidates who the Holy Father has called ‘opportunists,’” he says.

But the July 14 ordination was the biggest insult of all, according to Zen. Four of the seven bishops who lead the ordination attempted to go into hiding as a way of avoiding participation, Zen says, but they were found by armed authorities and forced to ordain Huang.

Zen said he received multiple confirmations from Catholics within China as to the veracity of this story, but the perception is almost more important than whether or not the Chinese really did threaten even state-backed priests: if the Vatican believes its autonomy is under attack, then discontent is sure to mar all further interactions in China. “This last ordination is particularly bad,” Zen said. “This is causing pain and division and surely is not contributing to ‘harmony’ which [the Chinese government] always say is their purpose.”

Yet while the Vatican may direct its protestations at Beijing, Zen underscored that he did not believe the central government even knew, let alone cared, about the ordination conflict. Instead, he said, any force directed at priests and complete disregard for papal authority is more likely the dominion of the CPCA and the larger State Administration for Religious Affairs.

These bureaucratic organizations are led, according to the Pope in a 2007 decree, by “persons who are not ‘ordained’, and sometimes not even baptized,” yet they “control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of Bishops.”

Zen said he hopes to cause enough of an international and domestic backlash that the central party leaders are forced to enter into discussions with the Holy See. But, he added, he expects that the situation in China will get worse for the Vatican-faithful before it gets better.

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.