The hearts and minds of Chinese Catholics are not controlled by the Communist Party despite harsh restriction on religious freedom imposed by laws and politics, said Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong.
According an interview with the Italian newspaper Avvenire translated by the Catholic-based news agency Zenit, the 73-year-old bishop spoke of his viewpoint on the relationship between the Vatican and China from Hong Kong- a special administration region of China where autonomy is mostly preserved after the handover to China by Great Britain.
When asked by Avvenire about how he thinks about China -the so-called "mother country"- Zen lamented that the Communist Party wanted to "control everything," not just structures but also the minds and hearts of citizen, therefore there continued to have a "very heavy yoke."
However, Zen expressed optimism about the changing face of Chinese Catholics as saying, "With patience and tenacity they [Catholics] are conquering significant areas of freedom," according to Avvenire.
"The Communist government controls the structures, but no longer the hearts and minds of the faithful. After many years of forced separation in China, the Catholic Church in fact is now only one - all want to be united to the Pope," he continued.
Under the existing religious law in China, the government refuses to allow official Catholic churches to recognize the authority of the Papacy in many fundamental matters of faith and morals, according to the latest international religious freedom report published by the U.S. Department of State. Most bishops of the official Catholic Church have are appointed by the Government. And this system has forced many Catholics to go "underground" as they think it denies one of the foundational tenets of their faith.
The report also says that Chinese Catholic sources put the total number of Catholics in both the official and unofficial churches at approximately 8 million, but the Vatican officials have estimated that the country has as many as 10 million. There are thought to be more than 40 bishops operating "underground," some of who are likely in prison or under house arrest.
Zen told Avvenire about the current situation, "Many bishops, appointed by the Beijing government, had no peace of heart and wanted to be recognized by the Holy See."
"Now the bishops that are not approved by Rome feel marginalized; they are rejected by the clergy and the faithful."
Zen listed some underlying causes for the trend as well. According to Avvenire, the leaderships of the two great official structures, the Episcopal conference and the Patriotic Association of Catholics, are now shaken.
"For the past two years the Episcopal conference has been without a president after the death of the incumbent…The head of the Patriotic Association, Bishop Michele Fu of Beijing, is sick and above all is much discredited in the eyes of the faithful," said Zen to Avvenire.
While the Vatican has already tried to open up the dialogue with the Beijing government to establish diplomatic relations with Communist China, Taiwan has been seen as one of the roadblocks because Beijing have refused to relate with any party that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan also.
Many have been focusing how the Holy See will make a painful decision between China and Taiwan, Zen told Avvenire that the key concern of the Vatican is whether Beijing is prepared to grant religious freedom to millions of believers in China.
"We must explain to the faithful of Taiwan that it's not a betrayal, but a necessity imposed by circumstances. In a word, it isn't a decision that must be proclaimed hastily. Moreover, what will we be given in return? Is the Beijing government prepared to grant religious freedom? This is the question," he said.
Zen believed it is still too early to give a conclusion, although opportunities have been opening up. He said, "I don't see an agreement around the corner; more time is needed," according to Avvenire.