Uncertainty has deepened as the Hong Kong Cardinal suggested the reform or withdrawal of the official Catholic Church in China as a requirement for the Vatican-China relations to proceed.
The government-sanctioned Catholic Church in China- Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association- was set up in 1957 after the atheist Communist Party cut ties with Vatican in 1951. Since it does not recognize the authority of the pope, it appoints bishops for each diocese in China. For churches that remain loyal to the pope, they are considered as underground churches and are often harassed by the government.
The newly elevated cardinal Joseph Zen insisted that the official Catholic Church in China is "unacceptable" to the Vatican, and is therefore a major roadblock to the Sino-Vatican ties.
"Issues about the association are complicated," Zen told Kyodo News in an interview. "Although it claims to be a religious organization, it is indeed a government tool being used to control (Catholic churches in China). Sometimes it overrides the bishops, which is illicit and unacceptable to the Roman Catholic Church.
"The association needs to be reformed if not withdrawn. It is insignificant and is despised by Catholics in China. It will be a good thing if we can withdraw it," Zen said.
Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the association, however, said being patriotic is most important for Catholics in China, according to Kyodo News. Liu has once commented that Zen as "a threat to the Beijing Government" just as Pope John Paul II was to the communist regime in Poland.
Zen is an outspoken critic to Communism, saying that Catholics do not accept Communism because of its atheistic premises. As the National Constitution of China guarantees the right to religious freedom, no even the Chinese government should force believers to accept Communism. However, he suggested that it is better to improve the Chinese Communist regime than to subvert it, according to Kyodo News.
"The Communist system is faulty for banning democracy, but since the (Communist) Chinese government has been recognized by the world for decades, the Roman Catholic Church also recognizes its sovereignty. Building ties is just a means, not an end," he said.
Lai Pan-chiu, of Hong Kong Chinese University's cultural and religious studies department echoed Zen’s stance on the Catholic Patriotic Association, describing that is the most crucial issue, representing the autonomy of the Catholic Church in China.
"The Vatican wants not only spiritual freedom, but institutional autonomy in China as well," Lai said. "It certainly does not want any supervisory institution like the Catholic Patriotic Association running its churches."
Zen told Kyodo News, the Vatican wishes to see Catholics in China going to church freely without government’s monitor, just like most of the other countries in the world.
On the other hand, the two requirements lay down by China - cutting ties with Taiwan and Beijing's participation in bishops' appointments- can be reached, Zen said. Holy See is ready to cut the diplomatic ties with Taiwan once true religious freedom exists in China, and the Chinese government can participate in appointing bishops in China.
Zen has explained the details about the appointment of bishops in China under the cooperation of both Vatican and Chinese government as speaking to Reuters.
"The Pope can make concessions without giving the whole authority to them (the Chinese authorities). Surely he can listen to their opinion," he said. "Maybe ... the Holy Father presents a list of names to them and they may veto some of those names, or give their preference."
Zen is very optimistic to the Sino-Vatican relations even though there are still many uncertainties. China and the Vatican could have diplomatic relations "as early as the Olympic Games," Zen told Reuters. "I think it's a very reasonable target. The process may be long and it may be short. It depends on how they (China's leaders) open their way of seeing things."