Outspoken China Critic to Step Down from Top Church Post

( [email protected] ) Dec 28, 2008 02:17 PM EST

HONG KONG – Cardinal Joseph Zen said the Vatican has approved his decision to step down as head of the Hong Kong diocese next year to spend more time monitoring Catholic churches in mainland China.

"I do not retire to rest," Zen told reporters in Hong Kong on Wednesday. "The mainland Chinese church is huge and complicated. Sometimes the Pope wants me to give him some advice, so I need more time to research it."

Zen said he would not interfere in relations between China and the Vatican, saying it was a diplomatic matter outside the scope of his duties.

Hong Kong and Macau are the only places in China where the Roman Catholic Church is allowed. Catholics on the mainland were forced to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power.

Worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops. Millions of people, however, belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

The 76-year-old cardinal, a fierce critic of Beijing and an ardent supporter of democracy, said he will probably retire in the first half of 2009 but that "the official date will be announced later."

Bishop John Tong is set to assume Zen's place as head of the diocese.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.