Cardinal Joseph Zen (Source: Catholic News Agency)

Cardinal Joseph Zen (Source: Catholic News Agency)

Hell may not exist, according to Pope Francis, but the pontiff is creating one for his own flock in China, according to one of the most revered Roman Catholic cardinals in the Eastern world.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, blasted Pope Francis’ deal to accommodate and appease China in its desire to control the church by having its functionaries choose its leadership.

In an interview with the U.S.-based Catholic TV network EWTN, Zen told host Raymond Arroyo: “They are going to annihilate the underground church.”

In defending the pact with China, one of the pope’s supporters, Bishop Sanchez Sorondo said today’s totalitarian Chinese regime today best exemplifies the social doctrine of the Catholic Church among governments in the world.

“Please, leave him in peace,” Zen said of that comment. “We don’t have to waste time to talk about that. … That made everybody laugh, OK? It’s a good laugh.”

But Zen is not laughing about the effects of the agreement between the Vatican and Beijing.

“They are bringing them (the underground church) into the cage,” he said. “That’s terrible.”

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Zen, who spent seven years teaching in China’s official, state-approved church, said that from that direct experience, “I know that the church is completely enslaved to the government.”

In a blog written in December, Zen said Chinese authorities had demolished the crosses on many church buildings and questioned if the Vatican was knowledgeable about what had been happening. He said, in effect, the deal amounted to handing over the Catholic Church in China to “an atheist regime.”

Vatican diplomats’ efforts to reach an agreement with the Chinese government would turn bishops into government officials who cannot adequately shepherd their flock, Zen has said.

“Better no deal than a bad deal,” said.

He has said Vatican policy under Pope Francis has left the church in China “much weakened than before.” This harms negotiating power, since “from a weak position you cannot get anything in a negotiation,” he said last month.

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The Catholic Church in China is divided into the illegal “underground” church, which remains faithful and in communion with Rome, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, whose bishops are appointed by the government. Members of the underground church are often persecuted by the Chinese government.

While Catholic backers of the proposal justify it on the grounds it is needed to help preserve the hierarchy in China, Cardinal Zen invoked the example of Central Europe under Communism. Such agreements avoid appointing bishops who systematically oppose the government but, he contended, this means choosing opportunists who obey the government.

“They are more officials of the government than the shepherds of the flock,” the cardinal said. “The people may not realize immediately, but sooner or later they see. And then how can they believe the church anymore?”

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