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

“Better no deal than a bad deal,” the cardinal told Raymond Arroyo, host of the EWTN news show The World Over.

The outspoken cardinal charged that in recent years the Vatican policy 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 March 8.

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.

In Cardinal Zen’s view, the Holy See is tolerating bad behavior from the official church and the illicitly ordained bishops.

“They are arrogant, they defy the Holy See. And the Holy See keeps quiet,” he said. “And then the Holy See is always encouraging the people underground and also the good people above ground to surrender, to compromise. They are weakening our Church. It is a kind of suicide.”

Cardinal Zen is one of two Bishops emeriti of Hong Kong. Cardinal John Tong Hon, another retired bishop, has been somewhat more favorable towards proposed changes in Vatican-China relations.

An agreement under discussion would reportedly legitimize the bishops of the Catholic Patriotic Association, requiring two of the underground Church’s bishops either to retire or to step into a lower role as coadjutor archbishop of his diocese.

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 any more?”

When a secret Vatican agreement with Hungary’s communist government was later revealed, the cardinal said, it showed that it was agreed that any priests who criticized the government would be denounced to the Church for discipline.

“It was a collaboration all to the advantage of the government, and very little to the Church,” he said.

In previous statements, he has faulted the Pope's advisors, saying they accept an accommodationist “Ostpolitic” solution from the Cold War era. He was specifically critical of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, whom Zen says learned this way of thinking from his predecessor Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who served in the same role in the first decade of St. John Paul II’s papacy.

Recently the seven illicit bishops sent a letter to the Vatican seeking restoration to full communion, but this should not necessarily be believed, Cardinal Zen told EWTN.

“All those bishops are in the hands of the government. How can you believe in their real repentance? “ he asked. While the Church is always ready to forgive and to absolve their excommunication, there are other problems.

“How can you recognize them to be bishops? To be shepherds of the flock? To form the people to obey, to respect, these people, how can you do that?” the cardinal asked.

Such a move would make it appear these bishops were forgiven because of government pressure, not because the Holy See believes in their sincere repentance.

“I think what is going to happen is a tragedy, a real tragedy,” he said, deeming the proposed agreement a “betrayal of the faith.”

About 60 Chinese bishops are recognized by both the Vatican and the Chinese government, while another 30 bishops are recognized only by the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI recognized many bishops ordained for the government-run church as “opportunists,” Zen said, saying this is true even of many ordained with Vatican approval.

“They know that they have to rely on the government to make a career,” he said.

Arroyo summarized details of the proposed appointment of bishops, in which the Chinese government proposes three bishops’ candidates for the Vatican’s approval. However, this is the reverse of such arrangements. Usually, the Vatican proposes three candidates from which the government may choose one.

“They say the authority of the Pope is safe because the last word still belongs to the Pope. The problem is what can be the last word?” Cardinal Zen asked.

In the absence of an agreement, the government feels pressure to compromise and pay attention to the choices of the Vatican.

“But when you give them the power in their hands, they use it fully,” the cardinal said. He questioned whether provisions for a papal veto of the government’s choice would be effective.

The Pope does not need the Chinese government to acknowledge him officially as the head of the Church, the cardinal suggested.

“They recognize the Pope! They are afraid of the Pope! But now the advisors of the Pope are giving him advice to renounce this authority,” he said.

The cardinal insisted that the Holy See has never asked a legitimate bishop to resign his position to make way for an excommunicated bishop.

Against his detractors, who have said the cardinal has little experience of contemporary China, Cardinal Zen cited his seven years’ experience teaching in China’s official Church seminaries from 1989-1996.

“From my direct, immediate experience, I know that the Church is completely enslaved to the government,” he said, stating that he is still kept updated on the situation by discreet visitors.

Cardinal Zen said there is not a clear picture of what will happen. While the two illicit bishops who could replace legitimate bishops, have dominated discussions, there are five other illicit bishops. Among these, he charged, two are well-known to have had a wife and children for many years, but their defenders now say that there is no evidence.

While it is also claimed that 30 legitimate bishops not recognized by the Chinese government will be recognized, Cardinal Zen questioned how this process would work.

“They will be allowed to function like underground bishops?” he asked. “Surely not. They are bringing them into the cage! That’s terrible. They are going to annihilate the underground Church.”

The many good bishops in the official church are suffering and fighting, and the government must tolerate them.

“But now with this arrangement they lose every hope for a better future!” Cardinal Zen said.

The cardinal said commentators say he is pushing people to be martyrs, even though he never prays for martyrdom.

“But if God wants us to give such a witness to faith, it is a grace, and he will give us the strength,” he said.

Arroyo sought the cardinal’s opinion on Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo’s much-criticized comments that the Chinese best realize the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.

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