The Vatican has chastised a Hong Kong cardinal who accused the Holy See of “selling out” to Beijing for reportedly promoting bishops endorsed by the Chinese government.

Although Beijing and the Vatican have improved relations in recent years as China’s Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain bishops.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun
Joseph Zen.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, confirmed an AsiaNews website report that a Vatican diplomat asked two underground Chinese bishops recognised by the Vatican to resign in favour of state-sanctioned prelates.

China’s roughly 12 million Catholics are divided between a government-run association, whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.

China and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations in 1951, but Pope Francis has sought to improve ties since becoming head of the Holy See in 2013.

“Do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely,” Zen said in an open letter on Monday, adding that the Communist government had introduced “harsher regulations limiting religious freedom”.

Zen said he appealed to the pope in a private meeting in Rome earlier this month, where he delivered a letter from one of the bishops who was asked to step aside, Zhuang Jianjian.

The cardinal suggested in his statement that the pope was not kept informed of actions he does not approve, a charge denied Tuesday by Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.

“The pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues,” Burke said in a statement, adding that Francis was informed “faithfully and in detail”.

vatican city
Vatican City. File photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

“It is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy,” he said.

The Holy See spokesman, however, did not comment on the alleged Vatican requests to the underground bishops.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Hong Kong on Wednesday told AFP it was “not involved in any of the dialogues between the Holy See and China,” but added “the Catholic Church has always been accommodating” and “(accepts) different voices”.

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