"The Holy See has to choose between being clear or accepting compromise," the cardinal said on Nov. 13. "Unfortunately, on the executive side, people see a lot of compromise. There is the shadow of 'Ostpolitik.'"
The term "Ostpolitik," in the context of Vatican diplomacy, refers to efforts to foster better relations with Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War, in an effort to improve conditions for Catholic churches there.
The cardinal highlighted the divisions among China's estimated 10 million Catholics, not only between the "so-called clandestine community and the community that accepts government control," but also among those who comply with the government's requirement to register with the Catholic Patriotic Association.
"The part that submits to the government is not united. There are those who still put up a certain resistance, notwithstanding their submission, and others who tolerate this oppression, this control," he said. "There are also opportunists who have rather cordially accepted collaboration with the government, and look out for their own interests and those of the government rather than for the church."
The cardinal praised efforts by retired Pope Benedict XVI to bring unity to the church in China and gain concessions from Beijing, but said some Vatican officials were and continue to be "much more understanding and conciliatory" toward the communist government.
"What we may call the underground community suffers," Cardinal Zen said. "They feel abandoned. The actions by Rome are not in their favor. Especially, for example, many bishops die and no successors are named."
"In my view, this policy is a mistake," he said, "and as a result the church is getting ever weaker."
The cardinal praised Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, a diplomat with long experience of China, and the congregation's secretary, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, the highest-ranking Chinese official at the Vatican, as men who "understand the situation better" than other officials.
He also said that Pope Francis had made an "excellent choice" for Vatican secretary of state in Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who officially took office in October but was to start work Nov. 16 after recuperating from surgery.
"The new pope has not yet spoken out," Cardinal Zen said. "He is evidently a very wise leader. He is listening, he is studying. Let's hope the Lord helps him."
"And let's also hope that something changes in China," he said, "and they begin a more sincere conversation with the Holy See. If that happens, there will be some hope."