Zen’s Distance

The early responses to the Pope’s letter have been predictably varied, but none has been more surprising or unusual than the one penned by Cardinal Joseph Zen Zi-kiun of Hong Kong. In January, when the letter was first announced, it was widely assumed that Zen would play a leading role in drafting the text, and, in fact, many assumed that Zen was named a Cardinal by the current Pope so that he could serve as a bridge between Rome and the Chinese authorities (as I note in my recent interview with the Atlantic, that hope was not fulfilled).

Now, we get Zen’s response to the letter, which contains this passage:

At the beginning of June the Vatican Secretary of State announced that “the Pope’s letter has been definitively approved”, a rather strange way of saying things: “the Pope’s letter approved by the Pope?” The fact, probably, is that even the finished text of the Pope’s letter, according to the Vatican way of doing things, would still pass through further checks or even corrections. Obviously, the finally approved letter is the Pope’s letter, with his signature.

After a cursory vision of the rather long letter, I would like to share with the media my one impression and two hopes.

To my eyes, this passage conveys the following:

1. Zen is distancing himself from the text. He makes it quite clear that he had nothing to do with the approval process, and I think he implicitly criticizes “the Vatican way of doing things.”

2. His rhetorical question, “the Pope’s letter approved by the Pope?” is not implicit or gentle. It’s a straight-up barb, likely directed at the Pope and whomever was involved in approving the letter.

3. Zen refers to “the rather long letter.” Again, this seems like a criticism – otherwise, why the use of “rather” as a modifier? Without it, the letter is just long; with it, it is too long.

4. He refers to his comments as a “cursory vision,” and then he says that he would like to share his “impressions.” In other words, like the media, this is the first time that he’s seeing the text.

This is an extraordinary document and statement from a Cardinal, particularly one who is so obviously positioned (geographically, at least), to play a role in Vatican policy-making. It will be interesting to see if the Hong Kong papers pick up on this, and whether it has repercussions elsewhere.