By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - A senior Catholic cardinal accused the Vatican on Friday of acting "unfaithfully' in its rapprochement with China, saying it would put the country's some 12 million faithful in a bird cage controlled by the Communist Party.
Addressing a news conference, Hong Kong's outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen also said he was highly sceptical of a deal that reportedly would give Pope Francis the final say in the appointment of bishops, the key part of the agreement.
Nearly 70 years after China and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations, the two sides recently reached a framework accord on the thorny issue of who gets to appoint new Chinese bishops and a historic deal could be signed in a few months.
The 86-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong, recently rebuked by the Vatican after he said it had "sold out" China's faithful, said sources told him that under the framework agreement the pope would have the final veto power over bishops who are effectively chosen by the Chinese government.
"They (The Chinese government) say the last word belongs to the Holy Father. Sounds wonderful? But it's fake," Zen said.
"They are not going to make good choices for the Church ... surely they choose the one they prefer, which means the one who always obeys the government. So how (could) the Holy Father approve such a choice?”
"Okay, he can veto. How many times? It takes courage to veto the second time, the third time, five times," Zen said.
Catholics in China are split between the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, where bishops are appointed by the government, and the "underground" Church that remains loyal to the pope while being systematically persecuted by Chinese authorities for years.
Zen, who has fiercely criticised the Vatican for attempting to force two "underground" bishops to give way to government-backed "illegitimate" bishops in order to foster the deal, was rebuked by the Vatican last Wednesday for "fostering confusion and controversy".
Zen said that under the status quo, which he described as "the lesser evil," the Vatican secretly approves candidates who are acceptable to both sides before the state-controlled Church makes them bishop.
But under the new agreement, where candidates would be selected via a "so-called democratic election" inside the Chinese Catholic community and endorsed by a state-controlled bishops' conference before being submitted to the pope, the choice lies entirely in the hands of the government, Zen said.
"A church enslaved by the government is no real Catholic Church," he said.
Zen said he was not criticizing the pope, whom he believed might not be briefed on "reality" because bureaucrats in the Holy See are eager to strike a deal.
"What they (Vatican negotiators) are doing is unfaithful," Zen said. "I am not judging their conscience but ... it's a surrender and they have no right to surrender."
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by Greg Torode, Editing by William Maclean)