By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - A Hong Kong cardinal who has spearheaded opposition to the Vatican's rapprochement with China has asked conservative Roman Catholics who are in open defiance of Pope Francis to back his cause.
The plea on Saturday night by Cardinal Joseph Zen to a Rome conference on the limits of papal authority appeared to be the start of a new alliance that could help both sides bring their message of dissent across.
China and the Vatican have been working out a framework accord on the appointment of bishops, which eventually could lead to diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing. The Vatican has said the deal is not imminent.
Catholics in China are split between those in "underground" communities that recognise the pope and those belonging to a state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities.
In his video message to the conference, Zen lamented what he said was a lack of communication from the Vatican and that the voice of the faithful in China was not listened to.
Zen wove his message to the conference, which was attended by two conservative cardinals who have openly challenged Francis on moral teachings and others who have accused him of heresy, around the theme of periphery (China) and the centre of the faith (the Vatican).
"In this moment, our periphery, China is in much difficulty, great difficulty and many voices from this periphery do not reach the centre. We who live outside continental China - we bring our experience and we are in constant contact (with Chinese Catholic) - we feel like we represent this periphery," Zen said.
Zen, who in the past has accused the Vatican of "selling out" to Chinese communists, told the conference: "We fear that the centre will make decisions that really are not useful for the real growth of the Church (in China)."
The deal on the naming of bishops could be followed by full diplomatic relations, which would give the Church a legal framework to look after all of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics and move on to focus on Catholic growth in a country where Protestants are already growing fast.
Zen, who once taught in a seminary in China, appeared to take another dig at the Vatican, saying, "If you want to help the Church in China, you have to know it. Knowledge cannot be simply abstract or based on numbers or books. One has to have lived it."
He said he would continue to express his opinion, telling the conference "I hope that you will follow us and occasionally play our part at the centre of the Church."
Zen's inclusion in the conference allowed organizers to claim the backing of a new prestigious name to their own case against Francis, who some have accused of heresy.
The main speaker was American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who in 2016 was one of four cardinals who challenged Francis over some of his teachings on the family and divorce.
They accused him of sowing confusion and Burke has said he has a right to "correct" the pope. Two of the four cardinals who made the challenge in 2016 have since died.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Larry King)