On January 23, reports emerged of a Vatican delegation that visited China last December. The delegation called on two bishops of the underground Church, Peter Zhuang of Shantou and Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong. They were asked to resign their sees in favour of their counterparts in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Joseph Huang Bingzhang and Vincent Zhan Silu.

Church officials (and virtually all Catholic media outlets) were reluctant to address the threat this posed to China’s faithful. Now, Cardinal Joseph Zen – the former Bishop of Hong Kong and champion of the underground Church – has penned a blistering open letter to the Vatican, accusing them of “selling out” the Chinese faithful to the communist government. It would be desirable to find mutual ground between the Vatican and Beijing, he admits; but there can be no such ground between the Church and a “totalitarian regime”. “Can you imagine an agreement between St Joseph and King Herod?” he asks.

That a senior Chinese prelate would speak out so emphatically against Rome is significant. The most shocking revelation, however, is that “Rome” here apparently does not include Pope Francis. In fact, Cardinal Zen claims the Holy Father is vehemently opposed to the reshuffle.

Zen raised the issue with him on two separate occasions. In October, shortly after Zhuang was first asked to step down in favour of Huang, Francis promised to investigate the matter further. The following January – a month after the delegation formally asked Zhuang and Guo to step down – the Holy Father expressed his disapproval, saying: “I told them [the Vatican diplomats handling the reshuffle] not to create another Mindszenty case!”

József Mindszenty was a 20th Century Hungarian archbishop and outspoken opponent of communism. When the Red Army captured Hungary, the Vatican asked him to resign in favour of a prelate more amicable to the Soviet puppet government of János Kádár. The comparison to replacing Zhuang and Guo with Huang and Zhan is unambiguous.

If Cardinal Zen’s narrative is correct, the delegation that orchestrated that replacement not only went behind the Holy Father’s back: they went against his wishes.

This is disturbing in itself. But it also raises some serious questions about the ability of Huang and Zhan to occupy the sees of Shantou and Mindong. As Cardinal Zen points out, the CPCA bishops incur automatic excommunication under canon 1382. Huang was also publicly excommunicated by Benedict XVI in 2011.

That excommunication can only be lifted by the Holy Father, and Francis apparently has no intention of doing so. It appears, then, that a group of senior Vatican diplomats are subverting the Holy Father’s political and spiritual authority by appointing as bishops excommunicated priests currently employed by the Communist Party of China.

The question remains: who dispatched the delegation? All indicators point to Cardinal Pietro Parolin. He has openly entertained the possibility of Rome and Beijing jointly appointing bishops since 2005, when he was Pope Benedict’s deputy foreign minister. As Secretary of State, the Vatican’s chief diplomat, he is also the only official senior enough to implement such a radical change in the episcopacy without the Pope’s knowledge.

The original report about the Vatican delegation also named Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli as the prelate who met with Bishop Zhuang. In 2016, Parolin spoke of Celli’s influence on his China policy, and indicated that they continued to work together toward rapprochement with Beijing. “I learned a lot from him and I tried to put into practice what I learned,” said Parolin, “especially in contacts with the Chinese. So I am glad that don Claudio… is available to the Holy See to help us in this dossier that is not particularly easy.”

Cardinal Zen admits that, by publishing his letter, he may have violated his colleagues’ confidence. But, he continues, “my conscience tells me that in this case the ‘right to truth’ should override any such ‘duty of confidentiality’.” The faithful everywhere should be grateful for his courage. We can only hope now that Huang and Zhan’s appointments will be overturned, valid bishops are appointed to the dioceses Shantou and Mindong, and the diplomats who caused this scandal are held to account.