Chinese Church Conundrum: Why Did Bishop Ma Recant?
Analysts interpret the apparent turnabout by the Shanghai bishop, who has been jailed since 2012 for distancing himself from the state-controlled Patriotic Association, as a pressure tactic by China’s Communist regime.
Critics of China’s continuing crackdown on religious freedom allege that the Communist Party is responsible for a bishop recanting his public statements from four years ago when he disassociated himself from the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
And, as talks continue between China and the Holy See on appointing bishops and other matters, observers believe communist leaders are using the example of Auxiliary Bishop Taddeo Ma Daqin of Shanghai to strengthen their hand in negotiations and to demoralize the country’s underground, official Church.
“I have written and said often in the past that the solution of this case will be very significant for the future of Catholicism in China. Things are going very bad indeed,” said Father Gianni Criveller, a missionary priest in Hong Kong who is a leading Catholic authority on China and often consults the Vatican.
Father Criveller, of the Pontifical Foreign Missions Institute, told the Register by email that the situation in Shanghai is “very sad and discouraging.” He and other observers do not believe Bishop Ma, who has been under house arrest for four years, actually wrote the June 12 blog where he praised the state-sanctioned Patriotic Church and expressed regret for his past statements.
“I believe the question of whether Bishop Ma has written the article or not is misleading because a person kept under house arrest, under pressure and multiple interrogations and under ‘political’ lessons, cannot be considered to be free, not even when he writes by his own hand,” Father Criveller said.
In the blog, Bishop Ma allegedly writes that he had been “tricked by outside elements,” and that the Patriotic Association “has an irreplaceable role” of the development of the Church in China.
Father Criveller said the blog is an example of “self-criticism imposed on victims in perfect Cultural Revolution style, as unfortunately has become typical again in the last few months” under the political campaign of Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China.
“The pressure has been ramping up in China over the last four years with this new leader. We see this in all areas, with forced confessed video statements and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) being harassed and forced to make statements rather than being expelled,” said Jesuit Father Paul Mariani, a history professor at Santa Clara University and the author of Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai.
Father Mariani told the Register he believes Bishop Ma was either coerced into writing the blog, or that state officials compiled segments of forced confessions over the last four years and combined them with stock government material.
“The most unlikely situation is that one night, after dinner and prayer in his chapel, Bishop Ma suddenly decided to fully support the Patriotic Association,” Father Mariani said.
Vatican Says Little
To date, the Vatican has said it has no direct information on Bishop Ma’s situation other than his blog and press accounts. In response to speculation that the Vatican was somehow involved, for diplomatic purposes, in Bishop Ma reversing his position, Father Federico Lombardi, the chief spokesman for the Vatican, said in a terse prepared statement that such speculation was “inappropriate.”
Father Lombardi said Pope Francis remembers Bishop Ma and all Chinese Catholics with particular care and concern in his daily prayers. In February, during his return flight to Rome from Mexico, Pope Francis expressed his desire to visit China.
In his blog, Hong Kong’s retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a frequent detractor of China’s policies, criticized the Vatican for its silence. He wrote that the Holy See “should protect the church’s reputation, [Bishop] Ma’s reputation, and eradicate the chaos and dejection in the Chinese church. Not saying anything is irresponsible.”
Bob Fu, president of China Aid, a Texas-based international non-profit Christian human rights organization that advocates for religious freedom in China, told the Register that he would have liked to have seen the Vatican condemn the apparent forced statement while also demanding to have direct access with Bishop Ma.
“The Vatican should do something about this,” Fu said. “Unfortunately, there seems to be on the Vatican’s part, a rather naive thinking that maybe the communist government will have a fundamental change.”
Chinese Regime Embarrassed
Fu said Bishop Ma’s actions at his July 2012 ordination deeply embarrassed the Chinese regime. During the ceremony, Bishop Ma — whose ordination had been jointly approved by the Vatican and Chinese government — announced he was leaving the Patriotic Association to devote himself to full-time pastoral work. He also avoided the laying-on of hands by an illegitimately installed bishop by embracing him instead.
The Chinese government responded by placing Bishop Ma in solitary confinement at the Shanghai Sheshan Seminary. The communist authorities also closed the seminary, shut down the diocesan publishing house, refused to allow the opening of a Holy Door for the Jubilee Year of Mercy and blocked Bishop Ma from succeeding Shanghai’s Bishop Jin Luxian when he died in April 2013.
The Chinese authorities occasionally signal a new openness to religious freedom, such as approving the ordination of a Catholic bishop in August 2015 with Pope Francis’ approval. But more frequently, the government cracks down on religious dissent, raiding house churches, destroying church crosses, and imprisoning at least a half-dozen priests of the underground Church.
Despite decades of varying intensity of official hostility to religion, however, Christianity continues to grow in China. According to the Pew Research Center for Religious Life, in 2010 there were more than 68 million Christians in the country, most of them Protestants, making it the nation the seventh largest in the world in terms of its total Christian population.
The Catholic population was estimated at about 9 million believers, of whom 5.7 million were affiliated with the Patriotic Association and 3.3 million with China’s underground Church.
Divide and Conquer Strategy?
In the past four years, Bishop Ma came to be a revered figure in the underground Catholic Church, which is outlawed and meets secretly in homes. Unlike the official Patriotic Association, which is under the total control of the state, Chinese Catholics in the underground Church pledge their loyalty to the pope.
In his 2007 letter to Catholics in mainland China, Pope Benedict XVI said the Holy See does not recognize the Patriotic Association.
The Chinese authorities have tried to crack down on the underground Church, and engineering Bishop Ma’s recantation could be seen as a move to divide Chinese Catholics, observers said.
“This would be very demoralizing,” said Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a Connecticut-based organization that advocates for the underground Church in China.
“People who I know in China in the underground are watching this and wondering if Bishop Ma is doing this of his own free will or if he was under pressure. But nobody knows,” Kung told the Register.
Father Mariani added that the communist government would be mistaken to believe it can undermine the underground Church.
Said Father Mariani, “The Communist Party would be naive to think that somehow the underground Church is going to suddenly fold up and go away. It’s been there a long time and according to those in the underground, they see themselves as member of the one, true Church, in communion with Rome. They have been Catholics for many generations and they have stood up to state pressure in the past. They’re pretty tough and feisty.”
A Different Interpretation
The prevailing view among experts may be that Bishop Ma was punished for his defiance, and coerced into recanting, but Nathan Faries, an Asian Studies professor at Bates College who lived and taught in China for several years, sees it differently.
“The narrative nearer the truth is probably that Ma was trying to walk the line and push the conversation forward and please both sides,” said Faries, author of The Inscrutably Chinese Church.
Faries told the Register that Shanghai church politics were coming to a head between 2010 and 2012, and that Bishop Ma seemed to have wanted to make a statement for the dissenting segment of the local Catholic population. Faries said the auxiliary bishop tried to carefully couch his resignation, which he followed up with a promise that he would strive for unity, which Faries described as a transparent plea for an end to conflict between the unrecognized Patriotic Association and the underground Church.
However, the enthusiastic response from the audience, and the manner in which Bishop Ma’s actions were reported in the media, forced the government to deal with the situation, though not in a permanent manner.
“Ma is someone who can and will come back, and now he seems to be on his way back in earnest,” Faries said. “Ma has never been as controversial a figure as some would like to imagine. He wants what is best for the Church. He wants unity and the greater glory of God. Those were the main themes of his address, not criticism of the government.”
While adding that there are some areas where the Chinese communist government and the Church can dialogue, Father Mariani said the Bishop Ma episode reveals an incompatible situation where the Holy See believes in a Church independent of the state while Chinese authorities see the Church as an organ of the government.
Said Father Mariani, “At some point, we thought the Chinese Communist Party would modernize and allow fuller religious freedom, but they keep going back to the idea that the Chinese Church must remain independent of Rome. It amazes me that they keep pushing this harder.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.
- vatican-china relations
- pope francis
- chinese catholics
- chinese catholic patriotic association
- cardinal joseph zen
- brian fraga
- bishop thaddeus ma daqin