'Bishop's move could embolden others'
The unusual declaration by newly ordained Shanghai auxiliary bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin that he was quitting his posts in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association may inspire other government-sanctioned bishops to show more independence, analysts and mainland clergymen said.
It was a slap in the face for Beijing when Ma announced during his ordination mass on July 7 that he would step down from his posts in the government-sanctioned association and devote himself to episcopal work.
Ma's announcement surprised the Catholic world because he was the first bishop who was a member of the association to publicly resign from it. The association was established by Beijing in 1957 to control Catholic affairs and does not pledge allegiance to the Vatican.
Ma's move apparently annoyed the authorities and he has been barred from performing clerical duties. The association said on Wednesday that a probe would be launched into Ma's ordination.
Ma's whereabouts have not been disclosed, but the Catholic news service ucanews.com said he was in 'forced repose' at the Sheshan seminary on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Nevertheless, Catholic priests in Shanghai and lay followers said they were encouraged by Ma's actions.
'It is great that Ma made the statement in public because it has made our job a lot easier,' said one priest in the Shanghai diocese. 'We may face less pressure from the government [to take up official posts] and be able to focus more on pastoral work.'
Clergymen on the mainland had been under great pressure to follow government policies, which were in direct conflict with the church's instructions, he said. For example, the Vatican says no clergymen should take up political roles, but the government asks some bishops like Ma to hold posts in the association, which is overseen by the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
'As bishops we only follow Catholic doctrine but the government does not want us to do that,' the priest said.
Patrick Poon, a committee member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic diocese, said: 'China has turned religious issues into political issues, while Ma made it clear he does not want to work for the government.'
Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a senior researcher at the Hong Kong diocese's Holy Spirit Study Centre, said bishops would be inspired by Ma to make their own decisions on whether to take up government-linked positions. 'It tells the Catholic church in China that they have the right to fight for their rights,' he said.
Poon said some bishops who were hesitant about accepting government-linked posts would consider invitations even more carefully.
Other dioceses on the mainland were also watching developments in Shanghai because the diocese was influential, Poon said. The Shanghai Catholic diocese has about 150,000 worshippers and is the largest on the mainland.
Catholics in Shanghai said Ma's isolation had actually made the church in Shanghai more united.
'The incident has made our faith stronger,' said one. 'Most of the clergymen in Shanghai do not want to have anything to do with government associations, but they could not say it out loud.'
The Ma incident could further damage China-Vatican relations, but Lam said he hoped Beijing could resolve the problem without aggravating relations in the long term.
Those relations have shown no signs of easing in recent years, with the Vatican criticising Beijing for carrying out 'illicit ordinations'. The Vatican announced on July 10 it had excommunicated Harbin bishop Yue Fusheng, who had been ordained by Chinese authorities without Vatican approval four days before.
In a letter to the Church on the mainland in 2007, Pope Benedict said it was 'incompatible with Catholic doctrine' for the association to keep the church independent from the Vatican.
Now Beijing is under pressure over what to do with Ma. The two government-backed organisations overseeing Catholic affairs on the mainland - the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops' Conference - said they were investigating Ma's ordination as it could have violated regulations.
'This is a really horrifying message. It shows the government thinks it has the power to remove a bishop's pastoral ministry, although the power is only vested in the Pope,' another priest in Shanghai said, adding that many clergymen in Shanghai were worried Ma would never be allowed to return to his religious duties.
Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong Hon called for dialogue to resolve the case. 'Dialogue between China and the Vatican is a must. It is very urgent now to resolve the dramatic case of Bishop Ma Daqin,' he said on Friday. 'Only with dialogue will a 'win-win' result eventually be achieved.'