China’s largest Catholic diocese has been left leaderless and in a state of chaos after a popular long-standing bishop died and his presumed successor was placed under house arrest for speaking out against the Communist Party.
The crisis has exposed the fault lines that remain between the Vatican and Beijing, and has been described as the worst faced by the church for decades.
The problems started on July 7 last year, when Thaddeus Ma Daqin, Shanghai’s newly ordained auxiliary bishop, infuriated Party officials and stunned congregants and clergy by using his ordination to renounce the Patriotic Association, a Beijing-controlled organ that controls the Chinese Church.
Since then, Ma – who had been in line to take over as Shanghai’s next bishop – has been under house arrest at a seminary in the city’s suburbs.
The crisis was compounded in April when Shanghai’s incumbent bishop, Aloysius Jin Luxian, died at the age of 96.
With Bishop Jin gone and no sign of Bishop Ma being released, China’s wealthiest and perhaps most important Catholic diocese has been thrown into uncertainty.
Worshippers had been left “shocked, grief-stricken and anxious overcome with grief and dismay”, said Father Michael Kelly, the head of UCA News, a news agency that covers Catholic issues in Asia. “It is the worst of times.”
Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who heads the Catholic University of Leuven’s Verbiest Institute and has a long-standing relationship with China’s Catholic Church said: “The confrontation may be more sharp than [at any time] in the last 30 years. “[Shanghai’s church] has no shepherd leading the flock.”
Fearful of government retributions, those who work and worship within Shanghai’s Catholic Church are reluctant to openly discuss the crisis enveloping their community.
But one source in the city’s Catholic community said the diocese was facing a “defining moment”.
“We don’t know what the government’s next step will be. We don’t know what the church’s next step will be,” said the source. “Only God knows [what will happen].” “It is really about power,” said the insider. “It is all about control and a fear of Rome’s influence. We can be good Catholics and good Chinese citizens. We love our country. But in this country you can only love the country if you also love the Party. Many Chinese Catholics love the country but not the Party.” The turmoil has revived memories of the night of September 8, 1955, when Communist officials rounded up and jailed Shanghai’s Catholic leaders, including Bishop Jin who would spend 18 years behind bars and toiling at reform camps.
After leaders were released from prison in the 1980s, the diocese went from strength to strength, observers and church members say.
Bishop Jin took over as bishop in 1989 and is widely remembered as a pragmatist who managed to advance the Church’s interests in China while simultaneously keeping the Communist Party happy. Under his leadership, a research centre and a shelter for the poor were opened and the number of functioning churches rocketed from just a handful to more than 140.
Government figures place Shanghai’s Catholic community at around 150,000 people but clergy believe the true figure could be twice that.
Bishop Ma’s very public stance against Party control last July now risks undoing decades of advances, some local Catholics believe.
Clergy seen as having close links to Bishop Ma have been thrown under a shadow of suspicion and the ordination of priests has ground to a halt. Two sources confirmed that the diocese’s German printing presses, imported by Bishop Jin, had stopped functioning because the Patriotic Association was refusing to approve new publications as a form of “punishment”.
“[Shanghai’s Catholics] pray everyday for Bishop Ma’s release. They support him and want him to come back. He is our shepherd and he has no freedom,” said one church member.
“But what can ordinary people do in this country? The government is very strong. The people cannot protest. They cannot shout.” Bishop Ma’s decision to speak out enraged Communist Party officials and even within the church it has provoked controversy.
Some believe that his move, while noble, has badly damaged the Catholic community and several people who knew Bishop Jin said he had been left “heartbroken” by the events of July 2012.
“Did Bishop Jin like that? I most certainly know that he didn’t,” said Father Heyndrickx. “I spoke to him and he made it very clear that he was very sad with what happened last July and the way it happened.
“The damage is enormous and could it have been avoided? I think so and he thought so. He said very clearly he had told Ma: ‘Don’t speak about the Patriotic Association. Don’t mention [it].’ To do that in such an open way was totally unacceptable to the government.” The current predicament of Shanghai’s Church reflects broader tensions between the Vatican and China, an officially atheist country which cut diplomatic ties with Rome in 1951.
The two sides have been at loggerheads for decades over whether Chinese Catholics owe their allegiance to the Vatican or to Beijing.
In the years leading up to 2010, negotiations between the two sides over the appointment of bishops one of the biggest sticking points to improved relations had appeared to be bearing fruits, church members and experts said.
However, since then at least four bishops have been appointed by the Patriotic Association without the green light from the Vatican causing talks to break down. The current crisis in Shanghai has aggravated the situation even further.
“There is no quick solution to the present confusion,” said Father Heyndrickx. “Before you can come to the type of dialogue that was going on in 2008, 2009, 2010 you have to rebuilt trust on both sides and there is no trust at the moment.”
Clergy say they are unsure whether Bishop Ma will eventually be rehabilitated or forced to spend the rest of his life in isolation.
Officials from the Patriotic Association declined to be interviewed.
The Church source said priests and worshippers were now clinging to their faith and hoping the crisis would trigger a “renewal.”
“We have to cherish hardship. We know that hardship and persecution give us hope,” they said.
“If the Church had no challenges, it would be no Church at all. We are Christians. We have faith. We can wait.”