As the ranks of Catholics in China have swelled, so, too, have government efforts to corral the trend — through heavy-handed crackdowns and police surveillance, if rarely by actual physical assault.
This attempt at state control extends to the appointment of clergy, as the case of Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai illustrates.
Ma, 48, was ordained as a Catholic bishop in July 2012 with the consent of both the Chinese government and the Vatican. That was seen as a concession by Chinese authorities, whose aim for decades has been to promote an autonomous Catholic Church whose loyalty is to the state rather than to Rome.
By all accounts, government overseers expected Ma to be compliant. And to underscore that point, officials insisted that a bishop not recognized by the Vatican take part in Ma’s ordination ceremony. Yet when the time came for the state-backed bishop to lay hands on Ma, a standard part of the ritual, Ma got up and embraced him, preventing the bishop from performing the act that would have made him part of the sacrament.
At the end of the ceremony, Ma announced that he wanted to be the bishop of all, including Catholics fiercely loyal to Rome. As a result, Ma said, he would no longer be part of the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association,” which is the government regulatory body for the Church.
It was the first time in memory that a bishop of the state-sponsored church had made such an audacious statement in public. Many in the crowd erupted into applause, observers say, while others wept.
The bereft knew better. Ma was swiftly placed under a form of house arrest in a Shanghai seminary, which was later closed down by the government. He remained there for three years, essentially cut off from contact with the outside world, although recently he’s been allowed to receive people and to celebrate Mass with groups of the faithful.
During his isolation, Chinese Catholic sources say, Ma was questioned by officials for weeks and also required to attend Communist indoctrination classes. His only way of communicating with the outside world was through a personal blog, where he posts brief personal reflections and poetry.
In September 2015, Ma posted a lengthy reflection on China/Vatican relations, expressing hope that Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping would soon meet.
“If these two leaders who are hugely influential in the world shake hands, not only me — for I am all but a small ant at the foot of the hill where Our Lady stands — but the entire world would be moved,” he wrote.
Ma’s situation is dramatic, and it is also rare. The Rev. Gianni Criveller, a leading Catholic expert on China who’s often consulted by the Vatican, said Chinese bureaucrats have learned over the years that whenever possible, it’s smart to avoid creating such new martyrs. Before they harass or arrest members of the clergy, he said, they try to buy them off.
“They offer entertainment, travel, even access to a political career,” Criveller said in September 2012. “Those who go along are rewarded with substantial payoffs.”
Sometimes, he said, the carrot that’s dangled for cooperation with the state, and thus defiance of Rome, is badly needed financial support for the construction of church buildings.
When those carrots don’t work, Criveller said, Chinese authorities have repeatedly shown that they’re willing to wield the stick. In June 2013, the government ordered Ma’s priests and nuns in Shanghai to attend “reeducation classes,” seen as a punitive measure for their support for the detained bishop.
As of August 2015, at least two Catholic bishops and six priests were in prison, one since 1997. All were members of what’s often called China’s “underground” Catholic community, meaning Catholics who refuse to accept state oversight.
Occasionally, China will send signals that appear to suggest a thaw in attitudes.
In early August 2015, for instance, authorities announced they had approved the ordination of a new Catholic bishop with the approval of Pope Francis. Later in the month, state-sponsored Chinese media gave positive notice to words of consolation from the pope about an explosion at a chemical plant in Tianjin that left at least 100 people dead.
Many experts, however, express caution.
“We do not see any sign that would encourage hope that Chinese communists are about to change their religious policy,” said retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong in mid-2015.
On the contrary, Zen said, “it looks like someone is trying to shut us down.”