Bishop Zhan Silu of Mindong (center) concelebrated Easter Sunday Mass with Bishop Ma Daqin of Shanghai (right) on April 16. (Photo supplied/Mindong Diocese's Wechat account)
The most shocking news this Easter in the China Church was the Mass concelebrated between Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai, a Vatican-approved bishop under house arrest, and Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong, a government-appointed bishop who is not recognized by the Holy See.
The news was posted on the Wechat account of Mindong Diocese the same day but was swiftly removed. By then it had already triggered all kinds of speculation and comments.
Bishop Ma drew huge attention in June 2016 following an article he penned saying he regretted quitting the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), an organization criticized for controlling the church on behalf of the government, during his episcopal ordination in 2012. Then we saw him resume two CPA posts in September 2016 and this January.
He also refused to let Bishop Zhan lay hands on him in his 2012 ordination rite but now he has concelebrated with the illegitimate bishop.
Both were a bow-down of admittance to his "political mistakes." These acts show beyond doubt that he has come to a compromise with the authorities in a perfect example of how the government controls the church.
These events are carefully calculated ahead of time.
In the China church, the most obvious signs to distinguish clerics between the open or underground Catholic communities is whether one enjoys political privilege and status. Offering political privilege is a common tactic of the government to influence religious officials.
They will be given membership in the national or provincial Political Consultative Conference, in the standing committee of the CPA, or even be made secretary-general or chairperson.
For example, being a member of the provincial Political Consultative Conference, they enjoy political status equivalent to being a deputy official of a city government, though without any political power. People can criticize how much money a bishop receives from attending religious meetings but very few people pay attention to his political status.
Late Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing was former chairman of the CPA and a vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's parliament. He enjoyed political status equivalent to a deputy state leader with the privilege of having police motorcades clearing the way for his car as well as other treatments enjoyed by Party leaders.
These political privileges are far more important than money as it means one enjoys more influence in Chinese society. But, behind these titles, the government is capable of controlling an individual's mentality and ideology.
Back to the case of Bishop Ma, he is being treated like the other government-recognized bishops in the open church community.
The only difference was he openly rejected the CPA as being incompatible with the church doctrine of upholding an independent principle; his compromise came only after he was placed under house arrest.
Other bishops accepted silently their political status without receiving much criticism while Bishop Ma was offered political status as a CPA member again after he dropped out in 2012.
However, it is certain that Bishop Ma's political status will be limited. He will not obtain the same status as Bishop Shen Bin of Haimen because he has already ruined his good future through his actions in 2012.
Bishop Shen was the only bishop who was vice chair in both the national CPA and the bishops' conference. Both national church bodies are not recognized by the Vatican.
If Bishop Ma chose not to compromise, he would continue to be under house arrest or under restriction. But the influence he possesses in the church would be far greater than the so-called roles now he received from the government.
We remembered that in 2012 and 2013 when he was under tighter house arrest, his daily prayer on Wechat and articles he posted on his blog were spread rapidly and extensively. No other bishops in China could match his popularity and, in the end, the authorities had to restrict his activities on social media.
Now that Bishop Ma chooses to compromise and may resume work eventually, it seems that Shanghai Diocese apparently will have its shepherd again. Yet the impact of his u-turn has already affected the views of many Catholics on him and split the diocese. Many were disappointed and some even criticized him.
Bishop Ma is a talented person in literature, music, painting and ecclesiological studies. This is unique among Chinese bishops. The government is reluctant to have him under house arrest because Shanghai is an international city and the influence of the church there is immense.
There were rumors for years that a bishop would be transferred to Shanghai from another diocese or China would elect and ordain a new bishop on its own. Both solutions are not without side effects and that may explain why Bishop Ma's case has been hanging unresolved for years.
Forcing Bishop Ma to compromise and resume his duty is a tactic by the authorities to wreck the conciliatory policies of the Vatican.
Given that many laypeople have forsaken Bishop Ma after his compromise, if the Vatican appoints a new main bishop for Shanghai, it will not hurt unity of the diocese and even justify its attitudes on apostolic succession. Though the Vatican is negotiating with the Chinese government over the issues of bishops’ appointments, it does not necessarily need to seek recognition from China on every case as it is internal church affairs that the pope should have the final say on.