The Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church is reflected in a window as a man looks out from a van, after Father Joseph Zhang Yilin was ordained as a bishop inside, in Anyang, China's central Henan province on Aug. 4, 2015. The state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association exercises state supervision of Catholics in China. (Photo by AFP)
Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai caused a stir in the diocese and beyond when he released a fifth article on his blog on June 12 to mark the birth centenary of late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian.
His style and tone this time was totally different from his usual allusive style full of literary and classic quotes.
In his blog post Bishop Ma recanted his 2012 decision to resign from the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). He also praised the government-sanctioned association that is designed to control the church in China.
Some Catholics in Shanghai said they were very upset while others simply could not accept it. They chose to believe someone else wrote part of the blog because the bishop's freedom was restricted.
Meanwhile, Catholics outside Shanghai think they should not to pay too much attention to an article by such a bishop who has done such a volte face.
Catholics in Shanghai strongly adhere to Gospel teachings. And the bishop's request in the blog article to "not judge others" resulted in many of them quietly digesting what he had to say.
Then came an affirmative voice in an article written by a blogger using the penname "Man Deng An" who said that "the church is not a rigid book. The church is a vivid life."
Man Deng An offered a moderate and detailed analysis of Bishop Ma's controversial blog post.
He said that the problem of the Catholic Patriotic Association is unavoidable while the theology behind the "four-carriage" model of the Shanghai Diocese as mentioned in Bishop Ma's article is worth considering.
Under Bishop Jin's "four carriages" model (i.e. the diocese, the CPA, the intellectual association and the church affairs commission), the bishop should be the principle leader of the church in each of them.
In other words, the model turns the Catholic Patriotic Association into a "well-organized and tightly-knit group of the faithful." It would become a church organization and offer a religious education to its members. Man Deng An believed that, since it is only an association, as long as the priest and bishops do not violate the church doctrine, they should not be condemned for supporting or participating in such an organization.
Many people, based on Pope Benedict XVI's pastoral letter to Chinese Catholics, simply believe the Vatican and the church could not accept the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. They also accuse bishops and priests who join the CPA of betraying the church. Man Deng An's article noted that Pope Benedict's letter did not recognize this political association, which has five characteristics:
(1) It was established by the state;
(2) Is an institution not related to the church hierarchy;
(3) Is an attempt to override the bishops;
(4) It dominates life of the church community; and
(5) Is incompatible with church teachings.
For the first and second characteristics, the Catholic Patriotic Association has its unique historical reality that the church could not change it by any means and allow it to "render to Cesar the things that are Cesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
However, if the third and fourth characteristics changed, the fifth feature would be changed accordingly.
Man Deng An's article claimed that Bishop Ma's stance towards the CPA on his episcopal ordination on July 7, 2012 and in the time of his most recent blog are consistent.
The blog post claims that Bishop Ma was under external pressure to make an impulsive statement about his stance towards the CPA during his 2012 ordination because many diocesan priests had openly expressed their unwillingness to concelebrate the Mass with an illicit bishop, one who was not recognized by the Vatican before the ordination.
Moreover, many Catholics did not accept Ma as their new bishop because he was holding posts in the national and local CPAs. More than half of the diocesan priests and nuns were absent from his ordination.
Under such pressure, Bishop Ma blurted out that he would quit all his CPA posts. It was an impulsive outburst and Bishop Ma did not say anything negative about the association. He simply said that he would like to focus more on his pastoral work after becoming bishop.
This did not mean that he no longer supports the government-run body, or that he was even against it.
In his blog post Man Deng An said he believes that the general public has an "over interpreted or built up excessive expectations" about Bishop Ma's motives in 2012. They see him as a confrontational "hero" and believe that "he had no alternative but to admit it."
For now, it is understandable that Bishop Ma, after weighing all the pros and cons, feels uneasy about his 2012 speech that brought the Shanghai Diocese into a difficult predicament and which he now seems to see as unwise.
In recent years, Wang Meixiu, an expert on China-Vatican relations and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has also appealed frequently to church people in her articles to treat the Catholic Patriotic Association with a more rational and tolerant approach.
At the same time, she also asked the government to respect more of the church's traditions by adjusting the relationship between the bishops' conference and the CPA.
What seems obvious to many, including me, is that attitudes at the church's grass-roots and a perspective born of scholarly observation have reached similar conclusions.
So, Man Deng An, in his article, appealed to the China-Vatican working group to include the pastoral problems of bishops in their dialogue. Merely reaching an accord on bishops' appointments is not enough.
Man Deng An's article claimed that no one in the Shanghai Diocese expected a "courageous" confrontation from the bishop.
All the same, the Diocese has never lacked tenacity.
In the ultra-leftist political context of the time, the 1957 establishment of the Catholic Patriotic Association faced strong resistance from clerics and Catholics. This ultra-leftist direction was corrected in the 1980s and since then the association has implemented religious policies and contributed to returning churches in the area of the Shanghai Diocese.
However, if there is no review on what the Catholic Patriotic Association did during the 1950-1960s and some repentance by the perpetrators on their persecution to the church at that time, it will still be very hard for the laypeople to accept the CPA and to promote reconciliation within the church.
Man Deng An's article asserted that those Catholics who reject Bishop Ma's defense of the CPA are not necessarily basing their opinions on theology or religious reasoning. Instead their reaction has more to do with notions and emotions nurtured by not so happy memories.
The unity of the church is not merely a rational matter. It also needs dialogue, forgiveness and prayer. It needs healing and that will be a long process.
Now that he finds Bishop Ma is walking the path of dialogue, Man Deng An calls for a positive response from Catholics. The author also cited Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato si' in response to religious freedom and the prophetic role of the church.
Man Deng An thinks God's righteousness needs to be integrated and realized in relation to our surroundings. But to do that it needs everyone to have the courage and humility to engage in dialogue and action. As Gaudium et Spes, 92 declares, echoing Pope John XXIII: "Let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case."
Ya Na is a Catholic commentator in Shanghai.