Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the Catholic Patriotic Association's prodigal son
Updated: June 24, 2016 06:11 AM GMT
Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin meeting with Catholics outside the cathedral in Shanghai in this file photo. (ucanews.com photo)
Cyberspace is fairly crackling with comments, reactions and assessments of the apparent volte face by Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin both within and beyond China.
On June 12, Ma announced on his blog that he regretted quitting his role in the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), reversing a announcement he made on the day of his ordination as bishop of Shanghai, conducted on July 7, 2012 with Vatican approval.
The comrades at the United Front — the Party arm responsible for the "management" of religion through its State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) — were not happy at all with Ma's 2012 announcement. Four years of house arrest followed.
His concession will begin the process that will allow him to assume his leadership responsibilities in a diocese that has been for centuries the Catholic capital of China.
Ma's move comes at a particularly interesting time for the Church in China. There are two seemingly opposing forces at play.
First, there are the increasingly fast tracked talks between the Vatican and the ruling Communist Party over normalizing relations after almost 67 years of Party rule.
Secondly, there is the overarching campaign by the Chinese leadership, driven by its powerful chief Xi Jinping, to "sinicize" religions. To give the Church "Chinese characteristics" is to echo the formula with which the Party describes its brand of socialism.
Catholics in the diocese, bloggers across China and commentators around the world have chimed in with their view of this change: many, particularly in the western Catholic media who insist on seeing China through a western prism, have expressed disappointment that Ma has somehow caved in to the ruling Communist Party which tolerates organized religion despite its official line that China remains an atheist state.
But is it really a big change for Ma? It is, in fact, a reversion to exactly what prevailed for him and the Church in Shanghai before his ordination as bishop. The CPA hasn't been dissolved. It remains the government's long arm into the Church. The majority of believers in China don't like it, but many understand that it's easier to live with it even as something of a necessary nuisance.
For Ma, it is a return to the status quo ante. But for the cyber-chorus, it is either a pragmatic acceptance of what being a public Catholic in China entails or a denunciation of his cowardice.
Such assessments often become — especially by people outside China — the "cowboys and Indians" assessment of a politically, historically and culturally complex reality. It becomes a choice between goodies and baddies. They involve the restating of the cliches that have their origins in the contests of the 1950 and '60s.
Except during periods of political disintegration and dynastic decline, China has always been ruled by an authoritarian central government. And religions were always the focus of suspicion and scrutiny in Imperial times because social disturbance that led to political upheaval often began in religions.
To be a Catholic in China means to live in a tense environment and always to be suspected by the civil authorities. That suspicion is only lessened when Catholics turn up to tedious "education" episodes where training in Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought and the government's latest edicts are conducted.
The Chinese Communist government has been more successful in its own terms than, say, its counterparts in Vietnam where the Leninist extension of Party control over the Church through the United Front mechanism was successfully resisted by the Catholics.
In China, Catholics and other Christians can exempt themselves from such "education" exercises but not government surveillance by going "underground" to worship in so-called "house" churches. And many do so for peace of mind and to maintain their faith life without seeking the permission of any government.
But restricting the life of the Catholic Church anywhere to private cells is never desirable. And more is possible for Catholic life in China today, provided certain conditions that do not go to heart of faith, morality or doctrine are not breached.
Thaddeus Ma Daqin's predecessor was Aloysius Jin Luxian, who died in April 2013 and would have been 100 on June 20. He spent 27 years in various types of custody from jail,to work camps and open prisons.
He nervously accepted a return to Shanghai in 1982 to take up the job he had when jailed in 1955 — rector of Shanghai's seminary for training priests from that and other dioceses. He then became auxiliary bishop in 1985 and bishop in 1988 — firstly approved by the Government and then finally by the Vatican but as coadjutor bishop with an "underground" equivalent in 2004.
His reason for accepting the rule of his jailers was simple. He told UCAN in 1994 that Christianity has had three starts in China, two of which ended with violence and banishment the Nestorian sect in the 7th Century and the Jesuits mission around the country that began in the 16th Century. Christianity returned after the Opium Wars and with the gunboats.
It was Bishop Jin's view that Christianity didn't need to wait for a fourth start. So he accepted that the Communist Party would rule China for the foreseeable future and Catholicism needed to adapt — but not to compromise — itself.
Bishop Ma was ordained a bishop with both Vatican and Chinese government authorities agreeing on the appointment. No one will ever admit it openly, but there is the strong likelihood that this case is related to the China-Vatican negotiation that is underway. The talks between the Vatican and China are too important to the mission of Pope Francis.
Coming also at a time where the Communist Party has refocused on religion, it is arguably important for Catholic figures such as Ma, to be inside rather than outside the tent, as it were, as this program takes places.
We have already seen the Party hold a five-day educational workshop for senior Church officials in Beijing beginning on June 20 not un-coincidentally, Bishop Jin's birthday. And in the heavily Christian province of Zhejiang, just south of Shanghai, Chinese flags are being erected over churches and Party officials appointed to each house of worship.
Ma's decision fits with the way the current Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Petro Parolin, works. His recent successes with building relationships with governments where in earlier times hostility and resistance prevailed include a recent and unprecedented development in Vietnam.
For the first time in the history of any Marxist Leninist state, the Catholic Church in Vietnam has opened the doors of a Catholic University. The Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City told UCAN that this development was down to the patient diplomacy of the Holy See and its improved relationship with authorities in Vietnam.
Parolin and others at the Vatican take the view that you have got to work with what you've got. Ma's behavior in recent times certainly follows this prescription.
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