The mysterious case of the Chinese Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin is a reminder of the unresolved tension between China and the Holy See. During his ordination as Bishop of Shanghai in Saint Ignatius’ Cathedral in the heart of the city, Ma announced that he would be resigning from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, to the applause of his followers. But the newly appointed Bishop disappeared shortly after the ceremony, claiming that he was in “deep meditation” in a convent on the outskirts of Shanghai.
His true fate is unknown, and the uncertainty leaves room for speculation of all kinds, but it is certain that his nomination rekindled old divisions. It is unclear whether the nomination came solely from the Vatican – as now seems likely – or also from the Chinese authorities. The dispute over selection of Church leadership in China is the historic cause of the rift between Church and State.
After the suspension of all official relations in 1952, the Catholic Church was banned by the Chinese government and effectively outlawed. Accused of subverting the new People’s Republic in collusion with imperialist forces, all of the Church’s property in China was confiscated and its faithful were rounded up and detained. From that moment the Vatican has officially recognized Taiwan, where it keeps an official representative with official jurisdiction over all of Mainland China. The Holy See is one of only 25 countries worldwide, and the only one in Europe, to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The Chinese Patriotic Church was born in 1957, and remains under the direction of Beijing. It is not unusual to see flyers outside Churches urging worshipers to “Love God, Love your Country.” Those who remained faithful to Rome have endured a more difficult fate, forced to practice their religion in underground churches, often holding Mass in apartments, where tolerance has given way to repression. The regime has relaxed its attitude towards underground along with the economic reforms of the country, but it is still prone to sudden relapse.
The nomination of a Bishop is a spark strong enough to reignite the tension. The Vatican refuses to back down, while Beijing considers its religious direction to be an internal matter. It is unclear whether a mandate from Rome, a matter of pride, or a challenge to the establishment motivated Ma’s exit from the Patriotic Church, but whatever the reason, the move has brought into question the fate of 10 to 12 million believers, divided between the two competing organizations but who often celebrate mass and the sacraments together.
The truth is, a disagreement over nominations cannot justify a 60-year dispute. Important as it may be, the affair should have been easily overcome by two parties with thousands of years of history and certainly no fear of negotiation. Beijing and the Vatican have been going back and forth for years over important issues such as freedom of religion, confiscated church property, from proselytism to the One China policy.
The real knot is much harder to untangle; it will take a very pragmatic approach to reconcile a universal religious movement with the roots of a nationalistic, secular state. Time, we have learned from both the Vatican and China, is a resource that leads not to haste, but to maturity. The resumption of diplomatic relations is unavoidable, but that does not mean it is essential or imminent.