Chinese Monsignor Thaddeus Ma Daqin’s recent public display of self-criticism has wreaked havoc on the Catholic community in China. In a blog post on June 12, Ma Daqin voiced his support to the government-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which he had quitted during his ordination as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in 2012. Msgr. Ma’s resignation from the CPCA was a slap in the face of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and ultimately cost him four years under house arrest.

Ma Daqin’s turnaround over the CPCA, the Communist Party’s body presiding over more than 12 million Catholics on the mainland, has sparked passionate reactions from the ranks of the Chinese Catholic Church.

On June 22, Hong Kong’s retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a vocal critic of the CCP’s religious policy, blasted the Holy See’s initial silence over the Ma Daqin affair. Earlier, speaking to AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency based in Rome, some Chinese Catholics had wondered if Ma Daqin’s overture to the CPCA, combined with the Vatican’s passivity, could determine the repudiation of Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to Chinese Catholics. Released in 2007, this document advocates freedom for the Holy See’s ministry and work, meaning that the CPCA is incompatible with the Catholic doctrine.

Only on June 23, the Vatican Press Office issued a statement claiming that any speculation regarding an alleged role of the Holy See in Msgr. Ma’s article is “inappropriate.”

Chinese Monsignor Thaddeus Ma Daqin
Chinese Monsignor Thaddeus Ma Daqin

Thaw or freeze?

Ma Daqin’s words added a further element of volatility to the already troubled Sino-Vatican relationship, as signs of a possible rapprochement were multiplying. With Pope Francis’ backing, China and the Holy See revived a political dialogue in June last year. The main dispute between them is the CPCA’s power to ordain its own bishops without papal approval. The Roman Church claims episcopal ordinations as falling within its prerogatives, and  the installation of Father Joseph Zhang Yinlin as coadjutor bishop of Anyang diocese in August 2015, with a return to a tacit agreement that views Beijing appointing only Vatican-approved candidates for episcopal roles, raised hopes for a possible thaw in relations between the Holy See and China.

A breakthrough in Sino-Vatican ties appeared to be in the offing last January. News reports from Italy signaled the impending finalization of an agreement between Beijing and the Roman Church that would allow Pope Francis to ordain, with some restrictions, bishops in mainland China, the first such episcopal ordinations there since the interruption of informal diplomatic ties between the Chinese government and the Holy See in 1951, two years after the Communists came to power.

In an interview with Francesco Sisci in the Asia Times on February 2, Pope Francis emphasized China’s cultural and historical tradition, but did not touch upon political and religious issues. In early May, Vatican’s Secretary of State Pietro Parolin maintained that relations between the Holy See and Beijing were “in a positive phase,” even though a solution to the diplomatic stalemate was yet out of reach.

As a Vatican deputy foreign minister between 2002 and 2009, Cardinal Parolin was in charge of the church’s policy for Asia and dealt with China on mutual diplomatic recognition and freedom of worship. Parolin’s attempt failed in 2005, when China and the Holy See did not sign a deal providing for the recognition of a non-resident Vatican representative at Beijing without diplomatic status and the set-up of a mechanism for shared episcopal appointments – a model of agreement that the Roman Church then used with Vietnam five years later.

‘Underground’ church issue

The search for a modus vivendi with China is increasingly proving to be a conundrum for the Holy See. Time and again, China’s President Xi Jinping has reiterated the government’s control over religions, a position that pits the Communist Party against the Chinese unregistered “underground” church, which remains loyal to the Holy See. In addition, the Chinese government tightened up the country’s Criminal Law in August 2015, whose Article 300 is often invoked to punish religious followers, according to Freedom House.

Hong Kong’s Catholic leadership, in particular Cardinal Zen, has always been sceptical about Beijing’s real intensions and does not believe that Beijing will accommodate Vatican demands on the appointment of bishops and the CPCA’s role. Not to mention other key problems raised by the city’s Catholic diocese against any entente with the Chinese government, such as the fate of imprisoned bishops, restrictions to Catholics’ freedom of expression, movement, assembly and association.

Whether or not forced, Ma Daqin’s “conversion” to the CCP’s cause is fueling a sense of disorientation among many Chinese believers on the mainland and overseas. The Roman Church’s current policy of trying to strike a balance between its own doctrine and the religious limitations imposed by the Chinese government is bound to be questioned.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. In the past, his articles have also appeared in Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review, Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post and the EU observer, among others.

Copyright Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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