For some, Mgr Ma’s blog post praising the Patriotic Association and acknowledging his mistakes is nothing but “dirt”. For others, he chose humiliation for the “sake of his diocese”. Many wonder why the Holy See has remained silent about the article’s content and the bishop’s persecution. Some suspect the Vatican views the episode in positive terms. Yet, the Ma Daqin affair raises a major question. Has Benedict XVI’s Letter to Chinese Catholics (which describes the Patriotic Association as “incompatible with Catholic doctrine”) been abolished? If it has, who did it? A journey of compromises without truth is full of risks.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) – In Shanghai, confusion continues to prevail among Catholics following their bishop’s betrayal.
Mgr Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who spent four years under house arrest for quitting the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), “confessed” his errors on 12 June in an article in which he praised the CPCA for its the “irreplaceable role” in the development of the Church in China.
Many Catholics and friends of the bishop believe he was forced to write that article, and that its content is just “dirt”. However, a priest in northern China (also under government surveillance) has words of compassion for Mgr Ma.
“Mgr Ma Daqin’s change is understandable,” he told AsiaNews. He agreed to put up with all the humiliations [he received] after closely considering them. He did it for the sake of his diocese, so that he could go back to take care of it.
“The Chinese government was beside itself after 'losing face' to the bishop’s attitude four years ago. His contrition and praise for the Patriotic Association on his blog allow the government to regain its sense of honour, and this could make things easier for Ma himself."
Yet, for many Chinese Catholics, in different parts of the country, the biggest surprise is the silence coming from the Vatican. Many would like the Holy See explain whether the article that Mgr Ma wrote or did not write contains "elements that are incompatible with the Catholic doctrine."
Has Benedict XVI’s letter been abolished?
In fact, the article, full of lavish praise for the CPCA, undermines what Benedict XVI said in his Letter to Chinese Catholics, namely that the implementation of the “principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church is incompatible with Catholic doctrine” (N. 7). For many Chinese, the Vatican’s silence gives the impression that Benedict XVI’s letter has been superseded. A 70-year-old clergyman asked, “Has Benedict XVI’s Letter to Chinese Catholics been abolished? If so by whom? With what authority, since Pope Francis said that it was still valid?”
"Let us assume for argument’s sake that Mgr Ma’s article is an attempt to reach an agreement with the authorities. Is there not a risk placing the journey of faith into the hands of political scheming? How far can this bargaining go? Once we accept to be subordinate in one situation, we are on a slippery slope. Where will it end? What matters to us? Do we accept everything the CPCA and the government tell us? Do we accept excommunicated bishops? Do we accept every unlawful bishop (those who have not yet been officially excommunicated)? If this is the case, there is no truth. Why continue being Christian then?
Many expect Mgr Ma to ended up like Mgr Wu Qinqing, bishop of Zhouzhi (Shaanxi). Ordained without CPCA permission, he was held in solitary confinement for ten years. He was eventually installed by the government as bishop of his diocese after agreeing to concelebrate with an unlawful bishop.
"Soon enough, we shall see Ma Daqin concelebrate Mass with an unlawful bishop, or he will put on a show of his “conversion” during preparations for the Ninth Assembly (of Chinese Catholic representatives), or even during the Assembly."
“The Vatican’s silence in this situation is something really bad because it creates more confusion, to the say the least,” said bitterly the clergyman from a diocese in central China.
A southern bishop also feels quite embarrassed by the silence coming from the Holy See. "It doesn’t matter who wrote the article, the Holy See must reiterate that the article contains elements that are not compatible with the Church's doctrine,” he said. “Otherwise, this creates suspicions and fears, as if someone in the Vatican allowed Ma Daqin’s 'conversion', perhaps hoping to engage the Chinese government in dialogue. The silence coming from the Holy See only creates confusion and raises many questions."
Failure of China-Holy See talks
Ma Daqin’s flip-flop represents the “failure of the Vatican’s policy vis-à-vis China,” said a Beijing professional who spoke to AsiaNews. "If the published article is by Mgr Ma, we must acknowledge that the Vatican’s policy (of engaging the government of China whilst insisting that the CPCA is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine) is a failure. If it is not by Ma Daqin, then it was an act of compulsion and persecution, which no one has denounced, not even the Holy Se.”
"What this episode shows is the failure of the Vatican’s policy. The latter has never morally backed Mgr Ma Daqin, even though he sent many messages to the pope. From the Holy See, he only got an embarrassing silence.”
“If Ma Daqin was forced to write the post on his blog, it means that he was the victim of violence, forced to follow the regime’s policy of false religious freedom. This, once again, shows the failure of Vatican’s policy towards the Chinese government. This dialogue failed to provide this poor bishop even a minimal form of freedom.”
It is worth noting that this position is the opposite of what some commentators said recently about China-Vatican relations, namely that Ma Daqin’s affair is a sign of hope for talks between Beijing and the Holy See because it removes some obstacles.
In all this, no one has slammed Chinese authorities for placing Ma Daqin under house arrest for four years. No one has felt outraged that a bishop of the Catholic Church could not be reached in order to know what he thought, how he lived, or what he suffered. He is just a case, a negative one first, now positive one, in the relationship between China and the Holy See.
Yet, Pope Francis has called on priests and bishops (and I think also lay people) not to reduce human problems to the status of “cases,” but rather take to heart the harassed faces of those involved.