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China

With New Leaders In Rome And Beijing, China's Catholics Face Uncertain Future

The some 10 million Catholics in China remain divided between those loyal to the Pope and those in step with the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy.

Shanghai's St. Ignatius Cathedral
Shanghai's St. Ignatius Cathedral
Harold Thibault

SHANGHAI - On the last Monday of April, this city's main Cathedral was filled with believers. They had come to honor the memory of the man who had done more than anyone to improve relations between the Vatican and China's so-called "Patriotic" Catholic Church.

Bishop Jin Luxian died last month at the age of 97. He had done his novitiate preparation for the priesthood in France, returning to his native China in 1951, only to be imprisoned five years later by Mao’s regime -- and would go on to spend a total of 18 years in prison and nine in a labor camp.

Despite all of this, Jin joined the official "patriotic" Church once he got out of prison in 1982, and worked for years trying to bring it closer together with the clandestine communities of Catholics loyal to Rome. The estimated 10 million Catholics in China are split between those with allegiance to the Pope and those that practice under the auspices of the Patriotic Church that is sanctioned by the Communist Party.

In 2005, Monsignor Jin successfully pushed for the ordination of an assistant bishop, who was approved both by Rome and the Chinese authorities. This event marked the beginning of a relative thawing of relations between Beijing and the Holy See.

But that compromise came undone in November 2010 in the northeastern city of Chengde, when the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association resumed the ordination of bishops who had not been previously approved by the Pope. Members of the clergy who were faithful to Rome were forcibly taken to religious services by State security forces.

On the one hand, Beijing argues that the ordination process must be accelerated, especially in dioceses where there is no bishop. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, see this move as a hardening of Beijing’s stance. What they are not sure about is whether this is part of a more general control over human rights militants, or a stratagem on the part of the officials in charge of Catholic affairs, who fear their power would collapse if the improved relationship between Rome and Beijing solidified.

A telling sign of the growing tension was evident at the memorial service for Jin, which was led by a simple priest. Indeed, Ma Daqin, the new auxilliary bishop of Shanghai, has been under house arrest since last summer. During his own ordination ceremony on July 7, Ma had refused blessings from two bishops who had been imposed by the state-sanctioned Church.

It was during this same ceremony in July that Ma had announced he would no longer be part of the body in the Communist Party that controls the Catholic Church. “Thunderous applause among young people, livid faces among officials!” a European witness recalls. All officials from the Communist Party promptly left the Cathedral. Shortly after the service, the new bishop was forcibly taken to the Sheshan seminary, 30 kilometers outside the city center, where he has been detained since.

Mass alone

The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association thought they had found in Ma Daqin a consensual, even docile new bishop. Contrary to someone like Msgr Jin, who had spent 27 years in prison and saw any changes as improvements on the harsh situation of the past, the new generation has raised expectations, explains one Western expert on Catholicism in China. "There has been an unaccounted for tightening in the State policy since 2010, and the young generation is making clear they do not want to go any further in that direction,” he says.

Jin’s last wish was to leave behind him an appeased community. Last year, in an interview with Le Monde, he refused to make any comment on this reactionary movement, though he did express concern for younger generations of clergymen.

His successor remains cut off from the rest of the world. On a visit to his seminary last month, one of his friends explained that Monsignor Ma could have his meals with the other seminarians, but had to say Mass on his own.

“The freedom of Catholics is subjected to their obedience to the system,” his friend remarked. Being allowed to visit the bishop on house-arrest, he confirmed that Ma Daqin was still allowed to manage his account on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, on which verses of the Gospel are sometimes published. The bishop has been allowed a few visitors, but no foreigners, as it would “make things even worse for him.”

Since last summer, the government in Beijing has been undergoing a handover of power, while in Rome a new Pope was elected this spring. But if the new Chinese President Xi Jinping has been talking about reforming the party internally, he has not given any indication on the future of Catholics in China. As a priest explained to us, “the relationship with the Roman Church falls within the scope of Foreign Policy, and Xi Jinping’s stance on this is still unclear.”

As a friend of the new bishop, he hopes “the government will be more open on this and let Msgr Ma go back to Shanghai.”

For weeks, the government had been aware that Jin was dying, and intentionally kept his successor away from his Cathedral. Sources say he has now been removed even further, to the capital, Beijing.

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