In a move characterised in Western media as a fresh challenge to Vatican authority, China’s state-run Catholic Church has revoked the title of the auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai.

Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who is in his mid-forties, was ordained in July. His appointment had the rare approval of both Pope Benedict XVI and the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CCPA). Both lay claim to the leadership of China’s Catholics, who are said to number up to about 12 million. Both claim authority to appoint Bishops, and each denies the authority of the other.

The revoking of the Bishop’s title and reports of his house arrest have been condemned in the United Kingdom as “a shocking indignity” by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). UK spokesman John Pontifex condemned the move as “undue interference”, adding: “This situation will undoubtedly cause relations between the Vatican and China to be more strained. That the Bishop is reported to be under house arrest is a shocking indictment of the current situation.”

At his ordination, Ma Daqin publicly announced he no longer could remain a member of the state Catholic Church. He refused the laying on of hands and communion from a bishop who had not been recognised by the Pope. Ma Daqin has not been seen in public since, and has reportedly been placed under house arrest.

AFP said a spokesman for the CPCA confirmed that the Bishop had been dismissed from his post. As yet no official statement has come from the Vatican, but its press office referred to a recent statement in the Italian religious affairs magazine Tripod.

“The situation remains serious,” wrote Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. “Some bishops and priests are segregated or deprived of their liberty, as has recently happened in the case of the Bishop of Shanghai, Ma Daqin.”

Lord Alton, of the British Parliament’s House of Lords and a prominent spokesman for human rights and religious liberty, spoke to World Watch Monitor about Bishop Ma’s case. He’d been delighted when the Bishop had been appointed in July. “Since the Cultural Revolution, we’ve seen in Shanghai a wonderful period in which Church-State relations have much improved. But Bishop Ma’s resignation at his ordination was over the fact that it isn’t appropriate for the State to control a Bishop. It’s a big issue for China, one which has not gone away. This is an incredibly important case, which the world should not lose sight of”.

Lord Alton went on: “Within China’s ruling Communist Party, there’s an enormous groundswell of opinion that China needs to adopt deeper values if it’s to resist the corruption that’s blighting the country. Even if members don’t believe in Christianity themselves, they know that the Christian faith can help bring those values. So, on the one hand, they now want Christianity, but on the other hand they want to so tightly control it. It leaves people like Bishop Ma in an impossible situation. This will not enhance deeper values in China, nor respect for Christianity”.

According to Catholic websites UCANews and AsiaNews, supporters of Bishop Ma, who include nuns, have been punished or forced to attend “political education” classes. Cardinal Filoni stated: “Control over people and institutions has intensified.” He went on to lament the absence of freedom of religion in China and called on the “whole Church to defend the legitimate rights of Chinese faithful.”

John Pontifex said ACN was also “increasingly concerned” about the number of cases where “episcopal appointments have not been respected, where there has been undue interference.”

Asian Catholic news agencies portray Bishop Ma as having taken a principled stand by refusing to submit to the authority of the state-run Church. Pro-Vatican press reported he received long applause at his ordination for announcing his decision to resign from the CPCA. They say he was placed under house arrest immediately at the diocesan seminary in Sheshan and is still being held there.

Observers say the clash over authority aggravates tensions between the Vatican and Beijing, which have been difficult since the Communist Party assumed power in 1949.
One of Bishop Ma’s predecessors, the first Chinese national to be ordained Bishop of Shanghai in 1949, spent over 30 years under house arrest.

China and the Vatican cut diplomatic ties in 1951, after the Holy See gave official recognition to the Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan, where it still has an embassy. In 1957, the Chinese authorities placed the official Catholic Church under the control of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). By doing so, the atheist state assumed to itself the power to appoint its bishops.

The Chinese Catholic Church now is divided between the official, state-sanctioned Church, and the Church that is loyal to Rome and rejects the authority of the state over its affairs.

Estimates as to the number of Catholics in China vary. Official sources say around 5.7 million Chinese are members of the state-run Church; unofficial estimates range up to 12 million. Millions more worship in underground or unofficial churches, which remain loyal to the Pope.

However, State-Church tensions did not start with Chinese Communist Party rule.
Lord Alton says they date back to the earliest days of Christianity in China in the 1500s, and Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci. One of the founders of the Jesuit China Mission, Ricci had a difficult relationship with the Emperor, although he persisted in learning Chinese, according to Cambridge historian Mary Laven.

“Even Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution ordered that Ricci’s shrine should not be destroyed or desecrated,” Lord Alton said. “So there’s an acknowledgement that Christianity brings good to China: however there’s a traditional desire to control this”.
Chinese official news agency Xinhua’s English website has no report yet on the Bishop’s removal from post.

China is ranked No. 21 among the 50 countries that are most hostile to Christians, according to the World Watch List published by Open Doors.