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Bishops played like violins by government fiddlers


BEIJING (UCAN): The news that on Easter Sunday the birdcage bishop of Shanghai, who had become a hero of the Catholic people for his resistance to the power of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, had concelebrated with the bad boy on the Vatican books, Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, has left people with the feeling that their bishops are being played like violins in a government orchestra.
But whatever about the violinists, the bottom line question is who is composing the symphony and to whose ear is it attuned?
Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who lost his freedom to house arrest after his ordination in Shanghai in 2012 and his title of bishop to the sleight of hand of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, now appears to the people to have lost his credibility in agreeing to a comeback public appearance at the altar with an illicitly ordained bishop regarded by the Vatican as at least a difficult one to rehabilitate.
It is also ironic, as Bishop Ma had tried to keep Bishop Zhan away from his ordination and, although he did not succeed in keeping him off the sanctuary, with a bit of fancy footwork of his own, he did manage to avoid what many would have regarded as a blasphemy by preventing him from laying hands.
While news of the Easter Sunday Mass was posted on the WeChat account of Mindong diocese on the same day, it was swiftly removed, but too late, as it had already travelled far and wide triggering all kinds of speculation and comment.
All eyes were turned on the Bishop Ma birdcage in June last year following an article he penned saying he regretted quitting the Patriotic Association at his ordination. Payback came a few of months later with a couple of job offers from the association, but only for Father, not Bishop, Ma.
In both writing the articles and appearing with the illegitimately ordained bishop in Mindong, where his own title as bishop appears to have been restored, he has hit the right note for the authorities as a finely tuned episcopal violin in the hands of a government fiddler.
But the melodies are carefully composed well ahead of curtain call.
In the Church in China, the most obvious distinguishing signs for priests between the official and unofficial Catholic communities is political privilege and status.
On the official side of the ledger, political privilege is an enticing government carrot to those who are ordained in the Church.
Up for grabs are membership in the national or provincial Political Consultative Conference or a spot on the standing committee of the Patriotic Association, with the possibility of the rank of secretary-general or chairperson.
A member of the provincial Political Consultative Conference is the equivalent of a deputy official of a city government, at least in prestige if not political power and, while people may criticise how much money a bishop receives from attending religious meetings, few worry about his political status.
The late Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, from Beijing, was the chairperson of the Patriotic Association and a vice chairperson of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
He enjoyed a status equivalent to a deputy state leader with the privilege of a police escort on the road, with the general perks of party bosses thrown in.
Privilege can be far more important than money, as it means more influence in society. But, behind the titles, there is always a government fiddler ready to run the bow over the strings.
Bishop Thaddeus Ma is now being treated much like the other government-recognised bishops in the official Church community.
The difference is, after he openly rejected the mantra of an independent Church pushed by the Patriotic Association as incompatible with Church doctrine, it took several years under house arrest to tune his strings to the same frequency as the rest of the orchestra.
Although Bishop Ma’s status will remain limited, he may prefer it to house arrest and it may help to keep him acceptable among even disgruntled Catholics.
In 2012 and 2013 when he was under tight house arrest, his daily prayer on WeChat and the articles he posted on his blog spread rapidly and extensively. No other bishop in China could match his popularity and, in the end, his social media popularity had to be curtailed.
It now seems that Shanghai will have a bishop again, but his sudden U-turn has already affected the views of many Catholics and caused a split in the diocese. Some are disappointed, some are critical.
Bishop Ma is a talented person in literature, music, painting and ecclesiological studies. This is unique among bishops and the government is reluctant to keep him under house arrest in an international city where the influence of the Church is immense.
There were rumours that a bishop would be transferred from another diocese to Shanghai or a new one ordained. Neither solution is without side effects, which may explain why Bishop Ma has dangled without resolution for years.
Forcing a compromise is a common tactic to undo the conciliatory policies of the Vatican.
Even though many are disappointed in Bishop Ma, if the Vatican was to appoint a new bishop to Shanghai, it probably would not hurt the unity of the diocese and could even justify its attitudes on apostolic succession.
But whatever the symphony the government is playing on the episcopal violins may be, ears in many an echelon of the Church are being constantly assaulted by its discordant harmonies.


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