“Spreading the Faith Where Faith Itself Is Suspect”

NYT has a good article on the disappearance of Bishop Ma, the latest move in the slap-fight between Beijing and the Vatican:

“If a Red Guard puts a knife to your throat and tells you to renounce your faith, what should you do?” he asked the five dozen initiates, all of them weeks away from baptism. After an awkward silence, Father Liu blurted out the answer: “Never give it up,” he said, his eyes widening for effect. “Your devotion should be to God above all else.”

Such sentiments might be a mainstay of Christian belief but they border on treasonous in China, an officially atheist state that demands fealty to the Communist Party. The pope might be a ranking minister, but according to the party’s thinking, President Hu Jintao is Catholicism’s supreme leader, at least here in China.

As a priest at an officially sanctioned government church — as opposed to the legion of illicit unofficial congregations — Father Liu struggles to balance his faith with the often-intrusive dictates of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the omnipotent government body that oversees religious life for China’s 12 million Roman Catholics.

After several years of quiet negotiation and a tacit agreement to jointly name Chinese bishops, the Patriotic Association has since 2010 consecrated four bishops over the Vatican’s objections, including Joseph Yue Fusheng, who was ordained Friday in the northern city of Harbin.

Rome responded with an automatic excommunication.

The drama intensified on Saturday, when the Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the newly installed auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, stunned his congregation by announcing his resignation from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. “In the light of the teaching of our mother church, as I now serve as a bishop, I should focus on pastoral work and evangelization,” Bishop Ma told the crowded church. “Therefore, from this day of consecration, it will no longer be convenient for me to be a member of the patriotic association.”

The announcement, captured on video and posted on foreign and Chinese Web sites, was met with sustained applause from the congregation. Father Ma, who did not lead Mass on Sunday as scheduled, has not been heard from since.

“It’s a very critical situation; I haven’t seen things so bad in 50 years,” said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, founder of an institute at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium that promotes dialogue between China and the church. “All the years of cooperation and progress have been torn to pieces.”

It is not entirely clear what went wrong. The animus, fed by an age-old narrative that paints the Vatican as a foreign interloper, is never far beneath the surface. But analysts suggest party hard-liners may be taking advantage of the political stasis that has preceded the once-a-decade leadership change scheduled for later this year.

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