In a fresh challenge to Vatican authority, China has revoked the title of a new Catholic bishop in Shanghai who outraged Chinese officials by immediately dropping out of the government agency that oversees the country's officially sanctioned church, religious officials said Wednesday.
Ma Daqin, who was jointly named for the post in a rare consensus between Beijing and the Vatican, has been confined to a seminary since he announced his intention to drop out of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in front of a congregation during his July 7 ordination as auxiliary bishop.
The move by Ma, 44, was seen as challenging China's attempts to run the country's Catholic church independently of the Vatican.
A Shanghai church official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the decision by Chinese officials to revoke Ma's title was announced at an internal meeting this week. He said no reason was given for the revocation.
The Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, of Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven, and the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor-in-chief of AsiaNews, said Chinese colleagues had informed them of the development earlier this week.
The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Shanghai Diocese declined to comment.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi referred to recent comments by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the head of the Vatican's missionary office, citing Ma's treatment in lamenting the worsening situation for Catholic prelates in China.
"Some bishops and priests are segregated or deprived of their freedom, as recently occurred in with the case of the Shanghai bishop Ma Daquin for having declared his desire to dedicate himself full-time to pastoral ministry, leaving jobs which, among other things, aren't even the competence of a pastor," Filoni told the Italian religious affairs magazine Tripod.
The Vatican does not formally recognize the association and says the Chinese church should take its orders directly from Rome. The selection of bishops has been one of the most contentious issues between the sides, with the Chinese association saying it has the right to make independent appointments in defiance of Rome's insistence that only it has that power.
Ma's announcement in July had been greeted with applause by hundreds of worshippers in Shanghai's Cathedral of St. Ignatius, the seat of one of China's largest, wealthiest and most independent dioceses. He was taken away by officials immediately after the service and has not been seen in public since, with the Shanghai diocese saying he is in retreat at the seminary at Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Days after Ma's announcement, the Patriotic Association issued a two-sentence statement saying it was investigating his ordination. Scores of priests and nuns were interviewed and seminary classes and other internal church activities either canceled or delayed.
Another Catholic website, ucanews, said Ma had been suspended from performing priestly duties for two years and would remain in the seminary indefinitely.
Ma's ordination, with the approval of both sides, had been seen as a hopeful sign that a China-Vatican dialogue that broke down in 2010 was back on track. The pope had issued the Vatican's approval of Beijing's selection of Ma to take over as auxiliary, giving him day-to-day control over the Shanghai diocese and placing him next in line after 97-year-old Shanghai Bishop Jin Luxian.
Cervellera said the Shanghai diocese had handed Ma's case to more hardline officials in Beijing, resulting in the harsh punishment. China's officially atheistic Communist Party wants not only the right to approve bishops, but also to fire those who get out of line, he said.
"The situation is very serious," Cervellera said.
Heyndrickx, who has traveled frequently to China over the past three decades, said that the action against Ma was "not conducive to dialogue," but that the situation would remain in flux until new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping consolidates his power. Concessions would likely be needed on both sides, such as China releasing detained underground priests, and the Vatican recognizing bishops appointed without its prior agreement, he said.
"Contact, communication and dialogue is the only way out of the current impasse," Heyndrickx said, adding that both sides would remain firm in their public statements, but that back-channel discussions would likely continue.
China has an estimated 8 million to 12 million Catholics, around half of whom worship in underground congregations. The Communist Party ordered Catholics to cut ties with the Holy See in the 1950s, and persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.
The current tensions come five years after Pope Benedict XVI called for reconciliation between the underground and government-affiliated congregations in China. Beijing ultimately rejected the appeal as interference in its internal affairs.