BEIJING – Shanghai's would-be Catholic bishop has been a virtual prisoner in that city's main seminary for nine months and counting, his penalty for openly challenging China's ruling Communist Party by withdrawing from the country's official bodies that oversee the church.
The treatment dealt out to Thaddeus Ma Daqin is the most glaring and high-level example of China's heavy-handed control of the church and the challenge that poses for the Roman Catholic Church as cardinals gather to choose a new pope.
As the College of Cardinals meets at the Vatican for a second day, the fate of the church in China is receiving scant attention amid bigger concerns over priest shortages, clerical sexual abuse scandals, and giving greater voice to women and laypeople. Yet China will certainly be an issue before the next pontiff, not only because of continuing repression of Catholics in the country, but also because China's rising economic and diplomatic status is propelling it ever more quickly toward the center of global affairs.
"It would be worth it to see China's authorities open their minds and lose their fear and distrust of religion," parishioner John Liu said while standing in the weather-beaten courtyard of Beijing's 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
He was hopeful the new pope could help the mend ties with China, but didn't think it could happen quickly: "It will take time," he said.
At his ordination last July, Ma told the congregation he was withdrawing from China's official bodies to focus on his pastoral work, a gesture of independence that enraged religious officials present at Shanghai's St. Ignatius Cathedral.
They took him directly from the church to suburban Sheshan seminary for what was at first termed a retreat. In December, they revoked his bishop title, saying he had broken Chinese rules by taking steps to ensure his ordination was acceptable to Rome. The Vatican has refused to accept the move.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI made improving relations with Beijing a priority during his eight-year pontificate, writing a historic letter to the Chinese faithful in 2007 in hopes of uniting the divided church under his wing. He created two Hong Kong-based cardinal positions, and appointed a senior Hong Kong archbishop to a top Vatican office — giving the church in China a voice in Holy See decision-making.
But there was little progress on the ground, with continued detentions of Catholic clergy and stalemates over bishop appointments. A group of Chinese clergy and faithful wrote to Benedict to thank him for his attention, but their letter read more like a tacit acknowledgment of the difficult path ahead.
"No matter what conflicts and harm occurred, no matter how sad and disappointed we made you feel, you always embraced China and the Catholic Church in China with fatherly love," read the letter, released last week by the Holy See.
China and the Vatican have no diplomatic ties, and the ruling Communist Party forced Chinese Catholics to sever ties with the Holy See in the 1950s. The two decades that followed saw churches closed and clergy imprisoned or forced to labor in fields or factories. Others were killed for refusing to renounce their loyalty to Rome. Religious rights weren't restored until after Mao Zedong's death in 1976.
Today the church remains under the strict control of a pair of party-controlled bodies, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops Conference. Officials of the two organizations declined to be interviewed.
China officially records about 6 million Catholics worshipping in 6,300 congregations, although millions more are believed to worship outside the official church, with considerable crossover between the two.
The most recent tensions largely concern the hugely sensitive issue of who can appoint bishops. The Vatican says only the pope has the power to do so, but Beijing says it can do so on its own as an exercise in the Chinese church's independence.
For years, the two sides quietly agreed on mutually acceptable candidates in secret consultations. That went awry in 2010 with the appointment of Guo Jincai as bishop of the northern city of Chengde. The Vatican said he wasn't appropriate and accused China of proceeding on its own.
Chinese officials accused Rome of undermining the independence of the Chinese church and interfering in the rights of Chinese Catholics to practice their faith. Other contentious appointments followed.
Shanghai, one of China's largest and wealthiest dioceses, remains unsettled. No word has been given on when Ma would be freed and classes at city seminaries remain suspended.
The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor in chief of Catholic news service AsiaNews, expects the next pope's commitment to China to be at least as substantial as Benedict's.
"First of all, China has a population of 1.3 billion and people are more and more in search of a spiritual soul that was suffocated by materialism. In China, we are living a springtime of faith," Bernardo said. "Moreover, China is one of the most important actors in the international scene and needs to present itself as a friend of the world, not as a military power, or a pariah disrespectful of human rights."
Engaging China will first require the next pope to establish a unified approach in the Vatican, said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, of Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven, who studies the Chinese church.
"On both sides — Beijing and Rome — there are some who favor dialogue and others who oppose. That is the reason why each attempt toward dialogue so far has failed," he said.
Without formal ties, no mainland clerics are taking part in the next pope's selection. However, the bishop of the Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, is a member of the conclave.
Tong, who declined interview requests, is a strong advocate for engagement, calling himself a bridge for the church in China. But he has also urged an end to the ordination of bishops not approved by Rome, and last year told the Catholic news agency uca.com that Beijing should see Catholics not as potential enemies, but as loyal, upstanding citizens.
His attitude has been welcomed by many as a refreshing change from that of his hardline predecessor, Joseph Zen, who has described the standoff with Beijing over bishops as "a war."
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome and videojournalist Annie Ho in Hong Kong contributed to this story.