BEIJING – Classes have been delayed indefinitely at a Shanghai Catholic seminary caught in the middle of a struggle between Chinese priests and the Communist Party-controlled church over the appointment of a bishop, a staff member and media report said Wednesday.
Classes at the city's Sheshan seminary usually begin in mid-September but were recently postponed for an unspecified time, said a woman who answered the phone at the school's administrative office. The reason wasn't clear, said the woman, who would give only her surname, Lu, because she wasn't authorized to speak to media.
Catholic website UCAnews.com also reported the delay, saying the school was informed by a notice from Shanghai's aging Bishop Jin Luxian, who last month appointed Ma Daqin as his successor. It said classes have also been delayed at Shanghai's affiliated Tailaiqiao Seminary. The two institutions train would-be priests from Shanghai and five surrounding provinces, making them important to the church's viability in China.
"I don't know the reason for the delay or when classes will start," Lu said.
The move follows an investigation into Ma's surprise announcement shortly after his ordination that he was resigning from the party's Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which exerts strict control over the Chinese church. Ma has been confined to the Sheshan seminary ever since his announcement.
That public announcement, made to the loud applause of parishioners, was seen as a challenge to the Communist Party from one of China's largest, wealthiest and most independent dioceses that has long sought to throw off state control.
It marked the biggest public challenge to Beijing's control over the Catholic clergy in years. The Vatican does not recognize the Catholic Patriotic Association and says the Chinese church should take its orders directly from Rome.
Ma, who has been confined since the announcement, has been unable to carry out the duties of his new office. Besides his confinement and the delay of classes, a mother superior has been dismissed and a weeklong training course for nuns has been canceled.
Such harsh treatment could prompt more Catholic clergy and laymen to turn to the underground church that operates alongside the open church in most areas in defiance of government control.
Ma's ordination had marked a notable case of cooperation between China and the Vatican, which have no formal relations and disagree bitterly over who has the right to appoint bishops. China demands it do so independently, while the Holy See says only the pope can make such decisions.
In Ma's case, the pope had issued its approval of Beijing's selection of him to take over as auxiliary, giving him day-to-day control over the Shanghai diocese and placing him next in line after 96-year-old Jin.
Such agreements had been common in past, but Beijing has in recent years moved to assert its authority by acting independently.
China has an estimated 8 million to 12 million Catholics, around half of whom worship in underground congregations. China's officially atheistic 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.
Renunciation of the Patriotic Association by priests in the open church is not unusual, although most such declarations are done in private. In addition to causing friction with the Vatican, priests complain that taking part in the group's activities is a major drag on their time, requiring frequent attendance at political meetings and wasting money on banquets and travel.