BEIJING — The government body that controls the Catholic church in China says it is investigating the selection of a bishop who cut his ties to the group as soon as he was ordained, in an embarrassment to Beijing that could deepen its rift with the Vatican.
Shanghai's auxiliary Bishop Ma Daqin announced that he was leaving the Catholic Patriotic Association at the end of his ordination ceremony on Saturday, saying he wished to devote himself fully to his duties as bishop.
The move 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's announcement was 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. But he has not been seen since.
Ma, 44, was reportedly being held in isolation at a seminary. The Shanghai diocese said he had applied for and received permission to go into retreat beginning Sunday.
The Patriotic Association issued a two-sentence statement late Wednesday saying it was investigating violations of regulations in the selection of bishops in relation to Saturday's ordination.
Patriotic Association spokesman Yang Yu refused to provide further details on Thursday, saying to do so "might affect or influence public opinion" about an ongoing investigation.
"It is not convenient to release the details now," Yang said.
In Rome, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters Thursday that he had little information on Ma's situation other than that he was in a seminary and described the situation as "not positive."
Ma's ordination "was a piece of good news for us ... a reason for hope" for improved relations, Lombardi said. He called the current development an "an unusual situation" and said the Vatican had had no direct communication with either the bishop or others who might be in contact with him.
Hong Kong-based Catholic activist Anthony Lam said China's response to Ma's announcement would make reconciliation between the sides even harder. The onus is on Beijing to explain its actions, he said.
"Obviously the event will cause problems in the process of normalization of the China-Vatican relationship," Lam said.
The government's options in Ma's case appear limited. Barring him from his open episcopal duties could strengthen the status of the underground church that operates alongside the open church in most areas in defiance of government control. Allowing him to operate outside the Patriotic Association, however, would amount to a major surrender of authority.
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 Shanghai Bishop Jin Luxian.
Such agreements had been common in past, but Beijing has in recent years moved to assert its authority by acting independently. Last Friday, it appointed a new bishop in the northeastern city of Harbin who did not have papal approval and was immediately excommunicated by the Vatican.
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 frictions 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 large amounts of public funds on banquets, official cars, travel and bureaucracy.