Updated July 26, 2012, 7:11 p.m. ET
The ordination of Shanghai's new bishop this month was one for the history books. No sooner had his fellow bishops laid hands on Thaddeus Ma Daqin than he announced his resignation from China's state-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). After the congregation broke into spontaneous applause, the authorities took him directly to jail, or at least some form of house arrest where he is unreachable. Officially he is on a "retreat."
Beijing claims it regulates Catholicism and other religions to preserve stability, but its restrictions on religious freedom are provoking dramatic gestures of resistance like that of Bishop Ma. The wonder is that Beijing doesn't realize that its crude measures are counterproductive. The fact that the Patriotic Association and other such bodies have abandoned more subtle means suggests that the explosion of interest in organized religion is panicking the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
The Communist Party has been battling the Vatican for religious authority since it broke a truce in 2010 by ordaining a priest in Hebei province without papal sanction. Unlike the controversial cases of the past few years, Rev. Ma was ordained with approval from both sides. But he still chose to serve only one master. "After today's ordination, I would devote every effort to episcopal ministry. It is inconvenient for me to serve the CPA post anymore," he told his Shanghai congregation.
Beijing doesn't want Bishop Ma to set an example for other priests, so it barred the courageous bishop from his duties. "We haven't heard from him," Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, told us. "The Holy See cannot contact him. We are a little worried for his safety."
Harsh measures may strengthen Rev. Ma's popularity and create a diplomatic debacle. The South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed priest from Shanghai who hopes the Ma example may decrease government pressure on the clergy and allow them to focus on their religious duties. Such reactions demonstrate that Chinese Catholics no longer wish to quietly suffer the politicization of Christianity.
Pope Benedict XVI inveighed against Chinese state control in 2007: "Persons who are not ordained, and sometimes not even baptized, control and take decisions concerning important . . . questions." Priests loyal to Rome often are forced to appear in illegal ordinations. Last year officials in Guangzhou went as far as to kidnap four bishops for this purpose.
These aggressive tactics and the rank-and-file's discontent have convinced the Holy See to abandon diplomatic restraint. After the illegal ordination in Hebei, it fired off a communiqué to China in December 2010 that condemned political interference. In the past year, Rome has begun using one of the heaviest weapons in its arsenal: excommunicating priests ordained without papal approval, including one this month.
The real question is why the Communist Party insists on antagonizing Catholics and other Christians who are willing to reach an accommodation with the state as long as the primacy of priests in religious matters is respected. It's hard to imagine now, but until a few years ago Beijing maintained a détente with Christianity.
In the last two years, however, Beijing has started cracking down on everyone it thinks is a potential dissident, and it has curbed religious freedoms. The most extreme measures have been applied to Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, driving them toward violence against themselves and others.
The Vatican rightly identifies Beijing's repression as "a sign of fear and weakness rather than of strength." The more tightly it tries to control religion, the more resistance it will face.
A version of this article appeared July 27, 2012, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Bishop Challenges Beijing.