Vatican, China at Odds over Bishops

Two bishops ordained by China's state-controlled church are not accepted by the Vatican, which says they were elevated without papal consent. The move escalates tensions between China and the church even as both sides work to improve ties.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Pope Benedict XVI has come into open conflict with the Chinese government.

China this week ordained two bishops without the Vatican's approval. The Pope called the ordinations a great wound to the unity of the church.

The conflict is a major setback to ties between the Vatican and Beijing, which had made some progress towards establishing diplomatic relations.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing.

And you know, there's talk of excommunication, but what does that mean? What happens now to these bishops that are ordained by China's official Catholic church?

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Well, I don't see what way there is that they can escape the church's stiffest penalty, which is excommunication, because according to the church's laws, the two new bishops who were ordained without the Pope's approval, and the two bishops who did the ordaining are automatically ex-communicated, which means they are still church members but they're not allowed to give or receive communion.

The Vatican has opposed the consecration of both these clerics all along. It thought that they were either unqualified or not loyal enough to the Pope. But China's official church, the Patriotic Catholic Association, went ahead anyway and ordained these two bishops, one on Sunday and another on Wednesday.

MONTAGNE: And how are the Vatican and the Chinese government, if you will, presenting their cases?

KUHN: Well, the Vatican said in a statement that Pope Benedict was profoundly displeased to learn about the ordination and called it a violation of religious freedom. The Vatican statement also expressed concern about reports that authorities in China, outside the church, coerced Catholic clergy to participate in the ordination.

And the Vatican is also worried by reports that China is planning to ordain many more bishops, as many as 20 perhaps, without the Pope's permission.

For Beijing's part, the official church has denied any official interference in the bishops' selection. It says that the local Catholic congregations in China chose their bishops democratically, as they usually do. And China's foreign ministry has said that it remains sincere about improving ties with the Vatican.

MONTAGNE: Well, the two sides have been trying to establish diplomatic ties. Considering this, and it is the official Catholic church, so say what the government will, you know, it would seem it would have some influence. What happens now to these efforts?

KUHN: Well, it's clearly now a big setback for the efforts to establish ties, but I think it also shows what a flimsy foundation this apparent rapprochement by the two sides was built on in the first place.

Now, let's remember that the Vatican still recognizes Taiwan and not mainland China's communist-led government. One reason people thought things were about to change is that the Vatican has said it's willing to break off ties with Taiwan and recognize Beijing instead.

The other reason is this issue of the selection of bishops. Now, over the past two decades the Vatican has been quietly approving bishops within China's official church, and Beijing just quietly played along. So most of the Chinese bishops are now approved by both the Vatican and Beijing, and this has helped to heal the rift between the underground church, which is loyal to the Pope, and the official church, which is loyal to Beijing.

The problem is that this was never a mutual agreement. It was always a sort of don't ask/don't tell arrangement in cases where they could both agree on the same clerics. Now the disagreement over these two clerics is out in the open, and this tacit arrangement has completely collapsed. And so we're back to square one, with each side claiming it has the sole authority to ordain bishops.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking from Beijing.

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