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Pope Strongly Condemns Chinese Church [NY TImes] May 4, 2006

This recent rift, experts said, seemed a deep setback to those talks, with the pope making it unusually clear that the church would not accept any body other than the Vatican appointing bishops. He left no doubt by raising the specter of excommunication — a rare and serious step which has not been carried out for such an offense since 1988. "It is the strongest protest, not only of this papacy but the strongest protest in the last decade surely," said Marco Politi, a Vatican expert for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica. "This is a little bit of a surprise." Moreover, Benedict sounded a theme that is shaping up to be an important one in his papacy: religious freedom. The issue is important not only in China, but in Muslim countries where Christian minorities have been fleeing under what the Vatican says harassment and fear. Between the Vatican and China, the rapidly escalating crisis reflects strongly held positions on both sides. For China, the dispute is about retaining control over a potentially powerful institution with mass appeal at a time of rising social unrest. Though the number of Catholics in China is relatively small, China has a centuries-long history of religious movements helping to bind together protests against the rule of fading dynasties. For decades the government has sought to control the Catholic community through an official church, run by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Some four million people belong to this church, while millions more belong to an "underground" church loyal to Rome. But the lines are blurred, and most bishops in the official church in recent years have informally obtained the Vatican's blessing. This practice, in effect despite the lack of ties between China and the Vatican, set up the current dispute. On Sunday, bishops loyal to the Patriotic Association consecrated one of its top officials, Ma Yinling, as bishop of Kunming, in the southwest. Then on Wednesday, the association arranged for the consecration of Liu Xinhong as bishop of Wuhu, in Anhui province. The association said it did not mean to slight the Vatican and was acting merely to fill a large pool of vacant bishops' posts. But several experts saw the move as an assertion of control, amid the ongoing talks that involve a more explicit role of the Vatican in the affairs of the Chinese church and the Vatican's appointment in February of a Chinese cardinal outspoken for greater freedom in mainland China. "China is not ready to let go" of its controls over the church, said Beatrice Leung, a specialist in Sino-Vatican relations at Wenzao Ursuline College in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Other experts said blamed the Patriotic Association specifically, saying that a renewal of diplomatic ties would lessen its influence. Experts said Benedict set a stern and dramatic tone by raising the issue of excommunication, which essentially exiles the guilty party from the church, and in the case of clerics, bans them from saying mass and administering sacraments. But canonical law experts say the issue is complicated, and that Benedict appeared to leave room for compromise. Under church law, the excommunication would apply in this case to four Chinese priests — the two bishops who consecrated new bishops without Vatican authority and the two who accepted. The offense calls for "automatic" excommunication without any specific action from the church, experts say, in the same way that any woman who undergoes an abortion is automatically excommunicated. But for the excommunication to take a formal effect in the wider community, experts say, the church must issue a declaration of excommunication — something the pope did not do in his statement. "It's an extremely delicate situation," said the Rev. James J. Conn, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Canonical law also states that people may be considered innocent if they acted under "grave fear." The pope's statement left that possibility open. "According to the information received, bishops and priests have been subjected to — on the part of entities external to the Church — strong pressures and to threats so that they would take part in the Episcopal ordinations," Dr. Navarro-Valls said in the statement. The main question now, it seems, is whether the Vatican and the China will be able move forward and continue their talks. Experts note that both sides have an interest in doing so: The Vatican would bring into the fold millions of Catholics in a singularly important country, and to do so it has said it would sever its diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China would strengthen its prestige as a world power and aid its claim, in regards to Taiwan, to be the only true China. Before this recent rift, experts said those talks went well initially, but that the details had proven more difficult. The Vatican has sought greater influence over the selection of bishops, and has insisted that bishops retain authority over religious activities in their dioceses — two demands that China has been leery of accepting. In the Vatican statement, Dr. Navarro-Valls said the church was willing to continue talks, but only as long as no more bishops were named independently. "The Holy See has, on various occasions, stressed her willingness for honest and constructive dialogue with the competent Chinese authorities for the purpose of finding a solution that would satisfy the needs of both parties," he said. The actions of the Chinese church, he said, "do not favor such dialogue but instead create new obstacles against it." The Rev. Bernardo Cervellara, director of AsiaNews, a Catholic news service, said that he believed that Benedict, in his statement, was seeking absolute clarity about the terms on which he would proceed. "It is saying, `We want to continue but the government has to express clearly what kind of relationship they want,' " he said. "If they still want a church belonging to the state, without any freedom, then it's not possible." It is not clear whether Chinese officials anticipated just how strong a reaction they would draw from the Holy See by consecrating the two bishops. Liu Bainian, the secretary general of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that the association had not changed the way it selected bishops. "I don't think it will hurt" Sino-Vatican relations, he said. "If there is an impact, it will be a good impact. China has chosen and consecrated its own bishops for nearly 50 years." What has changed in the past several years is that the association had been informally obtaining the Vatican's assent before consecrating new bishops -- a pattern that was broken in the past week. Mr. Liu insisted in telephone interviews on Sunday and Wednesday that the selection of both bishops had been done entirely by the clergy and the faithful in both dioceses, and did not represent any interference from Beijing. But the selection of the two bishops comes after a flaring of tensions over Pope Benedict's decision to name the bishop of Hong Kong as a cardinal. Raised in Shanghai, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun is a longtime supporter of the underground church on the mainland, although he has also advocated a rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican. Cardinal Zen is a controversial figure in Hong Kong because he has also called repeatedly for greater democracy in the fairly autonomousChinese territory, and because he lent crucial support to large democracy marches in 2003 and 2004, although he did not personally march. While China's foreign ministry issued a mild statement following the selection of Bishop Zen to become Cardinal Zen, Mr. Liu publicly described his elevation as a hostile act of China. Cardinal Zen retaliated with a statement on March 9 in which he said that he worked in China's national interest, and even hinted that Mr. Liu might be betraying the national interest with his hostility to a reconciliation with Rome. Cardinal Zen said on Tuesday that he was worried about the installation of new bishops in China without the Holy See's approval. "It is surely very serious, all these planned ordinations, that is surely a planned maneuver," he said in a telephone interview. A diocesan official said on Thursday evening that the cardinal would have no further comment soon on relations with China. Ian Fisher reported from Rome for this article and Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong.
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