China Consecrates 2nd Bishop Without Approval of the Pope

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 4, 2006

BEIJING, May 3 -- For the second time in four days, China's government-sponsored Catholic church consecrated a new bishop without the pope's approval Wednesday, casting a deeper chill on what had been promising efforts to end half a century of hostility between China and the Vatican.

The new bishop, Liu Xinhong, was installed as Anhui province's top prelate in a morning ceremony at St. Joseph's Church in Wuhu, in eastern China, according to a church official who declined to be identified. His ascension followed the consecration Sunday of Ma Yinglin as bishop of Kunming, in southwestern China's Yunnan province, in spite of a request from the Vatican for more time to consider whether he could meet the pope's approval.

Elevation of the two bishops without Vatican approval was organized by the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which oversees about a third of China's more than 10 million Catholics under the authority of the Communist Party and the government's Religious Affairs Bureau. The other 6 million or 7 million Chinese Catholics, who recognize the Vatican's leadership in matters of faith, worship in churches not approved by the government, sometimes called underground or home churches, and do not fall under the association's purview.

In recent years, the two currents of Chinese Catholicism increasingly have melted together, with priests serving congregations from both and the patriotic association naming bishops quietly approved in advance by Rome. The growing flexibility had been cited by church officials and other analysts as a sign that diplomatic relations could be restored soon between China and the Vatican, softening the hostility that has endured since shortly after the Communist Party took power in 1949.

The party traditionally has viewed Christianity with suspicion, regarding it as a remnant of foreign control in China, and it still bars party members from practicing the faith. In addition, Chinese analysts said, some party elders have expressed fears that the Catholic hierarchy, if freed from government controls, might seek to replicate in China the inspirational role the late Pope John Paul II played during the late 1980s in bringing down communism in Poland and other East European countries.

But Pope Benedict XVI, who took over after the death of John Paul a year ago, has signaled a strong desire to restore normal relations. As part of the effort, Vatican officials have let it be known recently that they are willing to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The concession on Taiwan, a major shift in Vatican policy and a long-standing goal of Chinese diplomacy, further raised hopes for normalization in relations. But this week's open defiance of the tacit understanding on naming bishops has cast a cloud over those hopes, promising more delay.

"This threatens to destroy the dialogue between China and the Vatican," Bernardo Cervellera, head of the church-oriented AsiaNews service in Rome, told the Reuters news agency.

The Vatican, through a spokesman, said the newly consecrated bishops in China had been officially notified through "back channels" that neither had been endorsed by the pope.

The senior Roman Catholic prelate in China, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, told reporters there he believes diplomatic contacts between China and the Vatican should be suspended at least temporarily.

Zen said he suspects that the vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Anthony Liu Bainian, is trying to sabotage the campaign for normalization. Elevating the new bishops against the Vatican's wishes is "Liu Bainian's last struggle" to maintain the association's authority, Zen told the South China Morning Post.

But the Chinese Foreign Ministry also took an uncompromising stand. When the Vatican complained about Ma's ordination, a ministry spokesman said the Vatican had no right to make judgments on internal Chinese matters.

Correspondent Daniel Williams in Rome contributed to this report.

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