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Communist, Catholic conundrum

Once again, the Roman Catholic Church is in conflict with the Communist Party of China, with the newly ordained auxiliary bishop of Shanghai having publicly repudiated the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which was established by the Chinese government to exercise supervision over the nation's Catholics.

Ironically, the consecration of the new bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, at Saint Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai on July 7 had been agreed to by the Vatican and the Chinese authorities and so his appointment was not expected to be controversial. Instead, it was the ordination of a new bishop in Harbin the previous day without papal endorsement that was expected to bring fireworks.

In fact, the Vatican had issued a warning that the episcopal ordination of Father Joseph Yue Fusheng without papal mandate would be contrary to the rules of the church. It warned that the new bishop would be considered illicit and that he would be automatically excommunicated from the church. Any prelate taking part in the ceremony would also incur excommunication, the Vatican said.

Beijing considers the appointment of bishops in China as an internal affair in which the Vatican should not intervene. The Vatican, however, considers it to be a religious matter in which secular authorities should not have a veto.

The Vatican and the Chinese authorities have been conducting an on and off dialogue for years and, in fact, for several years, Beijing halted the ordination of bishops without papal approval.

But then, there was a breakdown and in November 2010, a priest, the Rev. Joseph Guo Jincao, was ordained bishop of Chengde, in northeastern China, without papal endorsement, the first such ordination since 2006.

Last year, three such “illicit” bishops were ordained. While the Vatican considers such bishops to be “illegitimate,” it takes the position that they are validly ordained and so have the powers of a bishop, even though they are not in communion with Rome.

In May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Chinese Catholics in which he set out the position of the church. In the letter, the pontiff made clear that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, established by the government to create a church in China independent of Rome, is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”

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