China-Vatican deal goes boom over bishops

CardinalZenOr does it? Alessandra Rizzo of the Associated Press reported Friday that the Vatican excommunicated four bishops because two of them were ordained by the state-controlled church without consent from the Pope. The two bishops who ordained them were also excommunicated. Except they weren't quite cut off from church fellowship.

Rizzo is a bit too far ahead of the story. Look at this Los Angeles Times story, which mentions the possibility of excommunication:

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican declared Thursday that two bishops ordained by China's state-controlled church without papal consent were excommunicated, escalating tensions as the two sides explored preliminary moves toward improving ties.

The Vatican also excommunicated the two bishops who ordained them, citing church law. The Holy See then criticized China for allegedly forcing bishops and priests to participate in "illegitimate" ordinations that "go against their conscience."

Pope Benedict XVI's first major diplomatic clash since his election as pontiff a year ago shatters hopes for any reestablishment soon of official ties that ended after communists took control of China in 1949.

Now read this Catholic News Service article:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The threat of excommunication hangs over two Chinese bishops ordained without papal approval, but only if they acted knowingly and freely, said a canon lawyer.

And even if they incurred excommunication automatically by acting of their own free will, the penalty is limited until Pope Benedict XVI publicly declares their excommunication to the bishops and their faithful, said Jesuit Father James Conn, a professor of canon law at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.

Then there is this piece by Edward Cody, who is responsible for a lot of the "Pope goes to Rome" hype, in the Washington Post from Thursday:

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.

Excommunication in the Catholic Church is not taken lightly and it is rare that the punishment is inflicted on bishops. If Pope Benedict XVI does indeed approve these excommunications, you can forget about any near-term reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican, despite the church's willingness to give up ties with Taiwan.

Also from the Times piece is this interesting information that may shed some light on the diplomatic tit-for-tats:

Some analysts here suggested that China's abrupt decision to name bishops in defiance of the Vatican came in response to Benedict's elevation of Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen to cardinal this year.

Zen [pictured] has been an outspoken critic of the communist regime. He said his promotion could make him an important bridge between the Vatican and Beijing. But he has not hesitated to criticize Chinese abuses, including the jailing and persecution of priests and other Catholics.

Most recently, the Associated Press reported late Saturday that a bishop appointed by the Pope will be ordained Sunday, according to the AsiaNews agency out of Rome.

This story isn't ending anytime soon, and reporters should avoid grand pronouncements about excommunications and potential Vatican trips to China until the facts have settled in place. Too much can shift as the many players work the situation, and the media, to their advantage.

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