Following the Chinese Government's decision to appoint two priests as bishops of the Catholic Patriotic Church in China, the Vatican has excommunicated the two bishops, and also the bishops who ordained them, saying Church law mandates this penalty for bishops involved in ordinations without Vatican approval.
A Vatican spokesman cited Article 1382 of the Church's Code of Canon Law which states that "both the bishop who, without a pontifical mandate, consecrates a person a bishop, and the one who receives the consecration from him, incur a 'latae sententiae excommunication'," which means they are automatically excommunicated.
The Vatican Press Office issued a statement which said that Pope Benedict XVI heard of the ordinations "with profound displeasure, since an act so relevant for the life of the Church, such as an episcopal ordination, has been carried out in both cases without respecting the requirements of communion with the Pope."
It described the ordinations as a grave wound to the unity of the Church and said the ordinations were illegitimate.
The Holy See said it had received information that both priests and bishops were subjected to threats and other pressures to participate in the ordinations and while some refused to give in to similar pressures, "others were not able to do anything but submit with great interior suffering."
It added that it was closely following the troubled path of the Catholic Church in China, and considered it a duty to speak out on behalf of the Church community there, and particularly those bishops and priests who were obliged, against their consciences, to participate in the episcopal ordination "which neither the candidates nor the consecrating bishops want to carry out without having received the pontifical mandate."
It described the Chinese Government's role in the affair as "deplorable", and "a grave violation of religious liberty."
The Chinese Government's action seems to have been a response to the appointment of Hong Kong's Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun as a cardinal last February. Cardinal Zen has been a frequent visitor to China, but was a strong supporter of the Pro- Democracy Movement in Hong Kong, and criticised attempts by China to encroach on the freedoms enjoyed by the six million people in Hong Kong.
Cardinal Zen said in a statement that "to conduct the ordination without the Holy See's approval is to sabotage intentionally Sino-Vatican relations."
The Cardinal, who grew up in Shanghai and has acted as an intermediary in trying to restore diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican, said that the Vatican had wanted China to delay the ordinations.
Father Ma Yinglin, who was "consecrated" by the Chinese as bishop of Kunming, has been a senior official in the Patriotic Church's attempt to control the Church politically.
Fr Ma is one of the three Catholic representatives who are members of the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament. According to the Code of Canon Law, his political role is incompatible with his episcopal appointment.
After Pope Benedict appointed Bishop Zen a cardinal, the Patriotic Church denounced him. Cardinal Zen, in turn, responded in a statement then that he acted in the best interests of China, and added, "Is it too much to hope that our leaders may finally discern who are those who truly love their country and those who betray the real interests of the country?"
The effect of the ordination of the two bishops is to end any early resolution of the differences between Rome and Beijing.
Over the past few years, there have been talks between them in an effort to resolve differences which have existed since China expelled the Papal Nuncio in 1951, after the communists seized power.
The Holy See has wanted a normalisation of relations with Beijing with the appointment of diplomatic representatives, but subject to guarantees of the independence of the Church from the State. In its talks with Chinese officials, it has insisted Beijing acknowledge the religious freedom of the Chinese people and the right of the Pope to name bishops.
China wants the legitimacy conferred by having diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and the appearance that Christians in China are free.
During the past two years, the Chinese Government had allowed the ordination of bishops who sought and received the approval of the Vatican. That tacit recognition of the Pope's authority to nominate bishops raised hopes for a full merger between the "official" Catholic Church approved by the government and the "underground" Church that remains loyal to the Holy See.
At the same time, both parties had arrived at a working agreement giving Rome the last word on ordinations, while, within the context of initial signs of a thaw, the Vatican undertook to not ordain underground bishops in exchange for the deal on official Church ordinations.
However, this time, despite neither of the two new bishops having Vatican approval, the Chinese Government decided to push ahead with the "ordinations", regardless.
Cardinal Zen described this move as "a very serious matter" and urged the Vatican to "suspend all negotiations with China," because it "has destroyed trust. First they engage in dialogue, and then they deal a fait accompli."
China's foreign ministry, in a public statement released after the ceremony, claimed that public support for the episcopal ordination was "unanimous," and Vatican objections were "groundless."
The Beijing regime has shown once again that there is still no religious freedom in China.