Pope excommunicates China bishops

Thursday, May 4, 2006; Posted: 9:26 a.m. EDT (13:26 GMT)

BEIJING, China (AP) -- The Vatican has excommunicated two bishops ordained by China's state-approved Catholic church, as well as the two bishops who presided over the ceremony without Vatican consent.

In a statement, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said on Thursday the Roman Catholic Church's canon law states that in such a case excommunication is automatic.

Earlier the Vatican strongly criticized the ordination of the bishops, saying they represented a "grave violation of religious freedom" and hindered dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing.

A statement Thursday from the Vatican spokesman said Pope Benedict XVI was deeply saddened at the news of the ordinations, which took place without Vatican approval. It called on Chinese authorities to prevent any such moves in the future -- noting they lead to excommunication.

"The Holy Father learned of the news with great sadness," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in the statement. "It is a great wound to the unity of the Church."

On Wednesday, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association ordained Liu Xinhong as bishop at the city of Wuhu's St. Joseph's Church in the eastern province of Anhui.

It was the second ordination in three days without the consent of the Vatican, which traditionally appoints its own bishops. On Sunday, China's official church ordained Ma Yinglin as a bishop in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association has said the new appointments were meant to fill shortages and were not intended to offend the Vatican.

The Vatican statement said officials had received information indicating that "bishops and priests have been subjected -- by institutions not related to the church -- to strong pressures and threats, in order for them to take part in the ordinations that, because they were not approved by the Vatican, are illegitimate and go against their conscience."

"We are therefore faced with a grave violation of religious freedom," Navarro-Valls said, adding the Vatican "had thought and hoped that such despicable events belonged to the past."

The ordinations come as China and the Holy See try to re-establish ties that ended after communists took control of China in 1949.

Formal ties would give some security to Vatican loyalists in China, who are frequently harassed and fined and sometimes sent to labor camps. Most Chinese Catholics are only allowed to worship in government-controlled churches, but millions are loyal to the Vatican.

But the Vatican said any dialogue was at risk now.

"The Holy See has in various occasions reiterated its willingness to have an honest and constructive dialogue with the competent Chinese authorities to find solutions that would satisfy the legitimate requirements of both sides," Navarro-Valls said.

"Initiatives such as those mentioned above not only don't favor this dialogue, but instead create new obstacles against it," he added.