PRAGUE, May 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In pomp and ceremony, the elevation of two Chinese priests to the status of bishop lacked nothing.
All the trappings of a 2,000-year-old religion were present to mark the solemn occasions. What was absent, however, was approval of the two bishops by Pope Benedict XVI, the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The appointment of bishops Liu Xinhong and Ma Yingling was a slap in the pope's face at a time when long-strained ties between Rome and Beijing were beginning to warm. That's because all bishops chosen by the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Church since 2000 had had the tacit support of the Vatican.
The Vatican reacted strongly to the two appointments.
"Those ordinations, of course, according to the church, are illegitimate, but nevertheless they have been performed without respecting at all the practices and the criteria of the Catholic Church," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told RFE/RL.
Navarro-Valls suggested the two new bishops were forced to accept ordination.
So why did the Chinese authorities rupture the arrangement of first obtaining the tacit approval of Rome? It was at least a modus vivendi that allowed the Chinese to quietly control the church and at the same time defused the hostility of the Vatican.
Dr. Jean-Paul Wiest, an expert in Sino-Vatican relations based in Beijing, explained that from the beginning of the commmunist era in China, the government wanted to create a separate Catholic church without allegiance to Rome. But over the years this has not worked, he said because many of the bishops of the Patriotic Association secretly pledged their loyalty to the pope and were accepted -- thus blurring the distinction the communists had sought to make.
Not So Different?
Wiest pointed out the almost total communion of the Chinese church with world Catholicism.
"There are no differences on the doctrinal point; there is only one Catholic Church in China, whether state-recognized or so-called underground, they have the same faith, and the same doctrine," Wiest told RFE/RL. "And if you go to an open church mass, during the canon, there are prayers for the pope. The only difference is that the bishops do not have permission to get directly in contact with the pope, because the government sees him as a [foreign] head of state."
Wiest noted that recently the official media had been carrying articles hinting positively at the possibility of a resumption of Vatican-Chinese diplomatic relations. Then came the surprise elevation of the two unapproved bishops, wrecking chances of an early rapprochement.
He said a very similar situation arose in 2000, when favorable press coverage was negated by the appointment of five unapproved bishops.
Does this mean that some sections of the church or government hierarchy do not want better ties with Rome?
"Who is dragging their feet, who is against the reestablishment of diplomatic relations?" Wiest asked. "Most of the time we say it is the people in the Catholic Patriotic Association, and certainly those people have a lot to lose: Once the diplomatic relations are reestablished, we don't need the Patriotic Association, so this is their bread and butter, their salary, their retirement which is on the line."
But he says it's possible that the Patriotic Association people are just publicly taking responsibility; it's possible that high officials within the government also oppose having diplomatic relations with the Vatican but do not wish to personally reveal their hand.
Jesuit Father Benoit Vermander, who used to head the Taipei Ricci Institute, said that the vagaries in Chinese policy seem to indicate at least a lack of cohesion among policymakers.
"It is not that the actors have conflicting views, it is that each of them expresses its own standpoint, according to its mission or interests," Vermander said. "Often we take China as a kind of unified whole, but it has been described as a fragmented authoritarian state."
In the present case, the actors are the Patriotic Association, the Foreign Ministry, and the Bureau of Religious Affairs -- each with its own policy priorities. Veremander says it takes time for the Chinese leadership to forge a single clear policy under such circumstances.
Another factor in the equation is the outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop of Hong Kong. Zen is a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities, with his regular criticism of human rights and other violations.
"Hong Kong and China are one country but two systems, [and the authorities say] so as long as Bishop Zen takes care of his business inside Hong Kong and does not mix in [mainland] China's affairs, it's all right," Wiest said. "But in Beijing's eyes, [Zen] is mixing too much in China's affairs, and so the two ordinations may have been the way for the Chinese government to show the Vatican that they are not happy that it chose such a person, so opposed to mainland China as the cardinal is."
Looking to the future, the shape of Sino-Vatican relations depends heavily on whether China continues to appoint its own bishops without reference to the Vatican.
Vermander said that, in turn, could depend upon the Vatican's willingness to break relations with Taiwan.
"What Beijing would like to get is first for the Vatican to totally renounce Taiwan, and so going to Beijing with diplomatic recognition," Vermander said.
He said that the Vatican's price for doing that would be renewed control over the appointment of bishops, and other freedoms for the church.
But with the mood now at a low point, no early resolution to the situation seems likely.