- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Wednesday denounced China for ordaining a bishop without papal consent, accusing the government-backed church of gravely damaging the faith and warning that the bishop risked excommunication.

Pope Benedict XVI learned of the ordination of Rev. Joseph Guo Jincai “with deep regret” as it constituted a “grave violation” of church law and hampered reconciliation efforts that have been a priority for the papacy, the Vatican press office said.

The Vatican also accused Chinese authorities of committing “grave violations of freedom of religion and conscience” by forcing Vatican-approved bishops to attend the ceremony.

Rev. Guo was ordained a bishop Saturday in Chengde, the first time in five years that China had carried out an ordination without Rome’s consent. News reports have said Chinese authorities forced at least three Vatican-approved bishops to attend, sequestering them for several days beforehand.

Communist China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and worship is allowed only in state-backed churches, although millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

In recent years under Benedict, relations have improved and Benedict has said that restoring diplomatic relations is a priority. Disputes over appointments in China’s official church have been avoided by quietly conferring on candidates, leading to several ordinations of bishops with the Holy See’s blessing.

But Rev. Guo, a deputy secretary of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-controlled group that runs Catholic churches in China, didn’t have the pope’s consent. He now risks an automatic excommunication, the harshest punishment in church law, the Vatican said.

In response, Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said he believed the pope cared for Chinese Catholics and didn’t think the excommunication would be formalized.

“There are so many followers in China. I believe the pope loves China, he won’t make such a decision,” Mr. Liu said.

While reaffirming its willingness to improve relations, the Vatican said ordinary Catholics in China and Chengde in particular were most harmed by the decision.

The ordination “humiliates them because the Chinese civil authorities wish to impose on them a pastor who is not in full communion either with the Holy Father or with the other bishops throughout the world,” the Vatican said.

The move by China, the statement continued, “offends the Holy Father, the church in China and the universal church and further complicates the present pastoral difficulties” involved in tending to a flock in both an official and unofficial church.

The Vatican blasted the government for allowing the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and in particular Bainian “to adopt attitudes that gravely damage the Catholic Church.”

Associated Press Writer Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.