The New York Times

May 8, 2006

China Installs Bishop With Approval of Vatican


Another Catholic bishop was consecrated in China on Sunday, the third in recent days, in a ceremony approved by the Vatican yet still unlikely to assuage the deepening rift between the Chinese government and Rome. The consecration of an auxiliary bishop in this industrial city occurred three days after Pope Benedict XVI rebuked China for consecrating two bishops in the past eight days without approval from Rome. China responded Sunday by describing the criticism as ''unfounded'' and defending the consecrations as within the government's purview.

''The Chinese government is always sincere and has made unremitting efforts in improving its ties with the Vatican,'' said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, state media reported. A day earlier, an official with China's State Administration of Religious Affairs said Benedict's condemnation ''makes no sense.''

For decades, China's government has sought to control Catholics through an official church, run by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Four million people belong to this church, while millions more belong to an underground church loyal to Rome.

The recent dispute has deeply concerned Catholics who had hoped that earlier warming signals between the sides might mean that reconciliation between the Chinese government and the Vatican could be drawing closer. Diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican were broken 55 years ago, and Benedict has made normalization a priority.

But appointing bishops has become a stumbling block that threatens progress toward reconciliation. For several years, a tacit understanding has existed between the Vatican and Beijing under which candidates for bishop have been vetted by each side. Since 2004, at least five bishops have been approved with such dual consent.

The consecration on Sunday of Pei Junmin, 36, a priest trained in Philadelphia, was a byproduct of that system and clearly had the support of parishioners here. A huge crowd overwhelmed the cathedral, and priests from the United States and other foreign guests attended. During the ceremony, part of the decree from the pope approving the consecration was read in Latin. The timing of the ceremony was striking, given the unexpected consecrations. On April 30, a new bishop was installed in Kunming, a city in the southwest, without papal approval. A similar ceremony occurred last Wednesday in Anhui Province.

Liu Bainian, the secretary general of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said in a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon that the decision to proceed with the Shenyang ceremony was made last month by the Liaoning diocese. Some reports have indicated that China may be planning to install as many as 20 more bishops, but Mr. Liu said he did not know when or where the next bishop would be consecrated. ''We do not know at the moment,'' he said. ''Each diocese can consecrate its bishop when it thinks that the conditions are right for it.'' Chinese officials have consistently maintained that Catholic bishops are chosen through democratic means at the local level -- although they also describe 100 percent support for candidates backed by the state, a common contention in Communist countries.

Father Benoît Vermander, an expert on Sino-Vatican relations at the Ricci Institute, a Jesuit-led organization in Taipei, Taiwan, said the recent twists and turns in Chinese policy indicated some disunity in Chinese policy making. ''It's still hard to speak about one policy in Beijing,'' he said. ''It is a fragmented policy; different people are doing different things.''

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company