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CATHOLICS/ In China, "It's a War"

Rocco Palmo comments on the growing coolness between the official Catholic Church of China and the Vatican and on the new bishop appointments done without Vatican approval.

Archbishop Savio Hon   (photo ANSA) Archbishop Savio Hon (photo ANSA)

For all the local difficulties that could easily keep the Vatican brass up at night, by far, one situation likely trumps all the rest these days. That distinction belongs to the state of the beleaguered church in China, where recent months have witnessed a spike of tensions that have served to further roil an already tenuous balance between the state-sanctioned "official" church and the "underground" faithful who clandestinely maintain communion with Rome.

Even if secularism and challenges to religious expression in society rate as key concerns on the ecclesial radar in Europe and the Americas, the Chinese drama that's flared in fits and starts over recent years rises to a threat level practically all its own. Because, in a nutshell, while many Westerners have come to be alarmed over external hurdles perceived to limit the presence of faith and the rights of believers in the public square, in the world's largest country, the church is unable to merely exist according to its own determination, its internal governance carried out under the close supervision of the state -- and, often, contingent upon the latter's approval.

Of the estimated 12 million Chinese Catholics, two-thirds are said to be affiliated with the clandestine church. Still, after a period of quiet interaction and public strides toward rapproachment in the wake of the Pope's 2007 Letter to the Chinese church, the temporary thaw between Beijing and Rome blew over last Fall as the government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association -- the Mainland's sole legal, public form of Catholicism -- signaled a return to its pre-detente practice of ordaining bishops on its own authority, lacking papal mandate (nor, for that matter, the discreet consultation that briefly had the Holy See signing off on the candidates presented by the state church).

Over the months since December's national PA meeting in Beijing which set the stage for the new appointments -- a gathering for which several clergy with Roman sympathies were reportedly rounded up by the civil authorities and forced to attend -- matters have only worsened. Following a first illicit ordination in November, a second rite was provocatively scheduled on last months' feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and today brought another of what could be as many as ten Patriotic-church elevations over the course of the coming months. Notably, at least some of the clerics ordained by the PA were elected by the clergy and lay representatives of the dioceses in question. In at least two reported instances, though, the prelate chosen was the lone candidate on the ballot.