Now that we can move onto other interesting parts of the Pope's interview in Light of the World, I haven't seen any comment on what Pope Benedict says about the Church in China. It seems poignant in the light of today's news -- a powerful Vatican condemnation of a state-appointed Catholic bishop.
In a nutshell, the Chinese government has driven a coach and horses through assiduous attempts by the Vatican to overcome the split between the so-called "patriotic Catholic Church" -- whose bishops have been appointed by the Chinese state in defiance of the Vatican -- and the "underground" one in communion with Rome. Each has its own bishops, and flocks; and the two cross over in many ways.
In Light of the World, Pope Benedict makes clear how earnestly he desires their eventual union. "Even though unexpected difficulties always occur," he says, "there is much hope that we can definitively overcome the separation. This is a goal that is particularly dear to me and that I bring before the Lord daily in prayer."
He goes on to note the positive developments, revealing that almost all of the "patriotic" bishops are seeking union with Rome. A desire to be in communion with the Pope "has never been absent among the illegally consecrated bishops", he says, which has "made it possible for practically all of them to embark on the path to communion, a process during which we patiently accompanied them and worked with them one-one-one."
Secondly, "the secretly consecrated bishops, who were not approved by the state, can now profit from the fact that, even for purely political reasons, it is no longer advantageous for the government to imprison Catholic bishops and deprive them of their freedom on account of their allegiance to Rome."
But if those are the positive signs, the patriotic Church's appointment of Fr. Joseph Guo Jincai as head of the north-eastern city of Chengde, which took place last Saturday, shows how great are the "unexpected difficulties" on the path to union. It is the first time in five years that a bishop has been appointed in defiance of Rome and marks a significant setback.
Beijing requires any episcopal appointment to be approved by the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church of China -- which is not recognised by Rome.
The Vatican statement issued today is strongly worded. It describes the consecration as a "painful wound upon ecclesial communion and a grave violation of Catholic discipline", which carries with it an automatic penalty of excommunication for Fr Guo Jincai.
It also expresses alarm that various bishops loyal to the Pope -- reports say there were eight -- had been coerced into attending the ceremony.
"It is known that, in recent days, various bishops were subjected to pressures and restrictions on their freedom of movement, with the aim of forcing them to participate and confer the episcopal ordination. Such constraints, carried out by Chinese government and security authorities, constitute a grave violation of freedom of religion and conscience. The Holy See intends to carry out a detailed evaluation of what has happened, including consideration of the aspect of validity and the canonical position of the bishops involved."
The illegal consecration humilates the Catholics of the diocese of Chengde, the statement goes on, "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 It also notes that Fr Guo Jincai is subject to excommunication."
The statement also makes clear that the consecration went ahead in the teeth of continued pleas this year from the Vatican.
"Several times, during this current year, the Holy See has communicated clearly to the Chinese authorities its opposition to the episcopal ordination of Fr. Joseph Guo Jincai. In spite of this, the said authorities decided to proceed unilaterally, to the detriment of the atmosphere of respect that had been created with great effort with the Holy See and with the Catholic Church through the recent episcopal ordinations. This claim to place themselves above the bishops and to guide the life of the ecclesial community does not correspond to Catholic doctrine; it offends the Holy Father, the Church in China and the universal Church, and further complicates the present pastoral difficulties."
Officially, the sticking-point between the Vatican and the Beijing is the former's recognition of Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade territory.
But the deeper sticking-point is Beijing's refusal to concede to a "foreign power" any sovereignty over China, which it believes Vatican control of episcopal appointments would signify.