China Capital Bishop settled, Vatican Stance Unclear

Sep 17, 2007 01:51 PM EDT

The next Catholic bishop of China's capital will be installed this week, church sources said on Monday, but it is uncertain whether the sensitive appointment will have the approval of the Vatican.

China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are divided between an "above-ground" church approved by the ruling Communist Party and an "underground" church wary of government ties.

Members of the state-approved church also honour the Pope, but the government restricts formal contacts with Rome, which has not had diplomatic ties with Beijing since 1951.

Father Li Shan will be made bishop of Beijing at a ceremony on Friday approved by the state-backed church, said the vice chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian.

"We've been orally informed that the bishops' conference has approved him and now we're just waiting for the final official notice," Liu said.

But Liu, who often echoes government opinion on church affairs, would not say whether the key appointment came with the blessing of Pope Benedict. The Vatican has already said that Li could be acceptable if he seeks approval.

Even two sources close to Vatican-Beijing contacts were unsure whether Rome had given its nod as both sides test conditions for possibly renewing formal ties after decades of estrangement.

"This has been handled very secretively and I really don't know if Li has had communications with the Vatican," said a Beijing source familiar with the issue.

"There's still time but Father Li may not be in a position to be in contact [with the Vatican]."

Both sources asked that their names not be used, citing the sensitivity of the decision. The other source said Li's appointment without papal approval would be a "disaster".

Li, who uses the Christian name Joseph, refused to say anything when contacted by phone, except that he was on a spiritual retreat.

The uncertainty over Li comes when Beijing has sent mixed signals over the direction of ties with Rome. The Vatican has kept diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but has indicated it would be willing to switch recognition to China if concerns about religious controls can be resolved.

China considers self-ruled Taiwan sovereign territory and objects to it having diplomatic ties with anyone.

On June 30, Pope Benedict issued a letter on the Chinese church that urged healing. But he said the Vatican must be allowed to pick bishops, possibly with some government consultation -- a condition China has rejected as interference in its domestic affairs.

Benedict also urged new bishops to publicly profess their bond to Rome. These days, even in the government-backed church, most bishops have papal approval.

In 2006, the Vatican criticised China for naming several bishops without its say, but other bishops have since been ordained after they won papal blessing, including one this month.

But the death in April of Beijing bishop Fu Tieshan, who did not have Rome's blessing, opened a vacancy in China's most prominent diocese where Communist Party authorities may not be so flexible.