China's state-controlled Catholic church says it will move swiftly to appoint new bishops in dioceses where there are none, in a step that is certain to worsen frictions with the Vatican.
Filling the more than 40 empty bishop's seats is an urgent task because the vacancies are causing serious problems in the handling of church affairs, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted a spokesman for the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association as saying on Thursdsay.
Bishops must be selected and ordained in an "active and prudent" way, based on national conditions and pastoral and evangelizing work, Yang was quoted as saying.
China doesn't have any diplomatic ties with the Vatican, and the authoritarian government claims the right to appoint bishops in defiance of the Holy See's insistence that only it has the authority to do so.
The next ordination of an bishop not endorsed by Rome could come within a week. The Catholic news service Ucanews.com, citing church sources it did not name, said the Patriotic Association plans on Wednesday to ordain one of its own vice chairmen as bishop in the southwestern diocese of Leshan in Sichuan province.
Populous Sichuan province is home to five of China's 97 dioceses, but has only one serving bishop, 94-year-old John Chen Shizhong of Yibin, according to Ucanews.com.
China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951. Worship is allowed only in state-backed churches, although millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
The selection of bishops is by far the most contentious issue dividing Beijing and Rome. Relations nose-dived in November after the Chinese church ordained another bishop without the pope's approval, ending an unspoken agreement under which Rome was offered an opportunity to first give its tacit approval.
That hard line was reinforced by Yang's comments, which followed a national meeting last weekend of the Patriotic Association and its sister body, the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church of China.
Earlier this month, the ordination of a new bishop not approved by the Vatican was postponed for reasons that were not announced. Joseph Shen Guo'an, who was to have become bishop of the central city of Wuhan, was quoted by Ucanews.com as saying he was informed of the decision but not told why.
However, other church sources said Beijing had been unable to convince local priests and lay people to show their approval by attending the ordination ceremony, forcing them to call it off.
Beijing places tremendous pressure on priests and lay people to go along with its choice of bishops, often spurring a backlash amid calls from Rome to resist.