China plans to ordain a pope-approved bishop Wednesday, but the Vatican and the Chinese government-controlled Catholic church are fighting over the guest list.
The ordination of Peter Luo Xuegang as coadjutor bishop of Yibin diocese has the blessing of the Vatican, a recent point of agreement in its decades-long rift with the state-backed church. The source of friction this time is the possible presence of an excommunicated bishop at the ceremony.
AsiaNews, the Vatican-affiliated news agency which closely covers the church in China, reported Friday that Paul Lei Shiyin was almost certain to take part because the government "will want to impress a 'patriotic' and 'independent' character on the ceremony."
Church officials from the Yibin diocese and Sichuan province, where Yibin is located, on Tuesday declined to confirm whether Lei was invited. Lei is the president of the Catholic Patriotic Association, and a diocese official said unspecified members of the association would attend the ceremony.
"There were oral decisions made, but I'm not sure whether Father Lei Shiyin will attend," said the Yibin official, who only gave his surname, Yang. He said: "The Vatican has not talked to our diocese about the specifics."
The affair strikes at the heart of the dispute between the Vatican and the state-backed church since their split a half-century ago: the right to appoint bishops. The prerogative has been a key to the Vatican to ensure control and orthodoxy over far-flung communities of believers for centuries. In the same vein, China's communist government wants to make sure Catholics remain loyal to Beijing, not a foreign power.
China says about 6 million Catholics worship in official congregations across the country, although millions more are believed to worship outside the official church. Many of China's Catholics remain loyal to the pope, and on the ground many clergy minister to both officially sanctioned and unauthorized congregations.
Over the last decade, Beijing and the Vatican have attempted quietly in fits and starts to work out an agreement on clerical appointments. Lei's ordination in June in defiance of the pope was a setback, and a month later the standoff deepened after China unilaterally ordained another bishop. The Vatican released a statement saying Pope Benedict XVI "once again deplores the manner in which the church in China is being treated."
China is sincere about improving relations with the Vatican and recent ordinations of bishops in China "promotes the healthy development of Chinese Catholicism," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday in response to a question about the planned ordination.
AsiaNews reported that with the threat of Lei's attendance, several bishops in neighboring dioceses were now afraid to participate in the ordination.
At issue is not necessarily whether Lei will attend but the level of his participation, said Anthony Lam, a researcher at the Roman Catholic church-affiliated Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong. If Lei sits in the audience that would be fine, but if he actively takes part in the consecration "that would be a scandal," said Lam. It might, he said, render the ordination illegitimate.
"He is forbidden according to the papal statement earlier in the year from carrying out any ministry or office so it would be a scandal if he joins as a co-consecrating bishop or a principal consecrator," he said.
The pope's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that he hopes the faithful will be told that the Holy See has approved the candidate and that during the ceremony "no illegitimate bishop participates."
Lombardi said that he had not been informed about the ceremony and Rev. Luo has a papal mandate. If all goes well, "the event would be encouraging for the Catholic Community," Lombardi said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that Lombardi is the pope's spokesman, not a Vatican spokesman based in Hong Kong.)