HONG KONG — Relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have deteriorated rapidly and seriously recently. The state-run agency for Catholics dragooned several papally named bishops to participate in the ordinations of two priests who were appointed bishops without Rome’s approval.

After the Holy See responded by pronouncing the two ordinands excommunicated, the State Administration of Religious Affairs replied on July 25, calling Rome’s action “extremely unreasonable and rude.”

Explanations for China’s new heavy hand range from Beijing’s growing confidence in world affairs to its apprehension about the ripple effects of the so-called Arab Spring, the series of popular uprisings that shook Middle Eastern Muslim countries earlier this year.

The chain of unilateral acts by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the State Administration of Religious Affairs began in November with the ordination of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association’s vice chairman, Joseph Guo Jincai, as bishop of Chengde. Then, at the end of June, Paul Lei Shiyin was ordained bishop of Leshan.

The most recent event, on July 14, saw the consecration of Joseph Huang Bingzhang as bishop of Shantou. Further, at least four bishops were arrested and forced to participate in the ceremony. Though only one is needed, at least three bishops normally participate, when available, to demonstrate the support of the whole Church. In this case, the presence of several bishops offered an ironic message about the divided state of the Chinese Catholic Church, both internally and between the Chinese Church and Rome.

The number of Christians in China is put as high as 100 million, with as many as 15 million Catholics. China has more than 1.3 billion people.

On July 22, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association’s vice chairman, Guo, said there were seven more ordinations of bishops in the works. Last November, a spokesman for the state-run church organization defended illicit ordinations on the grounds that there were 40 dioceses without bishops. 

The Holy See seemed to have reached an accommodation with the Chinese government in 2006, whereby new bishops would be ordained only if mutually agreeable.

If so, this broke down at the end of last year, with the first of three illicit consecrations of bishops and subsequent excommunications by the Holy See. To enable Huang’s consecration in July, four valid bishops were arrested by state officials and forced to participate; a fifth bishop was barricaded in his residence, surrounded by supporters, to prevent his seizure.

“The missing bishops reappeared at the consecration,” reported Anthony Lam, senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong and author of the book The Catholic Church in Present-Day China: Through Darkness and Light. “But we could not see [on the video shown on TV] if they did the laying on of hands.”

Lam said the four bishops all resisted participating but were forced to do so by the government. Lam charged that the government, through State Administration of Religious Affairs, wants to pick the bishops because of the promise it made in 1981 to return church property confiscated at the time of the communist takeover. This land, Lam’s research indicates, is worth $20 billion in U.S. dollars. “They want to control the land to control the money,” he said.

The government’s desire to select bishops has divided the Chinese Church, said Lam, because “some priests are too eager to gain bishoprics. Joseph Huang Bingzhang is one of these.”

The installation of illicit bishops has divided the clergy, with some siding with the government, some with the Holy See, and others taking a neutral position.

Mark Chan, spokesman for China Aid, a Texas-based organization that supports the Protestant church in China, sees the government’s hard line on Catholics as “part of a general strategy against Catholics and Protestants.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.