The Holy See has pronounced latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication on Father Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan, who was ordained a bishop without papal mandate last week.
A priest and Church observer outside China who asked not to be named said the move was taken for the good of the Church and followed a stern warning by the Holy See in a statement issued on July 4.
This is the best way of handling an illegitimate ordination, as the Holy See did what it should do, the observer said, adding that he hoped the clear message will prompt the other bishop candidates who may also receive episcopal ordination without papal mandate to reconsider.
Rumors are already circulating about another illicit ordination in Shantou diocese, southern Guangdong province, on July 14.
After thorough investigation and a clear warning to Father Lei, as well as informing the Chinese government, the Holy See has determined that Father Lei has violated canon law deliberately, the observer added.
Father Lei, a leading figure in the Sichuan “open” Church community for many years, helped the local Church to restore its properties and expand its social influence, the observer said; thus, some priests and parishioners tend to think they need such capable leaders for the good of the Church from a secular perspective.
“In fact, they do not know what is genuinely good for the Church and overlook the spiritual aspect of choosing a bishop, Christ’s local representative. Do they think it is unimportant if the ordination damages the Church’s unity?” he said.
A canonist who also declined to be named agreed that a declared excommunication was necessary. If illicit episcopal ordinations were to continue, the Catholic Church in China “would not be only with ‘Chinese characteristics’ but would become a state church established by the government.”
It is clear to everyone “who the main actors are,” the canonist said, as the bishops and the so-called bishops’ conference are not free to act in such purely religious matters, the canonist said.
The Catholic bishops and priests are exposed to excessive coercion, with only a few daring to oppose the political pressure or even to challenge it.
He added that this kind of religious policy was not acceptable any longer in light of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent address to the nation about corruption within the Communist regime in political and other spheres.
Kwun Ping-hung, a Church observer in Hong Kong, said he believed China and the Vatican know clearly that they hold fast to their own bottom lines, and have no ground for retreat after a series of events that included the illicit ordination in Chengde in November last year, China’s National Congress of Catholic Representatives in December and the Vatican’s document on excommunication this June.
The ordination in Leshan, and the Vatican’s declared punishment of an individual cleric further showed both sides have psychologically “prepared for the worsening of relations,” Kwun said, adding that the situation of the China Church would only become more difficult.
Kwun further noted that two points in the Vatican statement issued last week were worth noting; namely that it said the consecrating bishops “have exposed themselves” to punishment, leaving room, he said, for them to repent.
He added that the statement’s call for unity among Chinese Catholics also suggested that the Vatican does not wish to see relations between the China Church and the universal Church damaged by the punishment of an individual cleric.