Pope Benedict said on Thursday China's appointment of two Catholic bishops without his blessing was a "grave violation of religious freedom," as a standoff with Beijing over control of church posts escalated.
The bishops were consecrated this week despite Vatican opposition in what was seen as a major setback for relations between the Holy See and China, which had appeared to be improving in recent years.
The Vatican noted that Church law prescribed automatic excommunication for bishops and priests who conduct unauthorized consecrations, but the Pope's spokesman said the Vatican did not have enough information to decide this at the moment.
"The Holy Father learned the news with deep displeasure," spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in an unusually strongly worded statement.
He said the Vatican had information from China that bishops and priests there had come under "strong pressure and threats" to take part "contrary to their conscience" in the ordinations, which it branded as "illegitimate."
The Vatican said that according to its information, "bishops and priests have been subjected -- by institutions outside the church -- to strong pressures and threats, in order for them to take part in the ordinations that, because they were not approved by the Vatican, are illegitimate and go against their conscience."
Navarro-Valls said that some prelates refused, while others "could not do anything else but submit ... with great inner suffering."
"We are therefore faced with a grave violation of religious freedom," he said, adding that the Vatican "had thought and had hoped that such deplorable episodes belonged to the past."
In Catholic moral teaching, someone who does not freely consent to an act might not be fully responsible for it.
Asked whether the Church's toughest sanction had been imposed on the bishops, Navarro-Valls indicated that the circumstances of the ordinations was not yet clear.
"That is something that we will think [about] afterwards, not at this moment," he said in an interview. "We still don't have all the information."
His statement insisted on "the need to respect the freedom of the Church and the autonomy of its institutions from any external interference" and asked Beijing to stop "such unacceptable acts of violent and intolerable constraint."
The Vatican said the appointments did not help ties with China, which had thawed in recent years, raising expectations that diplomatic relations cut off in 1951 could be restored.
Navarro-Valls said, however, the Vatican would continue to seek dialogue with Beijing.
"This is another obstacle but our style is, nevertheless, to improve the dialogue," he said.
China's 10 million or so Catholics are divided between an "underground" church loyal to the Holy See and the state-approved church that respects the Pope as a spiritual figurehead but rejects effective papal control.
Chian defends action
Ma Yinglin (
Two days later Liu Xinhong (
China defended the appointments by its state-run Catholic Church, saying they strictly followed democratic processes and fully respected the wishes of a majority of worshippers.
"So the Vatican's condemnation makes no sense," China's foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.