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suffer, and we are paying very serious attention to this," said the statement, which was issued only in Chinese by the official Xinhua News Agency, and thus meant for the domestic audience.

The statement didn't mention the role of the pope, whose blessing, according to Catholic faith, is necessary for the appointment of bishops. But it argued that the "threat of so-called excommunication gave the reason that the two bishops were appointed without the permission of the Vatican". (Emphasis added).

The phrase "permission of the Vatican" appears to be deliberately vague and possibly misleading. In a way, it is correct, as "Vatican" implies the role of the pope and "permission" implies the religious blessings of the pope that make the Church one, unitary, and Catholic. In so representing the case, the statement implies an issue of political infringement by a political (not religious) foreign authority (the Vatican) in China's internal affairs.

The statement doesn't challenge the issue of the permission of the Vatican. However, based on this political representation of the facts, the bureau claims that for the past 50 years, the Chinese Catholic Church was exposed to the threat of excommunication, which has "caused a deep historical wound to a large part of the Chinese Catholics, and this has steeled the Chinese Catholic Church on its path of self-appointment of the bishops".

People acquainted with Catholic issues carefully crafted the statement. By not mentioning the pope and even not clearly challenging the "Vatican's permission", the statement is the first official admission from China of the religious role of the pope in the Catholic Church on the appointment of bishops. This sets an historical precedent, as it indicates that the Communist Party does not want any role in this religion and in principle allows the pope religious authority.

However, the real issue is political: who controls the Church as a socio-political entity in China? This is a gray area, as for the Church this has an important religious bearing, not simply socio-political. Even here the statement does not refute the pope or the Vatican's role in this. The real issue, to some Chinese Catholics, is "the deep historical wound" opened by the Vatican with the threat of excommunication.

It is also an issue of personal nature. If one thinks well, there are people who genuinely believe they have contributed to survival of the Church, and they are offended because Rome doesn't recognize their efforts and has cast them away. If one thinks evil, these people are the de facto owner of the structure of the Church in China, they have owned it for 50 years, and they are unwilling to surrender it to people who until only a few years ago were underground and refused to break bread with them.

If, as a letter from the pope in 2007 has recognized, there is only one Catholic Church, then the structure of the official Church is de facto taking control of everything. Moreover, people in Rome believed that if Rome told the bishops not to take part in the illicit ordination, the bishops would obey. In fact, many bishops in China, though loyal to Rome, are perplexed by some of the Vatican's decisions and believe that it is impossible to not collaborate with the Chinese authorities.

These gray areas disguise a basic fact that the Catholic Church in China has grown away from Rome's embrace, and in some instances, it is de facto schismatic. These Church leaders do not want to announce and open the schism because now, in their present position, they can politically blackmail both Rome and Beijing: to Beijing they say they have to accommodate to Rome, and to Rome they say they can't turn down Beijing. If these leaders were to be openly schismatic, they would lose the present leeway with Beijing, and in return would push their Church to the extreme. These are fighters and careful manipulators who survived decades of intricacies and the pitfalls of both communism and Curia. They can't be underestimated.

The solution, like with all schismatic churches, is to sow both sides slowly back together.

The true political solution is the one the Vatican has adopted with all schismatic churches, such as the church of Marcel Lefebvre, which Pope Benedict XVI has reconciled with Rome: slow and careful political mending of fences and recognition of the local political powers. Here, the issue is only political, as religiously there is no gap.

(I want to thank father Carlo d'Imporzano for some explanations. Responsibilities for mistakes and misunderstandings in the article are entirely mine.)

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at fsisci@gmail.com

The issue is extremely complicated, but for once, it is worth delving into the details, as they are very revealing of the political predicament in China regarding the crucial question of freedom of belief.

On July 25, a spokesman for China's Bureau of Religion claimed that "the Vatican's threat of so-called excommunication" after the ordination of the bishops of Leshan and Shantou was unreasonable and cruel, and hurt the feelings of Chinese Catholics. "This made a large number of members of the Church