VATICAN CITY – Vatican officials cited church law that called for automatic excommunication in condemning China for appointing bishops without papal consent, but legal experts said Friday that the appointees may be spared formal censure because they may have been pressured.
The Vatican said Thursday that the consecration of two bishops this week in China carried with them the automatic penalty of excommunication for the two men as well as the bishops who ordained them because Pope Benedict XVI hadn't approved the appointments.
While Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls didn't use the word "excommunication" in his statement Thursday, he cited Article 1382 of the Code of Canon Law, which says both the newly ordained bishop and the bishop who consecrates him without papal consent incur a "latae sententiae excommunication" — automatic excommunication.
However, canon law experts said that in order for the excommunication to have actual effect, it must be formally declared by the pope, and that that requires a process that could take into account several factors.
"This one is an automatic penalty, but in order for it to have effect in the external forum, it must be declared," said the Rev. James Conn, a professor of canon law at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.
"That doesn't mean it isn't binding in conscience on the person if he incurs it automatically ... (but) there needs to be a procedure before a penalty is declared," he said.
Attempts to reach Navarro-Valls on Friday were unsuccessful.
However, a Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to interpret church law, said Thursday that while church law provides for automatic excommunication, the fact that the prelates may have been pressured was important.
"There are two levels: The objective level, which says the law is automatic, and a subjective level, which only God knows. That is a matter between them and God," said the official.
Conn noted that Article 1323 in Canon Law sets out exceptions to when church penalties can be imposed, such as when someone "acted under the compulsion of grave fear, even if only relative, or by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience."
"If the act was not a free act, then it's less imputable, less punishable," Conn said.
In his statement, Navarro-Valls said Chinese bishops and priests had been subject to "strong pressures and to threats" to take part in the ordinations by "external entities to the church" — an apparent reference to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the church's official name in China.
"Various prelates have given a refusal to similar pressures, while others were not able to do anything but submit with great interior suffering," the statement continued.
Conn said at this point, only the bishops in question know whether they acted out of fear.
"If the individual himself knows that he did not act out of grave fear, he is burdened in conscience to carry out the excommunication," he said.
Conn likened the situation to that of a woman who obtains an abortion. The act of getting an abortion carries with it the same automatic excommunication. But since there is rarely a formal declaration of an excommunication for an abortion, the woman is burdened with the penalty in her conscience, he said.
Official ties between the Holy See and Beijing were severed after communists took control of China in 1949. While Benedict has reached out to Beijing in hopes of restoring ties, the ordinations this week set back the efforts.
In China, a senior official in the state-backed Catholic church said Friday that religious conflicts can only be addressed after the Vatican establishes diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-backed agency that oversees administration of the Catholic church, called on the Vatican to change its policies toward China.
"Once the relationship between the Chinese government and the Vatican improves, the church issues can be resolved," Liu said in a telephone interview.
Liu's comments were the first official response since the Vatican lashed out against the Chinese church's ordination of the bishops.