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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Cardinal Joseph Zen, the most senior Chinese Catholic cleric, says the participation of an excommunicated prelate at two bishop ordinations in China was a "slap in the face" for Pope Francis just as Rome seeks a historic deal with Beijing.
Bishop Lei Shiyin, who was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2011 for accepting his appointment without papal approval, took part in the ordinations of new bishops in the cities of Chengdu and Xichang, in southwestern China, last week. [nL4N1DW4B0]
While the Catholic priests selected to be bishops enjoyed the backing of both Rome and Beijing, the active participation of the excommunicated Lei was an act of defiance by Beijing, Zen said in an interview with Reuters.
Under church law, clergy who have been excommunicated - the harshest punishment that can be imposed on a Catholic - cannot actively participate in liturgical acts such as an ordination.
"It's really a slap in the face of the Holy Father. After such a long dialogue, they still show no kindness towards the authority of the pope," said Zen, the most vocal critic of the Vatican's attempt to seek a rapprochement with Beijing.
The Chinese Communist government says bishops have to be appointed by the local Chinese Catholic community and refuses to accept the authority of the pope, whom it sees as the head of a foreign state that has no right to meddle in Beijing's affairs.
Lei is one of eight Chinese bishops appointed with Beijing's backing that Rome considers illegitimate.
The two sides have been at loggerheads since the expulsion of foreign missionaries from China after the Communists took power in 1949.
Under Pope Francis, the Vatican is making a push to heal the rift with Beijing by seeking an agreement on how to choose bishops in China. [nL4N1A4137]
But the Vatican should speak up when Catholic norms are openly violated, said Zen, who added he was surprised that the church hierarchy had remained silent.
"The big mistake is that to please the Beijing government, the Vatican abstains from doing many things they are supposed to do," said Zen. "When you see such an excommunicated bishop come to the ceremony, you must shout. You must tell the good bishops to stop the ceremony!"
A senior Vatican prelate familiar with the negotiations told Reuters that, while the Holy See appreciated Zen's concerns about dialogue with government, the situation in China "is not black and white and the alternative (to an agreement) is a deeper schism in the Church".
Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing's position on the operations of the church in China was consistent.
"I believe that the international community is very clear about this," he said. "We will not accept unjust criticism."
Since the election of Pope Francis, closed-door negotiations between Vatican and Chinese government officials have received new impetus and a working group was set up earlier this year to hammer out a deal on the bishops, Reuters has reported. [nL1N1CR01W]
Cardinal Zen, a former Bishop of Hong Kong, said he was supportive of having a dialogue between the two sides as a way to solve long-standing problems. But he was also sceptical that a positive conclusion could be reached.
For example, he said the Church could accept some intervention by the Chinese government in the process of selecting bishops, but could not cede the pope having ultimate authority in the matter.
Zen also said the so-called underground Catholic church, which swears allegiance only to the pope and which he said had suffered greatly under state repression, should not be forced by an agreement between the Vatican and China to submit to government control.
The 84-year-old cardinal, who is originally from Shanghai and has a great following among Chinese Catholics, said he had voiced his concerns in letters to the pope, but had so far only received an acknowledgment and an exhortation to pray together.
"On the part of the Vatican, the goal of dialogue is to have a real religious freedom for our church in China. The goal of the government is to have complete control of that Church. These two goals are contradictory," Zen said.
"I don't see how they can reach a consensus at the end. A miracle may always happen, but a miracle is not to be taken for granted."
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.