Deteriorating relations between Beijing and the Vatican look set to worsen after China's state-controlled Catholic church yesterday announced plans to ordain seven more bishops without papal approval.

The Chinese authorities angered the Papacy a week ago by naming a third new bishop in eight months without consulting Rome. The Vatican reacted by excommunicating the new bishop, Joseph Huang Bingzhang. Branding his ordination illegitimate, the Vatican said Pope Benedict "deplores" the way communist authorities are treating Catholics eager to stay faithful to Rome rather than the state-backed church.

In a move set to further antagonise the Vatican, the Chinese bishops' council is considering seven new candidates, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.

Liu Bainian, honorary president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which runs China's Catholic churches, was quoted as saying: "Upon inspection and approval, when the conditions are ripe, the ordinations will take place."

Asked if the ordinations had been discussed with the Vatican, the CCPA's vice-chairman, Rev Joseph Guo Jincai told reporters: "There's no official channel for communications, but we cannot delay the election of our bishops because it is important to spread the gospel. We hope that the Vatican will respect the outcome of our elections."

Beijing severed ties with the Vatican in 1951 after the communists took power.

Today China's approximately 12 million Catholics may worship only with the state-sanctioned church, which recognises the Pope as a spiritual leader but rejects his authority to appoint priests and bishops. But a thriving Catholic underground following remains loyal to the Vatican.

In the past, Beijing has allowed the ordination of bishops approved by the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI has tried to boost the Vatican's ties with Beijing. But progress in reaching a compromise on the Vatican's role in China appears to have stalled in recent months, with the Vatican growing increasingly concerned at the security forces' intimidation of Catholics.

Last week, a Vatican source told the Reuters news agency that eight bishops were accompanied to the most recent ordination by police and four were detained and then released in the run-up to the ordination.

"Sino-Vatican relations may have plunged to their lowest level since the 1950s," Zhuo Xinping, director of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry made no statements on the developments. No-one at the Vatican was available to comment.

Rev Jeroom Heyndrickx, director of Verbiest Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, said the latest developments showed that religious freedom in China is still a big problem.

"The way they pick up the bishops and force them to do these ordinations, makes China, in my view, lose face in the face of the whole world," he said.