Hong Kong's newly appointed cardinal, Joseph Zen, has criticised a decision by the Chinese government this year to appoint two bishops without Vatican approval, but said the process of introducing greater religious freedom was gathering pace in China.
China kicked foreign clergy out in the 1950s and severed ties with the Vatican. Since then, it has steadfastly refused to allow Catholics to recognise the authority of the Pope; instead, they have to join the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which has five million members.
The Vatican estimates eight million Chinese Catholics worship secretly in "underground churches" not recognised by the government, which are closely watched and whose clergy are often arrested.
Relations between the Vatican and Beijing reached a new low in the spring, when Pope Benedict censured China publicly after it installed two bishops without the Holy See's approval, calling it "a grave violation of religious freedom".
But an uncharacteristically mild response by the Chinese authorities to the Vatican statement was a sign of differing approaches between the state-backed Church, and the broader plans of China's government.
Cardinal Zen is the most senior representative of the Roman Catholic Church in China, and an outspoken defender of religious freedom and civil rights. He has close links with both the government-supervised churches and the "underground" churches.
"China is always a land of mysteries, you never know who is doing what," he said. "It seems to us that many things, such as the illegitimate ordinations, are being undertaken at the lower level by the Patriotic Association. Maybe they don't have the full support of the higher level, where there is a certain support with a watching attitude," he said.
A thoughtful, energetic cleric, Cardinal Zen has long been a thorn in the side of the state-run Church. When he was elevated to cardinal in February, Liu Bainian, the general secretary of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, described the move as "a hostile act".
"The Catholic Patriotic Association is really angry with me," Cardinal Zen said. "They know my position and they know the Holy Father listens to what I say in this part of the world. But I don't think that's the position of the higher authorities. They have question marks on me but don't think I'm an enemy," he said.
The bishops' ordinations called into question a tacit agreement whereby only priests in the state-backed Church with a favourable attitude toward the Vatican can be elevated to bishop.
The Vatican is one of the few countries in the world which gives diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. Beijing also wants a veto over who the Vatican appoints as bishop.
Cardinal Zen said there could be movement on these two key issues, but he said the Chinese Patriotic Association would have to be reformed.
A delegation from the Vatican arrived in Beijing last month to discuss closer relations, although the Vatican itself kept quiet about the meeting.
Cardinal Zen said: "I hope the leaders come to see that this is simply a religious affair and they are not to be worried about the Catholic religion.
"I hope it can be normalised to the advantage of everybody. All these things are going in one direction. But maybe it will still take some time. You cannot brush away 50 years of history. Those who have had power for such a long time are not going to relinquish it easily," he added.Reuse content