One of China's top leaders told Chinese Catholics that they need to operate "independently" of outside forces and promote socialism and patriotism through religion.
Yu Zhengsheng's Thursday speech came at the end of a meeting of China's official Catholic church that was being closely watched by the Holy See. Yu is one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body. His speech could be a measure of how much Beijing is willing to yield in potential dialogue with the Holy See.
State media reported that Yu called on Catholic churches to adhere to "socialism with Chinese characteristics," â a term that describes China's model of development, which for decades has favored economic liberalization but not political reform. China's ruling Communist Party is officially atheistic. Yu also said Chinese Catholics should adhere "to the correct direction of development."
China and the Vatican have long clashed over whether the party-controlled Chinese church could operate outside the pope's authority. Beijing severed relations with the Holy See in 1951, shortly after the Communist Party took power, and officially allows worship only in state-sanctioned churches. Many of China's estimated 12 million Catholics are thought to worship in underground congregations.
Starting under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican has sought to unite Chinese Catholics under the Holy See. Pope Francis has said that both sides had resumed meetings of working groups over the naming of bishops, an issue central to the dispute between both sides.
But just last week, the Vatican said it was saddened that the ordination of two new Chinese bishops was marred by the presence of a bishop ordained without the pope's consent. It said it would watch this week's conference with hope for new confidence in the Vatican-China dialogue.
Wang Zuo'an, China's head of religious affairs, said earlier this week he hoped the Vatican would be flexible and pragmatic, and take concrete steps to improve relations, state media reported. No details were given of what Beijing expects.
State media also reported that Bishop Ma Yinglin was re-elected president of one of the groups at the conference, the Bishops Conference of Catholic Church of China. Ma was excommunicated in 2006 by the Vatican after being named by the Chinese church as a bishop in southwestern Yunnan province.
The Vatican-affiliated AsiaNews service, which closely covers the underground church in China, quoted on Thursday one priest from northern China calling the meeting "a staged theatrical representation."
"Everything was very well planned: the assignment of roles, their scripts, the well-chosen audience, who raised their hands to vote and approve content, the media coverage," said the priest, identified only as Father Peter.