Catholic Church officials are seeing indications of a thaw in relations between the Vatican and the government of China, especially over the touchy issue of who appoints bishops for the mainland Chinese church.

The Vatican signaled cautious optimism about the prospect for improved ties through an article that appeared in Saturday's issue of La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal. The magazine's articles carry weight because they are reviewed by the office of the secretary of state, who is effectively prime minister of the Catholic city-state.

In the article, titled "China Is Opening Up," a Jesuit priest, Hans Waldenfels, wrote that there were "signs of a future understanding" between China and the Vatican, chief among them a tacit deal on the nomination of bishops. Waldenfels, who lectured in China last June, asserted that before being consecrated bishops by the official community, candidates usually seek to obtain the nomination of the Holy See.

Waldenfels' assessment matched a report issued last week by Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, the archbishop of Hong Kong. In a speech given to bishops gathered in Vatican City for a synod, Zen said congregations and clergy in China were refusing to accept bishops who had not been certified by the pope. Moreover, he said, the Vatican was taking steps to recognize government-appointed bishops.

"The great majority of bishops of the official church have been legitimized through the generosity" of the pope, Zen said. His words are especially striking because he has long been an outspoken promoter of religious freedom. Hong Kong, though part of China, permits religious freedom under the "one state, two systems" arrangement that led to its reunification with China after a century under British rule.

The Vatican and China have been at odds for decades, in part because of China's creation in 1951 of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is run by bishops appointed by the government without consultations with the pope. Additionally, the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province that must reunite with the mainland.

An underground Catholic church, with its own bishops, priests and nuns loyal to the pope, has operated in parallel to the Catholic Patriotic Association. Members of the underground church have been subject to frequent and harsh persecution.

China has an estimated 12 million Catholics -- 4 million in the Patriotic church, 8 million underground -- and the Vatican considers the country a major frontier it needs to reopen. With its blend of communist-style authoritarian control, Confucian rationality and burgeoning presence on the world economic and political stage, China represents a giant philosophical rival to the Vatican.

Last November, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's deputy bishop of Rome, noted that the attention recently given to the upsurge of Islamic fervor must also be afforded China, which stands among newly emergent countries that have "the capacity and the will to be protagonists, not subordinates, on the global stage" and "will perhaps push us toward further secularization."

Catholic observers note several concrete indications of fresh openings between the Vatican and China. The first took place June 28 in Shanghai with the appointment of Joseph Xing Wenzhi as auxiliary bishop of the Patriotic Church, in a ceremony led by Shanghai's Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian. Vatican officials say that the pope approved Xing's appointment. Patriotic Church officials openly touted the change. Jin told the Catholic magazine "30 Days," edited by former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, that "everybody knew about it."

"Rome specifically requested I be the consecrating bishop," he added, suggesting that the Vatican recognized his authority. In effect, Vatican officials say, there will be no naming of a successor to Joseph Fan Zhongliang, who is the head of Shanghai's underground church.

A similar process of tacit reconciliation is underway in Xian, a city of more than 2 million in north-central China. The city's officially sanctioned bishop, Anthony Li Duan, is ill. In July, he appointed an aide, Anthony Dang Mingyan as successor, who also has the Vatican's blessing, church officials say.

Finally, in August, Pope Benedict XVI welcomed a group of 28 Patriotic Church and seminary administrators. "I greet with particular affection the group of priests from China," the pope said. The delegation responded by singing a hymn.

Despite these signals, relations are still tense and there are indications that the Chinese government is wary of cozying up to the Vatican. Benedict had invited four Chinese bishops -- three from the Patriotic Church, a fourth unrecognized by the government -- for the synod that is now underway. But none was granted a passport, according to reports from China. "The invitation from the Holy Father to the four bishops was a good opportunity, but it seems it was ruined," Archbishop Zen said.