"A thumb in Vatican's eye." That's how John Lenzowski, director of the Institute of World Politics and former director of European and Soviet Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council, described the most recent round of episcopal ordinations in China. Few observers of Vatican-Chinese relations would disagree.

Ever since the communist takeover of China more than 50 years ago, Rome and the Chinese government have been at odds over who controls the Catholic Church there, with the Vatican insisting upon its right to govern its own affairs and the government viewing any intervention by the Vatican, including the appointment of bishops, as a violation of national sovereignty.

Pope Benedict XVI's election brought new hopes for a resolution to the dispute, and informal negotiations between the two resumed last year. But those hopes were dashed in May when the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association ordained two bishops without Vatican approval. Pope Benedict responded by calling the ordinations "a grave wound to the unity of the Church" and raising the specter of excommunication.

Winning the game

Although the pope chose not to make good on his threat, this latest spat highlights just how wide the breach between the Church and China remains, not to mention how much work must be done before the country's 12 million Catholics, currently divided between the official Church and the Underground Church, can reunite with each other and Rome. Given both sides' understanding of what is at stake, that work will not be easy.

"It's a delicate game," said Tom Melady, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

It's a game, however, that the Vatican has played before -- and won. In 1945, when the Soviets cemented their hold on Eastern Europe at Yalta, Rome faced a difficult choice: Negotiate with the atheist communist governments and preserve some semblance of the Church in the occupied territories or take a principled stand against communism and risk greater persecution for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain.

At first, the Vatican chose the former path. But with the election of Pope John XXIII and in the face of the Soviet's seemingly invincible strength, it altered course. Under the banner of ostpolitik (reconciliation), Rome carefully negotiated with individual communist governments to secure minimal rights for the Church.

To a degree, they succeeded. Deals were struck in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to allow the Vatican to appoint bishops, and some government officials evacuated diocesan buildings. The Vatican also managed to insert a religious-rights clause into the 1975 Helsinki Accords, giving Catholics under Soviet rule an international treaty to which they could appeal.

But problems remained.

New tactics

Not only did persecutions and restrictions continue, but many concessions elicited from the communists arguably did more harm than good. According to Ambassador Melady, only after the election of Pope John Paul II, did the Vatican recognize the fissures in the Soviet empire and readjust its course once more.

"Pope John Paul II saw this was the moment of change, and he encouraged it," he said.

That encouragement, from high-profile papal visits to Poland and support of the Polish union Solidarity, to Pope John Paul's strong condemnations of communism, played a significant role in bringing down the Soviet empire and re-establishing religious freedom in Eastern Europe.

Working with China

Can the Vatican play the same game with China's communists that it did with the Soviets?

Only to a limited degree, said Richard Madsen, director of the Council on East Asian Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

Madsen said he sees the stakes in China as very much the same -- to prevent schism and ensure Catholics' right to practice and pass on their faith.

And so are the obstacles -- minimal communications with the underground Church, the risk of alienating or discouraging the faithful and underground priests and bishops with their own agenda. "You get a lot of mavericks," he said.

Thus far, the Vatican has followed the same trajectory in its dealings with China as it did with the Soviets before the arrival of Pope John Paul II. Initially Rome refused to deal with Mao Zedong's regime. When they realized the communists weren't going anywhere and communications again became possible after the "reopening" of China in 1978, the Vatican initiated informal talks with the government.

While those talks have resulted in the reopening of churches, the return of confiscated property and increasing tolerance of the official Church's unofficial loyalty to Rome, persecution of the underground Church continues. Madsen thinks the Vatican is much more limited in what it can accomplish with the Chinese than it was with the Soviets.

"In many former Soviet countries, the Church was deeply intertwined in the culture, and governments accommodated them because of that," he explained. "In China, Catholics are only 1 percent of the population. The Church has less leverage and lives in a relatively powerless situation."

As Lenczowski pointed out, however, the Church's power is about more than numbers.

"Seeking and telling the truth presents the greatest threat to communist regimes because their control depends on conformity of thought fed by ideological propaganda," he said.

"If people are free to pursue truth and Christ who is Truth, they become free regardless of what the regime does to them, and other forms of truth-telling become possible," Lenczowski added. "That's why the Church is always a threat to communism."

And that's why, despite the most recent setbacks, the game being played for the future of the Church in China is not over yet.

Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio.