China seeks Vatican recognition, but doesn't acknowledge Pope Francis

(CBS News) China is sending mixed signals to Pope Francis. The new Chinese government wants warmer relations with the Vatican, but they're warning the Catholic Church to stop meddling in the country's internal affairs.

The conflicting signals show how equivocal the Chinese government itself is with its relationship to the Vatican and about the practice of Catholicism in China.

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For example, a 6 a.m. Mass at the Beijing East Catholic Church where the TV screens showed a photo of the newly-elected Pope Francis drew a crowd. It's remarkable because state media in China barely reported the pope's election, but the Catholics in China knew, and they were celebrating.

Officially, Chinese Catholics are not allowed to be loyal to the pope in Rome because he's overseas. They're supposed to be loyal to another -- the government-appointed head of the church in China, Bishop John Fang Xingyao.

To many parishioners, the alternative pope idea is a waste of time. One parishioner told CBS News, "It doesn't matter what people think or what the government supports. We worship God directly and I recognize the new pope."

The freedom to be Catholic or Christian in China depends on where you live and whether local officials sense a threat to their authority.

A Mass last Palm Sunday in Beijing was ornate, well attended, and freely celebrated, but millions of the faithful worship in groups at home, praying in underground churches where religion, if practiced too openly, can lead to arrest.

Then there's the diplomatic tension between China and the Vatican. Rome's embassy is in Taiwan, not Beijing.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, after congratulating Pope Francis, demanded that he change the policy. Hua Chunying said, "The Vatican must cut its so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and recognize the government of The Peoples Republic of China as the only legitimate government of China."

In other words, Beijing wants formal recognition from this new pope, but doesn't want China's 12 million Catholics to recognize him.

For Wyatt Andrews' full "CBS This Morning" report, watch the video above.