LOS ANGELES — “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

That, according to Gospel authority, was the policy recommendation of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago when confronted with the dicey question of whether the faithful were obligated to pay tribute to the governing power of the time. In effect, Christ said, split the difference and live and let live.

The formulation was rather clever. Without going into messy detail, it established the principle of the separation of church from state — or rather Caesar from God. It reinforced the idea that human souls on Earth have civic as well as religious duties.

In China these days, alas, this age-old formulation doesn’t seem to be working as well as it might. The Communist authorities in general have been taking an uncharitable view of the Vatican’s role in selecting mainland priests for the position of bishop.

Recently government authorities named two clerics to bishoprics without the advice and consent of the Vatican. This broke an understanding that complicated the efforts of the Holy See and the Communist government in China to establish normal relations.

China has been eager to gain official Vatican recognition, especially as it would mean de-recognition of Taiwan, whose elected president has been leaning toward the politically apostate position of an independence declaration. It has also been eager to convince the world that its rise is peaceful.

China’s sinful transgression against the “render unto” deal is not hard to figure out. The first reason is the most obvious: Those who lead China are card-carrying members of the Communist Party, and communists don’t believe in God. What’s more, they tend to think that people who do are off their rocker, high on illusion and delusion, or closet subversives trying to knock the Godless Communist Party off its throne.

The other reason: The Communists in China remember the gallant and unceasing anti-Soviet and anti-Communist campaign of the current pope’s predecessor. The late Karol Wojtyla, as a priest in his native Poland, was vehemently anti-Communist; as Pope John Paul II, he made it a point to be remembered probably as the most anti-Communist pope ever. That’s inspirational for us anti-Communists — even for those of us who are out-and-out atheists. But for those holding power in China, the Wojtyla spectacle put the pope on the level of a secular great Satan.

The current pope, Benedict XVI, has made some overtures about getting the Vatican and Beijing on the same page in the hymnal. But the Chinese are wary of this new pope and of his reputation for being more conservative than John Paul. They will not be able to trust the new leader of the Catholic Church until they are able to verify that he is not as much of a crusader as the old one.

The two sides are off to a bad start in terms of getting along. Early this week Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong week had a lot to say about the matter. If he did not exactly threaten the materialistic money-changers to the north with a cane, he did serve notice that Beijing had crossed the line by, in effect, entering God’s temple. Caesar has no more right to make a man a Catholic bishop than the Church has the right to a say in naming China’s generals.

To this end, Beijing should back down and re-submit the proposed promotions to the Vatican for vetting, or withdraw them. It should recognize Cardinal Zen as an internationally respected church leader who is really asking no more of the mainland Chinese than what it has already promised in its oft-proclaimed Hong Kong policy of “one country, two systems.”

This in effect is precisely what the Vatican is suggesting: It recognizes that China is one country and that its Catholics are part of that one China. But it is also insisting that the process of elevating priests to the bishopric cannot be done by the same system that inducts Chinese citizens into the Communist Party.

For the kingdom that is not Caesar’s, a second system is necessary. It is that simple. The atheists in Beijing need just a little religion on this point.

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