When it comes to religion, the Chinese authorities seem to be making a clear distinction these days:
* Religious practices will continue to be permitted in this communist state, at least to some degree. Last year's national congress of the Communist Party here confirmed the right to ''enjoy freedom of religious belief.''
* But such religious activities must be kept independent of foreign interference or control. The national party congress also stressed that China would not tolerate the use of religion for what it called ''counterrevolutionary activities.''
Latest evidence of this dual approach has been the imprisonment of four Roman Catholic priests. The four elderly Jesuits were sentenced to jail for up to 15 years in Shanghai recently. The charges were believed related to their ties with the Vatican. The authorities have also warned other Chinese Catholics who want to maintain links with the Vatican.
The Revs. Vincent Chu and Joseph Chen were sentenced to 15 years and 11 years , respectively, on charges of ''colluding with foreign countries, collecting intelligence reports, carrying out subversive activities, endangering the sovereignty of the state, and fabricating rumors.'' In a separate trial, the Rev. Stanislas Chen was sentenced to 10 years in jail and the Rev. Stephen Chen to 21/2 years.
The Chinese Catholic church officially severed relations with Rome in 1957 under orders from the Communist Party. But it is believed that a Roman Catholic underground church still operates in China's larger cities.
Relations between Peking and Rome appeared to be improving in 1979 and '80, when two Western cardinals visited China. But relations deteriorated after the Pope appointed Msgr. Dominic Tang the archbishop of Canton. Msgr. Tang had been imprisoned for 22 years, and his elevation outraged Peking.
Appeals by the Pope in February and December last year to resume relations were ignored by Peking. The four priests are said to have been in detention since their arrests in November 1981. At that time a Chinese bishop accused the Pope of ''vicious slander'' after he asked people to pray for those Catholics being persecuted in China.
The government used the recent 25th anniversary of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) - the officially sanctioned church here, which ordains its own bishops and still celebrates mass in Latin - to renew warnings to Chinese Catholics against trying to maintain links with the Vatican. At a celebration at the Great Hall of the People, a senior Communist Party official, Xi Zhongxun, urged the association to remain independent and resist foreign domination.
''Chinese church affairs must be decided and settled by Chinese clergymen and believers within China. No foreign force has a right to (control) it. It is the Chinese Catholics' glory to operate church affairs independently,'' Mr. Xi said.
A joint conference of CPCA and the State Council's Administration of Religious Affairs (the official body that controls the number of churches and ordinations allowed in China) said that after reviewing bitter historical lessons, Chinese Catholics firmly advocate that church affairs be operated by Chinese clergy and laity in line with Chinese conditions.
Besides a modest trend toward restoring churches, China's only Catholic monastery opened near Shanghai last October with 36 seminarians. According to an official count, there are now 3 million Catholics in China - the same number as in 1949.