The controversy, simmering for months, adds a bizarre chapter to the 50-year rift between the Vatican and Beijing that both sides claim to want to end.
The dispute has stirred fears about rivalry with Taiwan and revived China's enchantment with the bloody, anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion 100 years ago.
At the center of the dispute are long-laid Vatican plans to make saints of 120 Western and Chinese Catholics killed in China, mostly by the Boxers, and to do so on Sunday, October 1--China's National Day and a date given to celebrating the triumph of Communism in 1949.
"This public humiliation and scorn for the Chinese people and Chinese church is something we absolutely cannot tolerate and accept," the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Chinese Catholics Bishops College said in a statement.
"Some in the Holy See want to use this 'canonization' to distort and slander history, renew control over China's Catholic church, and encourage worshippers to oppose the government," the groups said.
Their statement, reported in major national newspapers Wednesday, added to a barrage of harsh words from the Chinese government and marked the clergy's most public criticism of the Vatican in years. They demanded the Vatican "repent."
A Vatican spokesman denied that Sunday's ceremony was politically motivated or "directed against anyone." The spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, noted on Tuesday that Sunday marked the feast of Saint Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of missionaries, and was a natural time to name saints.
Set up by Beijing in 1951 to prevent foreign influence, the state-run church has recently tried to keep open channels to Rome in hopes of reconciling. The government, too, would like to win over the Vatican and get it to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the island Beijing considers its territory.
The Vatican has encouraged contacts, while trying not to alienate supporters in Taiwan and China's 8 million Catholics, half of whom reject the state-run church. A high-ranking envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, tried to allay Beijing's concerns over the canonizations in talks with Chinese officials two weeks ago.
In a sign of its displeasure, China on Wednesday reissued rules forbidding proselytizing by foreigners and prohibiting them from bringing any religious items into China except for their own use.
The Communist Party's most authoritative newspaper also defended China's decision to run its own churches without foreign control. "No foreign force should count on China to be its servant," the People's Daily said in a front-page editorial.
In their statement, the Chinese bishops accused the Vatican of violating its own rules on canonization by not seeking the approval of China's clergy and allowing Taiwanese bishops to influence the process at Beijing's expense.