Chinese Rites controversy

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious disputes

The Chinese Rites controversy was a dispute within the Roman Catholic Church in the early 18th century about whether Chinese folk religion rites and offerings to the emperor constituted idolatry or not. Pope Clement XI decided in favour of the Dominicans (who argued that Chinese folk religion and offerings to the emperor were incompatible with Catholicism), which greatly reduced Catholic missionary activity in China.

At the time, there was fascination among European intellectuals with Chinese culture, Confucianism, and the Chinese language. Some even pretended that the Church declared Confucius as a Christian saint.

It was related to larger controversies between the two orders over the adoption of local practices of other countries, such as the ascetic brahmin practices of India.

Entry into China

Emperor Kangxi
Emperor Kangxi

The Kangxi Emperor, considered one of China's greatest, was at first friendly to the Jesuit Missionaries working in China. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had made many converts.

From Decree of Kangxi ( 1692):

The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes, and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition . . . We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord of heaven, in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies practised according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.

The problem

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was successful in penetrating China and serving at the Imperial court. They impressed the Chinese with their knowledge of European astronomy and mechanics, and in fact ran the Imperial Observatory. Their accurate methods allowed the Emperor to successfully predict eclipses, one of his ritual duties. Other Jesuits functioned as court painters. The Jesuits in turn were impressed by the Chinese Confucian elite, and adapted to that lifestyle.

The primary goal of the Jesuits was to spread Catholicism, but here they had a problem. The Chinese elite were attached to Confucianism, while Buddhism and Taoism were mostly practiced by the common people and lower aristocracy of this time period. Despite this, all three provided the framework of both state and home life. Part of Confucian and Taoist practices involved veneration of the ancestors. The Jesuits tried to argue, in Rome, that these "Chinese Rites" were social, not religious, ceremonies, and that converts should be allowed to continue to participate. (The debate was not, as is sometimes thought, about whether the liturgy could be in Chinese rather than Latin.) The Jesuits argued that Chinese folk religion and offerings to the emperor and departed ancestors were civil in nature and therefore not incompatible with Catholicism, while the Dominicans argued the reverse.

Pope Clement XI's decree

Although in later European commentary on China it has continued to be claimed that Confucianism is a "philosophy" and not a "religion" - because it does not conform to the model of western religions, the pope made the assessment that the Confucian rituals were indeed in conflict with Christian teaching.

From Decree ( papal bull) of Pope Clement XI ( 1715):

The Jesuits claim Chinese terms could be used to designate the Christian God and that the Confucian ceremonies were merely civil rites that Christians could attend and that Chinese ancestor worship was compatible with Christianity was condemned by Pope Clement XI in 1715.
Pope Clement XI wishes to make the following facts permanently known to all the people in the world....
I. The West calls Deus [God] the creator of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the universe. Since the word Deus does not sound right in the Chinese language, the Westerners in China and Chinese converts to Catholicism have used the term "Heavenly Lord" (Shangdi) for many years. From now on such terms as "Heaven" and "Shangdi" should not be used: Deus should be addressed as the Lord of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the universe. The tablet that bears the Chinese words "Reverence for Heaven" should not be allowed to hang inside a Catholic church and should be immediately taken down if already there.
II. The spring and autumn worship of Confucius, together with the worship of ancestors, is not allowed among Catholic converts. It is not allowed even though the converts appear in the ritual as bystanders, because to be a bystander in this ritual is as pagan as to participate in it actively.
III. Chinese officials and successful candidates in the metropolitan, provincial, or prefectural examinations, if they have been converted to Roman Catholicism, are not allowed to worship in Confucian temples on the first and fifteenth days of each month. The same prohibition is applicable to all the Chinese Catholics who, as officials, have recently arrived at their posts or who, as students, have recently passed the metropolitan, provincial, or prefectural examinations.
IV. No Chinese Catholics are allowed to worship ancestors in their familial temples.
V. Whether at home, in the cemetery, or during the time of a funeral, a Chinese Catholic is not allowed to perform the ritual of ancestor worship. He is not allowed to do so even if he is in company with non-­Christians. Such a ritual is heathen in nature regardless of the circumstances.
Despite the above decisions, I have made it clear that other Chinese customs and traditions that can in no way be interpreted as heathen in nature should be allowed to continue among Chinese converts. The way the Chinese manage their households or govern their country should by no means be interfered with. As to exactly what customs should or should not be allowed to continue, the papal legate in China will make the necessary decisions. In the absence of the papal legate, the responsibility of making such decisions should rest with the head of the China mission and the Bishop of China. In short, customs and traditions that are not contradictory to Roman Catholicism will be allowed, while those that are clearly contradictory to it will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

In 1742 Benedict XIV reiterated in his papal bull Ex quo singulari Clemens XI's decree and settled the question until Pius XII. He demanded that missionaries in China take an oath forbidding them to discuss the issue again.

Kangxi's ban

The Kangxi emperor was not happy with Clement's decree, and banned Christian missions in China.

From Decree of Kangxi ( 1721):

Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.

Pius XII's position

In 1939, under the pontificate of Pius XII, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples relaxed the certain aspects of Clemens XI's and Benedict XIV's decrees:

  • Catholics are permitted to be present at ceremonies in honour of Confucius in Confucian temples or in schools;
  • Erection of an image of Confucius or tablet with his name on it is permitted in Catholic schools.
  • Catholic magistrates and students are permitted to passively attend public ceremonies which have the appearance of superstition.
  • It is licit and unobjectionable for head inclinations and other manifestations of civil observance before the deceased or their images.
  • The oath on the Chinese rites, which was prescribed by Benedict XIV, is not fully in accord with recent regulations and is superfluous.

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