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Chinese Rites controversy

The Chinese Rites controversy was a dispute within the Catholic Church from the 1630s to the early 18th century about whether Chinese folk religion rites and offerings to the emperor constituted idolatry. Pope Clement XI decided in favor 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.

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

Pope Pius XII modified his predecessor's decision in 1939.

Entry into China

Early adaptation to local customs

Unlike the American continent, which had been conquered by military force and then converted to an unmodified form of Christianity, European missionaries encountered powerful societies in Asia with a strong social structure and history, which had to be convinced rather than forced into accepting the Christian faith. Alessandro Valignano, Visitor of the Company of Jesus in Asia, was one of the first Jesuits to argue, in the case of Japan, for an adaptation of Christian customs to the societies of Asia, through his Résolutions and Cérémonial. In China, Matteo Ricci reused the Cérémonial and adapted it the Chinese context. At one point the Jesuits even started to wear the gown of Buddhist monks, before adopting the more prestigious silk gown of Chinese litterati.

In a decree signed on 23 March 1656, Pope Alexander VII accepted practices "favorable to Chinese customs", reinforcing 1615 decrees which accepted the usage of the Chinese language in liturgy, a notable exception to the contemporary Latin Catholic discipline which forbade the use of local languages.

In the 1659 instructions given by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (known as the Propaganda Fide) to new missionaries to Asia, provisions were clearly made to the effect that adapting to local customs and respecting the habits of the countries to be evangilized was paramount:

Reception in China

The Kangxi Emperor, considered one of China's greatest, was at first friendly to the Jesuit Missionaries working in China. He was highly grateful for the services they brought to him, in the areas of astronomy, diplomacy and gun manufacture. The contribution of the Jesuits to artillery had allowed the Chinese Emperor to reconquer Taiwan. Jesuit diplomacy, through the negotiations of Jean-François Gerbillon and Thomas Pereira, had allowed him to stop Russian expansionism in the East through the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits also had made many converts.

In 1692, Kangxi issued an edict of toleration of Christianity:

The problem

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was successful in penetrating China and serving at the Imperial court (see Jesuit China missions). 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 period. Despite this, all three provided the framework of both state and home life. Part of Confucian and Taoist practices involved veneration of one's ancestors.

Besides the Jesuits, other religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustins started missionary work in China during the 17th century, often coming from the Spanish colony of the Philippines. Contrary to the Jesuits, they refused any adaptation to local customs and wished to apply in China the same tabula rasa principle they had applied in other places, and were horrified by the practices of the Jesuits.

They ignited a heated controversy and brought it to Rome. They raised three main points of contention:

  • Determination of the Chinese word for "God" (天 Tian Heanven, 天主 Tian Zhu Lord of Heaven, or 上帝 Shangdi Lord of Above)
  • Prohibition of the cult of Confucious for Christians.
  • Prohibition of ancestor worship for Christians.

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, Pope Clement XI made the assessment that the Confucian rituals were indeed in conflict with Christian teaching.

In 1705, the Pope sent a Papal Legate to the Kang Hsi Emperor, to communicate to him the interdiction of Chinese rites. The mission, led by Charles-Thomas Maillard De Tournon, communicated the prohibition of Chinese rites in January 1707, but was as a result banished to Macao.

Futher, the Pope issued the 19 March 1715 Papal bull Ex illa die which officially condemned the Chinese rites:

In 1742 Benedict XIV reiterated in his papal bull Ex quo singulari Clement XI's decree. Benedict demanded that missionaries in China take an oath forbidding them to discuss the issue again.

Kangxi's ban

The Kangxi emperor disagreed with Clement's decree and banned Christian missions in China.

From Decree of Kangxi (1721):

The actual problem was the Pope's legate appointment, as the Emperor was unwilling to tolerate the presence of a foreign authority independent of the court.

Pope Pius XII's decision

The Rites controversy continued to hamper Church efforts to gain converts in China. In 1939, a few weeks after his election to the papacy, Pope Pius XII ordered the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to relax certain aspects of Clement XI's and Benedict XIV's decrees:

  • Catholics are permitted to be present at ceremonies in honor 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.

This meant that Chinese customs were no longer considered superstitious, but were an honourable way of esteeming one's relatives and therefore permitted by Catholic Christians. . The Government of China established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1943, within a short interval. The Papal degree changed the ecclesiastical situation in China in an almost revolutionary way. As the Church began to flourish, Pius XII established a local ecclesiastical hierarchy, and, in 1946, received Archbishop, Thomas Tien Ken-sin SVD, as the first Chinese national, in the Sacred College of Cardinals. . and later elevated him to the See of Peking.

See also


  • Hubert Jedin, Kirchengeschichte Vol. VII, Herder Freiburg, 1988
  • Jan Olav Smit, Pope Pius XII, Burns Oates & Washburne, London, Dublin, 1951
  • Mantienne, Frédéric 1999 Monseigneur Pigneau de Béhaine, Editions Eglises d'Asie, 128 Rue du Bac, Paris, ISSN 12756865 ISBN 2914402201
  • Missions étrangères de Paris. 350 ans au service du Christ 2008 Editeurs Malesherbes Publications, Paris ISBN 9782916828107
  • Les Missions Etrangères. Trois siecles et demi d'histoire et d'aventure en Asie Editions Perrin, 2008, ISBN 9782262025717


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