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Chinese Rites Controversy


Spanning three centuries from the 1630s to 1939, the Chinese Rites Controversy arose from a disagreement between the Jesuits on the one hand, and the Dominicans, Franciscans and the Paris Foreign Missionaries, on the other, on the various rituals that were used in the cult of Confucius and the veneration of ancestors (the so-called "Chinese rites"). The dispute centered on whether these rites were purely civil in nature, or religious and therefore amounted to superstition.

The Rites. The ancestral veneration rituals are commonly associated with the cult of Confucius and his teachings, even though they predate Confucius. They consist of prayers, solemn prostrations (kowtow ), and offerings of incense, food and drinks to one's ancestors that were performed at ancestral shrines, tombs, and ancestral tablets. At the core of these rituals is filial piety (hsiao ), a virtue that children cultivate toward their parents while they are alive and continue to do so after their death.

The cult of Confucius is a specific form of ancestor veneration, viz., the veneration of Confucius as ancestor par excellence by magistrates and scholars. This takes one of two ritual forms. The simple rite was performed on the first and fifteenth of each month. The solemn rite, which included the ritual slaughter of animals and offerings of food and drinks, was performed on the birthday of Confucius and auspicious days in spring and autumn.

Matteo ricci and his confreres held that the ancestor veneration rituals and the cult of Confucius were civic rituals that enabled the Chinese to show respect and gratitude to their ancestors and chih sheng hsien shih K'ung Tzu (Master K'ung the most holy teacher of antiquity). At the same time, they were cautious of some elements in the rites which appeared to be superstitious. They organized conferences in 1603 and 1605 and issued a set of guidelines governing the permissible and prohibited aspects of the rites. In the veneration of ancestors, they forbade the Chinese Christians to pray to the dead ancestors, to burn paper money for the dead, and to believe that the dead would eat the food offerings. They permitted the usage of ancestral tablets inscribed with names and titles of the dead, and of candles, flowers and incense. In the cult of Confucius, the Jesuits allowed Christian scholars to participate in the simple rite, but refused to allow them to take part in the solemn rite on the basis that certain elements, e.g., the ritual slaughter of animals, were superstitious.

Development of the Controversy and Church Decrees. The Chinese Rites Controversy began with the arrival of the Dominican, Juan Bautista morales in China in 1633. He was highly critical of the Jesuits, attacking them for allowing the Chinese Christians to continue the practice the cult of Confucius, ancestor veneration rituals and other traditional Chinese customs and practices, which he regarded as erroneous and mere superstitions. Upon his expulsion from China during the persecution of 1637, Morales first reported the issue to the Archbishop of Manila and then to Rome in February 1643. His formal complaint to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide ) was structured as 17 questions on: (1) fast, yearly confession, communion and observance of feast days; (2) use of sacramentals in administering baptism and extreme unction; (3) interest of 30 percent on loans; (4) and (5) usury and usurers; (6) contributions to pagan sacrifices and festivals; (7) Cult of the "guardian deity of the city" (8) Cult of Confucius; (9) ancestor veneration; (10) serving and feeding the dead as though they were living; (11) use of ancestral tablets; (12) funerals; (13) instruction of catechumens on the illicit nature of such rites; (14) the use of the adjective sheng (holy); (15) veneration and obeisance (kowtow ) before the tablet set in honor of the emperor; (16) licitness of prayers and sacrifices for non-Christian relatives; and (17) preaching Christ crucified. In his complaint, words such as "altar," "temple," "sacrifice," "priest," and "genuflection" were used, creating an impression that the Chinese rites were religious and superstitious.

On Sept. 12, 1645 Pope Innocent X approved the resolutions and the decree of the Propaganda Fide which responded to Morales' 17 questions by prohibiting the cult of Confucius, ancestor veneration, and ancestral tablets, "until His Holiness or the Holy See will provide otherwise." This decree did not reach China until 1649. The Jesuits were not satisfied with the decree and accordingly in 1651 sent a delegation led by Martin Martini to Rome to present their case. In Rome, Martini presented to the Holy Office of Inquisition, instead of Propaganda Fide, four propositions which corresponded to four questions (1st, 2nd, 8th and 9th) in Morales' complaint. Among other things, Martini said that priests did not preside at the cult of Confucius, the cult was celebrated in a hall (aula ) and not in a temple, the prostrations at the funeral were made in front of a table (tabula ) and not before an altar. He concluded that Chinese rites were not religious but merely civil and political.

On March 23, 1656, the Holy Office issued a decree with the approval of Pope Alexander VII in favor of the petitioner because the rites appeared to be "merely civil and political." This decree allowed the Chinese Christians to practice their rites provided that superstitious elements were eliminated. Juan de Polanco, O.P., asked whether the 1656 decree abolished that of 1645. On Nov. 20, 1669 the Holy Office answered him in a decree approved by Pope Clement XI that the recent decree did not abolish that of 1645, but that both decrees were in force and that they had to be observed "according to the questions, the circumstances and all that is contained in the proposed doubts."

On March 26, 1693, Charles Maigrot, Vicar Apostolic of Fujian, issued a mandate with seven articles against the Chinese rites that missionaries operating in his vicariate had to comply with. The first and second articles banned the use of Tien-chu (Lord of Heaven) and Shangti (Lord on High) as names for God; the third article prohibited missionaries from making use of the 1656 decree on the ground that Martini had obtained that decree fraudulently; the fourth article forbade Chinese Christians from taking part in the solemn rite of the cult of Confucius, although it permitted the simple rite; the fifth article banned the use of ancestral tablets; and the sixth and seventh articles dealt with the religious and moral ideas of the Chinese. This mandate caused much indignation among the Jesuits, many Augustinians and Franciscans, and a few Dominicans. The ensuing uproar resulted in Maigrot's mandate being sent to Rome for examination. As a result, in 1697 a particular congregation was established to reopen the case of the Chinese rites. After seven years of studying the case, Pope Clement XI issued a decree dated Nov. 20, 1704 that not only upheld the seven articles in Maigrot's mandate, but went further in banning even the simple rite which Maigrot had tolerated.

In an attempt to resolve the controversy, Pope Clement XI sent his legate, Carlo Tommaso Maillard de tournon, who arrived in Beijing in December 1705. Negotiations between Tournon and the Kangxi (K'ang-hsi) emperor (16611722) broke down after three meetings, and he was ordered to leave Beijing. Tournon made his way to Nanjing, where he heard that the Kangxi emperor had issued an edict dated Dec. 17, 1706, that expelled all missionaries who were against the Chinese rites and required all missionaries to obtain the imperial permit (piao ) to remain and work in China. In retaliation, Tournon issued a mandate on his own authority forbidding the cult of Confucius and ancestor veneration and threatening excommunication for those who dared to disobey his mandate. In doing so, he based his mandate on the 1704 decree which, at that time, had not yet reached China. On June 30, 1707, Tournon was escorted by two imperial officials to Macau where he was confined until his death on June 8, 1710.

The missionaries faced a crisis of conscience in choosing between the imperial piao or Tournon's mandate. A number of missionaries preferred the piao to the mandate, not wishing to jeopardize their existing missionary endeavors. Hearing this, Pope Clement XI issued a decree dated Sept. 25, 1710 which reiterated both the 1704 decree and Tournon's mandate. This decree forbade all kinds of publications regarding the Chinese rites, unless there was the permission of the pope. In addition, the decree included the sentence of excommunication for those who violated this prohibition.

On March 19, 1715 Pope Clement XI published the bull Ex illa die with the intention of bringing the controversy to an end. In this bull, the pope reiterated that all missionaries in China were bound to observe the 1704 and 1710 decrees, as well as the mandate of Maillard de Tournon. He allowed the use of the word Tien Chu to designate God, but not Shang Ti, Tien (Heaven), and King Tien (adore Heaven). The bull imposed the sentence of excommunication for those who disobeyed it. In addition, it included an obligatory oath of observance for all missionaries. The bull became the cause for the persecution of Christians.

In 1719, Pope Clement XI sent Carlo Ambrogio mezzabarba to the Chinese court as his legate to defuse the tension and uproar that ensued the implementation of Ex illa die in China. The mission was not successful. On the way back to Rome, Mezzabarba stopped for six months at Macau, where on Nov. 4, 1721, he wrote a pastoral letter to all missionaries, reaffirming that the bull Ex illa die was still in force. In an effort to defuse the tensions, he granted eight permissions regarding the Chinese rites. This pastoral letter engendered much confusion among missionary personnel in China. A small minority clung onto the bull Ex illa die, while the majority made full use of the permissions that Mezzabarba had granted in his pastoral letter.

In 1733, Bishop of Beijing, François de la Purification, wrote two pastoral letters ordering that the bull Ex illa die be observed in accordance with Mezzabarba's permissions. The new pope, Clement XII, annulled the two pastoral letters of Bishop of Beijing on Sept. 25, 1735, ordering that the bull Ex illa die be observed without any exceptions.

On July 5, 1742, Pope Benedict XIV issued the bull Ex quo singulari with the intention of settling the question of the status of the Chinese rites by confirming the authority of Rome on the issue, reinforcing the efficacy of the 1704, 1710, and 1715 decrees and the mandate of Maillard de Tournon, and nullifying the eight permissions of Mezzabarba and the two pastoral letters of the Bishop of Beijing. In addition to removing all exceptions which had been tolerated or permitted in previous periods, the pope prohibited any further discussion of the rites. With this bull, Pope Benedict XIV brought the one-century-and-a-half controversy to an end but the issue unresolved.

20th Century Resolution of the Controversy. Two incidents took place outside China which led to the resolution of the Chinese rites controversy. In the first incident on May 5, 1932, some 60 Catholic students at the Jesuit Sophia University in Japan refused to salute the war dead at the Yasukuni Shrines. To defuse a potentially devastating situation, Bishop Johannes Ross, interpretingc. 1258 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, allowed Japanese Catholics to visit the Shinto Shrines to pay their respects to the war dead. Later, Bishop Ross presented this case to the archbishop of Tokyo, Jean Alexis Chambon, who verbally permitted the Catholic students to participate in visiting the shrines that honored the war dead. On Sept. 22, 1932, Archbishop Chambon wrote a letter to the Japanese government, inquiring whether participation in the shrine ceremonies were religious or not. On September 30, he received the answer that the participation was only an act of "manifesting the sentiments of patriotism and loyalty." In January 1933, Bishop Edward Mooney, the Apostolic Delegate to Japan, issued the statement allowing Japanese Catholics to participate in Jinja Sanpai (veneration at the shrine) with "a grave reason approved by the judgment of the ordinary."

The second incident occurred in Manchukuo (Manchuria), a new state established by the Japanese Kwantung army on Feb. 25, 1932. The new government implemented the policy of Wangtao (the Way of the King). This policy mandated that Manchurian Catholics were required to bow to the picture or statue of Confucius in the Confucian shrine. Augustin Ernest Pierre Gaspais, Bishop of Kirin, officially inquired the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Feb. 27, 1935, of the meaning of the honor given to Confucius. On March 5, 1935, the Ministry of Education gave the answer that the honor did not have "any religious character" rather than to show the "spirit of loyal patriotism."

On March 12, 1935, Bishop Gaspais called for a conference of the Ordinaries of Manchukuo at the new capital, Ksinking, to re-evaluate the Chinese rites on the participation of Catholics in the non-Catholic ceremonies in the light of the 1917 Codex Iuris Canonicis c. 1258 §2. The results of the conference were personally submitted to Propaganda Fide by Bishop Gaspais himself. While in Rome, Bishop Gaspais met with Pope Pius XI on May 16.

On May 28, 1935, Cardinal Fumasoni-Biondi, the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, with the approval of the pope, responded to Bishop Gaspais that the Ordinaries of Manchukuo had to make known to the faithful that the ceremonies in honor of Confucius "have absolutely no religious character" and that priests, while awaiting for instructions of the Ordinaries, had to avoid all questionings and controversies of the Chinese rites. This document from the Propaganda Fide showed a shift in the Church's viewpoint on the Chinese rites since the bull Ex quo singulari of 1742, leading to a reconsideration of the Shinto rites controversy in Japan. On May 26, 1936, Propaganda Fide issued the instruction Pluries instanterque to Paul Marella, the Apostolic Delegate to Japan, allowing Japanese Catholics to fulfill their duties toward the country and to participate in marriages, funerals and other aspects of the Confucian rites as part of the Japanese socio-cultural fabric.

The instructions of 1935 for Manchukuo and of 1936 for Japan became the basic principle for the instruction Plane compertum est of Dec. 8, 1939, approved by Pope Pius XII, for China regarding the Chinese rites. Its preamble clearly stated that, due to changes in customs and ideas in the course of time, the rites now had no more than mere civil or social significance. The instruction allowed Catholics: (1) to participate in honoring Confucius; (2) to set up an image or a tablet of Confucius and to bow to it; (3) to passively participate in public ceremonies which appeared to be superstitious in accordance with the norms of the 1917 CIC c. 1258, and (4) to bow to the deceased, the picture or even the tablet of a deceased person. The instruction also abolished the obligatory oath against the Chinese rites. This was a new element in the instruction in comparison with the two previous instructions. However, the instruction still prohibited discussions of the controversy. The term "questions" was not mentioned in this instruction. This instruction officially ended the Chinese rites controversy.

On Feb. 28, 1941, Propaganda Fide issued a despatch entitled Mens to the apostolic delegate to China, Archbishop Mario Zanin, on the implementation of Plane compertum est. This Mens required that no composition of a list of permitted or forbidden ceremonies be made, that the ordinaries give rules and general norms of behavior, not details, in the time of transition, and that individual Catholics were to follow their own conscience in particular cases.

It took almost three centuries, beginning with the first decree of Sept. 12, 1645 and ending with the dispatch of Feb. 28, 1941, to resolve the Chinese rites controversy. This controversy arose as a result of misunderstanding of customs and cultures, methods of evangelization, and politics. It was a clash between two cultures of the European West and of China. Within the Chinese socio-cultural milieu, filial piety is the grundnorm of ethics in China. As a public ritual manifestation of filial piety, ancestor veneration was the sine qua non of Chinese socioethical fabric, the violation of which was considered the most heinous crime. Ironically, the explanation of the Kangxi Emperor on Nov. 30, 1700, that the rite of ancestor veneration was not a superstition but a ceremony honoring one's ancestors in a spirit of filial piety became the basis for Propaganda Fide 's 1939 instruction that paved the way for Catholics to take part in ancestor veneration rites. Indeed, the instruction Plane compertum est justified the permission that was granted on the basis that these rites were not superstitious or religious, but merely forms of filial piety and respect for one's elders.

Bibliography: Acta Apostolicae Sedis; commentarium officiale v.28 (1936); v.31 (1939); v.32 (1940). benedict xiv, Bullarium (In quo continentur constitutiones, epistolae, aliaque edita ab initio pontificatus usque ad annum MDCCXLVI), v.1. (Venice 1768). Collectanea Commissionis Synodalis (Peiping: Commissio Synodalis in Siniis) v.9 (1936); v.13 (1940); v.14 (1941). Magnum Bullarium Romanum v.16 (complectens constitutiones Benedicti XIV, ab initio Pontificatus usque ad annum 1746) (Luxembourg 1752). j. s. cummins, Jesuits and Friar in the Spanish Expansion to the East (London 1986). A Question of Rites: Friar Domingo Navarrete and the Jesuits in China (Hants, England 1993). g. h. dunne, Generation of Giants: The Story of the Jesuits in China in the Last Decades of the Ming Dynasty (Notre Dame, Ind 1962). l. j. gallagher, China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journal of Matthew Ricci (15831610) (New York 1942). k. s. latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China (London 1929). g. minamiki, The Chinese Rites Controversy from Its Beginning to Modern Times (Chicago 1985). d. e. mungello, The Chinese Rites Controversy: Its History and Meaning (Nettetal 1994). r. r. noll, ed., 100 Roman Documents Concerning the Chinese Rites Controversy (16451941) (San Francisco 1992). a. s. rosso, Apostolic Legations to China of Eighteenth Century (South Pasadena 1948).

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