At the beginning of the 17th century, one of the most important controversies in the history of Chinese Christianity developed in the Catholic Church, one whose consequences are still felt today. Jesuit missionaries proposed a new style of evangelization in China. They claimed that new converts to Catholicism should be allowed to keep participating in rituals honoring the ancestors or Confucius, as they were civil or cultural rather than religious rites. The same principle applied to political rites honoring the emperor. Jesuits also proposed innovative translations of Christian terminology in the Chinese language, and suggested to downplay the symbol of the cross, which the Chinese did not fully understand. This “sinicization” of Catholicism was resisted by the oldest Catholic religious orders, particularly the Franciscans and the Dominicans, which claimed that the Jesuit approach was a betrayal of Christianity and would lead to syncretism.
The so called Chinese rites controversy lasted for one century and was finally decided by the Vatican against the Jesuits. But it is still debated today. Those advocating the position of the Jesuits believe that only a “sinicized” Catholicism would have had a chance to become a major religion in China. Others still believe today that the Jesuits’ “sinicized” Catholicism was in fact a dangerous syncretism. Obviously, the question of the Chinese rites is still relevant for Christianity in China today. It also has a universal scope. In fact the question “How much should Christianity adapt to Chinese culture in order to be relevant and attractive for the locals?” is similar to others, where the word “Chinese” is substituted by “African,” “Native American,” and even “21st century.”
That the controversy was important well beyond China was perceived by many contemporaries. The issue 269 of the journal Historia Mexicana (Mexican History), dated July 1, 2018, publishes an important article by professors José Antonio Cervera, of the Colegio de México, and Ricardo Martínez Esquivel, of the University of Costa Rica, whose title is “Puebla de Los Ángeles entre China y Europa. Palafox en las controversias de los ritos chinos” (Puebla de Los Angeles Between China and Europe: Palafox and the Controversy of Chinese Rites, vol. LXVIII, pp. 245–284). The article discusses the intervention of the Catholic Bishop of Puebla, Mexico, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (1600–1659) in the controversy about China. Palafox was a famous and influential bishop, but the fact that he intervened from faraway Mexico on a controversy about China confirms the global impact of the rites question. Bitter Winter has interviewed one of the authors of the article, Professor Ricardo Martínez Esquivel.
The question of “Chinese rituals” was crucial for the history of Christianity in China. Can you summarize it?
The question of “Chinese rituals” continue to this day (2018) being a subject of debate, both in ecclesial and apologetic circles of Chinese culture and, of course, among scholars. Decisive not only in the history of Christianity in China, the debate on these controversies also influenced the very fate of the Jesuits, as well as the orientation of the Catholic Church in its dynamics of evangelization of cultures different from its ethos since the 17th century. From the 20th century on, the debate has followed a path from the merely theological one to the academic sphere.
The controversy had three problems and three fronts. The three major questions that were posed were the following: how to build or manufacture in the Chinese language the basic soteriological and eschatological terms for evangelization? — what to do with the ceremonies in honor of the ancestors and Confucius? —and to what extent Christians could participate in Chinese activities considered pagan? The missionaries in three different areas discussed these three aspects: with members of other religious orders, with the Vatican, and with the Chinese themselves (at the imperial, local, or personal levels).
In a few years, the controversy went from the intimacy of the missionaries in China, to the ecclesial teaching spaces, the universities, and the publication of books and treatises in Europe and America, thus forming part of a global movement of ideas without historical precedents. The questions of “Chinese rituals” were debated, then, from the cities of Peking, Canton, Rome, Paris, Lisbon, Salamanca and Madrid, to the same Puebla de Los Angeles in New Spain.
In the article you wrote with Professor Cervera, you suggest that the question of the rites cannot be separate from two others, whether it was appropriate to insist less on the cross and crucifixion of Jesus Christ when preaching in China, as the crucifixion was difficult to explain to the Chinese, and how to translate Christian terms in Chinese language. Let’s start with the crucifixion. What was the problem, exactly?
The symbol of the cross was a very controversial subject. The Chinese could not understand that God had died. Moreover, in a culture where obedience to authority was so important, it could not be understood that death on a cross, which had been a punishment carried out by the authorities, should be honored. Upon arriving in China, the Dominicans and the Franciscans accused the Jesuits that they practically hid the cross, and they themselves, in reaction, gave much importance (especially at the beginning of their arrival) to this Christian symbol.
And what about the translations problems?
There were basically two possibilities to manufacture in Chinese the basic concepts for evangelization: the first one, by inventing new words from phonetic approaches between European and Chinese languages, the second one, by retaking, within a Christian nuance, existing terms in Chinese culture. Now, to what extent did the cross-cultural process of missionary translations produce new concepts without sacrificing their projected semantic intentionality from the Christian faith?
The phonetic terms led to superficial teachings and a difficult assimilation, while those taken from the Chinese tradition “contaminated” Christianity with ideals and precepts that were counterproductive to dogma. In the case of the divine archetype, after constructing it by means of a phonetic approach, in the end it was considered more useful to use Chinese concepts “similar” to the idea of the Christian divinity. Since the publication of the Tianzhu Shiyi by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) in 1604, an equivalence with the terms Shangdi 上帝 (“Lord-on-High”), Tian 天 (“Heaven”) and Tianzhu 天主 (“The Lord of Heaven”) was noted. The first, from the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122), sought to resemble Christianity with Confucianism. As for the second one, it gave an impersonal idea of the divine being, very different from the Christian conception. The best one of the three was the third, used by the way to the present. However, Ricci, among other Jesuits later on, used the three terms as equivalents.
However, the lexical inculturation of the archetype of the Christian god has been at the mercy of the vernacular cultural conventions of Chinese societies. If Ricci identified Shangdi with the Latin Deus (God), it was because the Chinese had already inculturated the lexical value of the “theistic” term in the Chinese semantic domain. That is, regardless of the success or failure of Ricci’s proposal, the Christianization of Chinese concepts (and in particular, Confucians), would have been impossible to achieve without anti-Christian manifestations in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In fact, the semantic reconfiguration of Shangdi to Deus, produced negative reactions of many Confucians and Buddhists of the first half of the 17th century. In other words, the native agency comes to be what explains the success of the cross-cultural insertion of the concept; by being, then, a social construction from below and not an imposition as it was in the colonies.
Your article is about Bishop Juan de Palafox of Puebla de Los Angeles (now Puebla, Mexico). How did he become involved in the controversy?
Palafox became involved in the debate by writing two letters, the first one to King Philip IV of Spain (1621–1665), and the second one to Pope Innocent X (1644–1655). The second document was made public a few years after the death of the prelate, reproducing in its entirety or as part of treatises, by detractors of the Company of Jesus, mainly during the second half of the 18th century.
Palafox’s participation could be due to his civil and religious functions, or by reason of his personal conflicts with the Society of Jesus – it is explained in the following question. Palafox was a member of the Royal Council of the Indies (1633-1653), bishop of Puebla de Los Angeles (1640-1649) and viceroy of New Spain (1642). During these years, the Captaincy General of the Philippines was subordinated to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, by giving the option to ecclesiastic institutions of America to be involved in the missionary project in China. Augustinian, Dominican and Franciscan missionaries, on their way to the colonies in Southeast Asia, China and Japan (or back to Europe), did so by taking the Atlantic-Pacific transoceanic route, stopping first in New Spain and, at the time, being received by Palafox.
However, the key event for Palafox’s participation in the debates of the controversy coincided with the very genesis of the process. I refer to the stay of the Dominican missionaries Juan Bautista de Morales (1597–1664) and Domingo Fernández de Navarrete (1610–1689) in New Spain between 1646 and 1648, who arrived from Rome and were on their way to China, carrying with them the first Pontifical decree (1645) prohibiting among the Chinese the methods of Jesuit evangelization. Morales had been one of the first Dominicans to arrive in China in 1633, and after ten years he returned to Rome with seventeen demands against the accommodation strategy proposed by the Jesuits. As for Fernández de Navarrete, this was his first trip to China. The experience he subsequently acquired in the Kingdom of the Center led him through his publications to become one of the main actors in the global debates on these controversies during the second half of the 17th century.
You argue that the extreme anti-Jesuitism of the two letters of Palafox, to Pope Innocent X and Spanish King Philip IV, was typical of a certain period only of the life of Palafox. What motivated it?
When Palafox was bishop of Puebla de Los Angeles, he had constant conflicts with the Jesuits because of different political, economic and jurisdictional points of view. In New Spain, for example, the Society of Jesus refused to pay the tithes, so the prelate, appealing to the Royal patronage, the Council of Trent, and the episcopal jurisdiction, tried to secularize the rural parishes served by the Jesuits, and suspend the Jesuits from their ministerial licenses, preaching, and the administration of the sacrament of confession.
What do you make of Palafox having been finally beatified by the Catholic Church in 2011?
It is interesting that it was needed almost 350 years to beatify him –the process began in 1666. It also draws attention that someone like Palafox, used exaggeratedly as an anti-Jesuit banner, was beatified two years before the election of a first Jesuit pope. What was the goal of the Catholic Church by doing this? What meanings were sought to transmit with this beatification? It is what I can think as a historian, while whether Palafox deserves it or not, it has to do more with questions of religiosity and beliefs, a field that does not concern me.
More generally, Palafox’s involvement shows what today we would call the globalization of the controversy about the Chinese rites. What can this controversy tell to us today, when the “inculturation” of Christianity in China is still debated?
The question of “Chinese rituals” constitutes a perfect example for the global history of ideas. It was a phenomenon that took place over a long period of time and in many geographical environments in different continents.
The topic is still relevant, since it constitutes an important element in the debate and analysis of accommodation, inculturation, or adaptation of the religious message to other cultures. The cross-cultural encounter that took place in China could lead to a confusion of rites/rituals (Confucians and Christians) that confronted the Jesuits not only with the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, and others) and the Chinese elites’ ideas, but also with the Chinese emperor himself, with the Holy See, and finally with the Chinese and European earthly powers.
For all the above mentioned, I consider that Palafox’s participation in the controversy during the 17th century, due to the echo of his letters between China, Europe and New Spain, as well as its subsequent use in Europe during the 18th century, showed, without any doubt, the construction of an early global public sphere, or a kind of proto/pre-global sphere of the circulation of ideas. The problem is on the table. Now, it continues and even deepens, regardless of the religious, geographical, or political points of view.