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Analysis: What synod observers can learn from China

Jesuit astronomers with the Kangxi Emperor, painted by Philippe Béhagle

The Chinese Rites Controversy has certain parallels with the current synod debates

How to transform a culture through the preaching of the Gospel while preserving that culture’s patrimony has been a major theme of the ongoing Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon. The many efforts in this regard, both in the synod and around it, have often been beautiful and informative. They have shed a good deal of light, but also generated significant heat.

This is not the first time the Church has publicly thought through the management of tension that is inherent to the work of evangelisation. It will not be the last. Nor is this the first or the last time the Church’s encounters with non-Christian cultural milieux have generated controversy.

The great Jesuit missionaries to China, for example, were tolerant of Chinese Confucian practice, particularly of the veneration given to ancestors. To many missionaries, the ritual acts of veneration appeared to be a form of ancestor-worship. Some missionaries forbade the practice among Christian converts, but the Jesuits allowed it. The different approaches to Chinese cultural practice precipitated a protracted debate.

The so-called Chinese Rites Controversy stretched over decades, and pitted the Jesuits (highly successful in the mission field) against Dominicans and Franciscans, who took a stricter line (and were measurably less successful while they toed it, though some of them softened and even eventually saw their way to the Jesuits’ position).

It is necessary to understand that the Dominican and Franciscan missionaries were not plainly wrong. Their concerns were legitimate. The Chinese rites had many — if not all — the trappings of religion. The ways in which the Chinese honoured their ancestors looked like Pagan ritual. If the practice of the rites did constitute an ancestral cult, then the rites were a form of false worship. If they were false worship, Christians could not participate in them, no matter the social and political consequences.

The stakes were high: Jesuit missionaries had drawn prominent members of Chinese society close to the faith and even won high-ranking converts in the imperial service. If there was a way to save the practice and their souls, then finding that way was going to be well worth the effort. Still, everyone involved recognised the need for great care in proceeding. The Jesuits knew and understood both the stakes in the game they were playing and the precedents in Church history when it came to pinches of incense.

In fact, Michel de Tellier SJ — a roughly contemporary chronicler of the missions and the Chinese controversy — praised the prudence of an injunction that came from the Holy Office in 1645, in response to more than a dozen dubia submitted by Fr Juan Morales OP against the Jesuits’ practice of allowing Chinese Christians in their care to offer honours to Confucius. That decision was, as things happened, the catalyst for further study and debate.

The Jesuits continued to consider the structure of the rites carefully and with meticulous attention observed the social role they played, determining that they served a secular social and political function. The Jesuits obtained a decree from Alexander VII in 1656 that permitted the practice (with some caveats) on the grounds that they were, in fact, merely civil and political. Many of the Dominican and Franciscan missionaries eventually saw themselves to the Jesuit position. At Rome, things were different. In 1742, Benedict XIV confirmed Clement XI’s 1704 ban on the practice, and declared the matter closed to debate.

“The controversy regarding Chinese rites,” writes Prof. Ilaria Morali in Catholic Engagement with World Religions (edited by Morali and Karl Josef Becker SJ, on which this journalist was lead translator), “[was] born as a question internal to the Church: missionaries of other orders contested the Jesuits’ decision to keep up the practice of certain local ceremonies tied to Confucianism, which the Jesuits held to be civil in nature, but that others considered religious and idolatrous. (p.92)”

The controversy also involved the broad European public. Readers in Europe had access to descriptions of life in the Far East through missionaries’ writings, which were translated into the vernacular and published widely. “The writings from China,” Morali notes, “reached a Europe torn by the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants, the heritage of the preceding [16th] century, and by the more recent Jansenist controversy.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The Jesuits had the deeper understanding of the Chinese rites in question, better arguments, and significant success in the mission field. Court politics in Rome, personality clashes, and the broader strategic situation in Europe all worked against the Jesuits in the controversy, the issue of which severely hampered hitherto promising work to win souls, and wounded the corporate psyche of Ignatius’ company. The healing of that wound has left a scar.

The Chinese Rites Controversy has been on this journalist’s mind since October 4th, when a ceremony took place in the Vatican Gardens, in the presence of Pope Francis, which involved some elements that were perceptibly, palpably, evidently Catholic, and others that were significant in a way that one may fairly say was apparently religious in some sense, but not familiar to many people who witnessed them in person or watched remotely.

A video segment showing some of the figures and gestures involved in the ceremony got widespread diffusion among persons not well-informed and ill-disposed to such outlandishness, and internet hysteria ensued.

The archconservative traditionalist, Michael Voris, debunked one of the most serious false claims that made the rounds, but other questions have persisted in the absence of a clear account from synod organisers. One of them concerns an image that some connected with the synod have claimed is “Our Lady of the Amazon”. Others have claimed it is a symbol of life.

One Peruvian missionary priest and Synod Father elected by the Union of Superiors General, Fr Roberto Carrasco Rojas OMI, took part in the October 4th ceremony. He described the figure as a Madonna in indigenous style. “This figure is the Virgin Mary of the Amazon, Our Lady of the Amazon,” Fr Carrasco told the Rome Reports news agency in an interview segment published October 11th. “It’s a devotion that started in the indigenous communities,” he went on to say. “They carved in wood an image of a Blessed Mother, who is pregnant.”

“She is the Virgin Mary,” Fr Carrasco said, “and we have called her, ‘Our Lady of the Amazon’.”

On Friday, during an online seminar prepared by the International Union of Superiors General of Women Religious, Sr Sheila Kinsey FCJM, gave the same interpretation as good. The coordinator of the UISG’s Sowing Hope for the Planet campaign, Sr Kinsey is here in Rome for the synod and took part in the ceremony. She carried a soil offering representative of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation efforts in the Amazon and throughout the world, which was used as part of the tree-planting that was the centrepiece of the ceremony. Fr Carrasco also carried earth representative “of the soil of Amazonia, drenched in the blood of the martyrs,” and offered, “as a record of the courageous defenders of Amazonia, who resist her destruction and that of her sons and daughters.” Even watching the video replay, the moment was bracing.

If Fr Carrasco and Sr Kinsey are certain on the specific point regarding the carved figure, others have been circumspect.

The Apostolic Vicar of Maldonado, Perú, Bishop David Martínez De Aguirre Guinea told reporters at an October 7th press briefing “We all have our own interpretations,” of the image. “The Virgin Mary, Mother Earth,” he offered. “Probably,” he said, “those who used this symbol wished to refer to fertility, to women, to life, the life present among these Amazonian people and Amazonia is meant to be full of life. I don’t think we need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a Pagan element.”

On Wednesday, October 16th, the synod’s information managers were still not certain.

“I’ve always thought,” said the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, Dr Paolo Ruffini, “as often happens, we know, that some things in history can have many interpretations,” such as churches themselves, he suggested, some of which had been Pagan temples before they were consecrated to Christ. “I believe that quite simply,” Ruffini continued, “fundamentally, the statue represented life — and that’s it.”

Ruffini went on to say, “I believe that trying to see symbols of Paganism is to see evil where there is none.” Seated on the dais in the Pope St John Paul II conference hall of the Press Office of the Holy See, answering a question from a journalist during a press briefing, Ruffini underscored that he was not speaking either as Prefect or as President of the Synod of Bishops’ Commission for Information, but only giving his personal opinion. Ruffini promised to look into the matter, but had nothing to add on Friday, when a journalist asked whether he had anything new to report.

The carved figure was at the centre of a mat representing the Amazon region, around which indigenous participants in the October 4th ceremony in the Vatican Gardens gathered at one point, kneeling and bowing low. Representations of the figure have featured prominently in and around the synod assembly.

On Thursday, the Secretary of the Synod of Bishops’ Commission for Information, Fr Giacomo Costa SJ, told The Catholic Herald he does not understand why the matter has been such a focus of attention. “I wasn’t [involved] in the organisation,” Fr Costa said, “so it is difficult for me to get the information, but I think this is not really a problem, and I think there was no [reason for] embarrassment over this question.” Costa said, “What is clear is that it is no Pagan sign, nor has any strange rite been [performed].”

The Catholic Herald asked Fr Costa why, if there was no sacred symbol involved, the people conducting the ceremony made an act of veneration? “Who was venerating what?” Fr Costa asked by way of reply. “People were bowing down,” this journalist offered. “No, I didn’t see that,” Costa rejoined. Reminded of the video, Costa said, “I can assure — I really wonder why everybody is looking for Pagan rites?”

Costa answered his own question: “It is,” he said, “a prejudice that has been employed to really put a negative stress on this culture.” Fr Costa went on to say, “Every culture — Japanese, Chinese — has things, which can be discussed, and which are not right, but in another sense have value also. So, really, I don’t understand why many are questioning things, like — to discredit, to discredit — and maybe, also, to discredit the Vatican by these questions,” noting also that there was “nothing hidden: [the ceremony] was transmitted,” i.e. broadcast.

Pressed for an answer, Fr Costa said, “The answer is, these [figures deployed on the mat in the ceremony] are normal signs of a culture: like work – for the boat – the net for fishing, water for the river, and a girl for life, of this place. These were characteristic elements of Amazonian life, and so, no other sort of rite.”