Let’s Pretend We’re Jesuits in China

Drawing crackpot connections between seemingly unrelated things is a key skill for a writer. Whatever is actually happening in the world, he can use it to prove a point about whatever he was thinking about already. Metaphysical poet John Donne took a flea that he squished with a fingernail and stretched it out as a metaphor to tempt a mistress into bed. Today, to spark a discussion on Catholic pastoral life and politics, I will use a papal statement about the Jesuits in 16th-century China.
On June 21, Pope Benedict XVI marked the 400th anniversary of the death of Rev. Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552-1610). Speaking to pilgrims from Father Ricci’s childhood stomping grounds, the pope said:
The history of the Catholic missions includes figures important because of their zeal and courage in bringing Christ to new and distant lands; but Fr. Ricci is a unique case of a felicitous synthesis between the proclamation of the Gospel and the dialogue with the culture of the people to whom he brought it; he is an example of balance between doctrinal clarity and prudent pastoral action. Not only his profound knowledge of the language but also his assumption of the lifestyle and customs of the cultured Chinese classes, the result of study and its patient, far-sighted implementation, ensured that Fr. Ricci was accepted by the Chinese with respect and esteem, no longer as a foreigner but as the “Master of the Great West.”

If you don’t know the story of Father Ricci’s extraordinary mission to China, it’s worth reading up on, for the light it casts on preaching the gospel to alien cultures. To summarize very briefly a controversy that would last for centuries, Father Ricci tried to “inculturate” Christian faith in China. Learning the Mandarin language, Chinese court customs, and finally adopting Chinese dress, Ricci mastered the nuances of Confucian philosophy and Chinese culture. Exploring the speculative works revered by that nation’s scholars, Father Ricci found words in Chinese philosophy that could either refer to “the heavens” (i.e., the sky) or “Heaven” (the ordering principle in Creation) — so Ricci chose to use them in the second, theological sense. In much the same way, St. Paul had told the Greeks: “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
Reading Chinese philosophical works this way, Father Ricci was able to point out to xenophobic Chinese rich evidence that their own civilization had long ago acknowledged the existence of one omnipotent and benevolent God. Using this as a starting point, he was able to carefully unfold the rest of the Christian gospel as an explanation of this truth — instead of a dangerous foreign implant. On the other hand, Father Ricci did not hesitate to amaze the Chinese with the latest high-tech accomplishments of lands that they had considered “barbarous”: sophisticated world maps, astronomical charts, and navigational equipment. These technological advances convinced Chinese that they did, indeed, have something to learn from foreigners. (It may seem curious to us today, since we’re used to buying all our computers and medical devices from China — in return for which we sell them rice and I.O.U.s — but the West was at one time more technologically advanced than China. Seriously: Ask your grandparents.)
The other bit of Jesuitical cleverness in which Father Ricci engaged concerned the “Chinese Rites.” Father Ricci observed that his educated Chinese audience was irrevocably attached to rites that some Christians dubbed “ancestor worship,” and the “worship” of Confucius. Carefully studying these ceremonies, and interviewing Chinese intellectuals, Father Ricci concluded that in themselves the rites were not pagan worship but simply acts of filial and civic piety — akin to laying flowers on a parent’s grave or commemorating a beloved, long-dead king. He allowed his converts to take part, so long as they were clear about what they were doing. This concession helped Father Ricci make thousands more converts, and the Faith began to spread widely in China — led by intellectuals who were fascinated by the moral manuals and catechisms that Father Ricci prepared, carefully adapting them to Chinese modes of thought.
Not every missionary agreed that Father Ricci’s interpretation of Chinese philosophy and ceremony was honest. Dominicans and Franciscans in China became convinced that Ricci had not so much converted the Chinese as founded a hodgepodge Confucian-Catholicism. They reported this worry back to Rome, and a controversy began that would last through several papacies, with decisions going first one way, then another (the popes had to rely on second and third-hand reports), until at last in 1742 Pope Benedict XIV condemned Father Ricci’s decision as a well-meaning but misguided compromise.
The impact was quick and predictable: Ordered, they thought, to dishonor their culture and their ancestors, Chinese stopped joining the Church, and the Chinese government began to expel and persecute Christians. The Church’s work in China would not begin to recover until 1939, when Pope Pius XII reversed Pope Benedict’s decision and approved the “Chinese rites.” Soon, the Nationalist government recognized the Vatican, and missionary efforts prospered again — only to be stopped dead by Mao Tse-Tung. Mao launched a new and bitter persecution of the Church that continues to this day. It’s tantalizing to imagine how different history might have been if Father Ricci’s work had not been aborted.
If we aspire to spread the Faith in America, what can we learn from Father Ricci? Pope Benedict gives us the answer. The key to Ricci’s success was “his assumption of the lifestyle and customs of the cultured Chinese classes.” By at once emulating and outperforming China’s native elites, the Jesuit missionaries won converts by the thousands. Can we do the same?
We can, if we choose the right “elite” from whom to learn. Do we mean the richest, most educated Americans, who are largely secularized and increasingly childless? Much too much was written back in the 1950s about how academic Catholics needed to climb out of their intellectual “ghetto” and compete on secular terms with elite universities — and the outcome was catastrophic. The Land O’ Lakes declaration of 1967 cut Catholic colleges off from Church authorities and launched the shock-secularization of once-faithful schools. While Catholic colleges should never settle (as some still do) for orthodox mediocrity, they clearly cannot import their standards of excellence from a secular academic Establishment that has embraced Marxist, feminist, and multiculturalist premises as dogmas beyond discussion. In this case, it would actually be better, if we must, to fester in the ghetto.
Perhaps we picked the wrong elite. Instead of selectively emulating mainline Protestants and assimilated Jews, what if Catholics today chose to learn from the Americans who “do” religion most successfully, the Evangelical Protestants? It is their churches that are growing, while mainline denominations such as the Episcopal church are turning before our eyes into real-estate holding corporations. Surveys show that one in three American Catholics leaves the Church — many to join these Evangelical churches. Clearly, they’re doing something right.
Of course, I don’t mean that we should take theological or liturgical lessons from these good people, whose doctrines and rites are so incompatible with our own. But if Italian and Spanish Jesuits could learn something from Mandarins on how to proselytize their pagan culture, perhaps there are lessons we can pick up from Evangelicals on how to preach in our deeply Protestant country. Of course, we’ll have to be careful not to fall into syncretism, producing in the process a kind of Romanized Protestantism. The spectacle of a middle-aged celibate in a gold silk chasuble speaking in tongues (other than Latin) is something none of us needs to see. I’ve had the creepy experience of confessing my sins to a charismatic priest, who “laid hands” on me and lapsed into gibberish before the absolution. I have never scampered away so far or so fast.
So why not start, as Father Ricci did, with little things? That Jesuit carefully learned the ritual and etiquette of the Chinese elite; what could we pick up, without injury to our Faith, from the religious elite in America — Evangelical Protestants? Here are just a few ideas, which I’m throwing out for discussion:
1. Evangelicals dress up, not down, for church. I never met any Protestants growing up, but when I moved to Baton Rouge for grad school, Sunday mornings were an education. You could spot the Baptists because they were done up in their finest outfits and entered their rather stark houses of worship with cheerful gravitas, as if they were going into a ceremony of some importance, where self-restraint and decorum were expected. At the other extreme, you could tell the academics in exile from the North, since they ostentatiously donned their rattiest jogging clothes and sprawled outside cafes reading their own sacred scripture — the Sunday New York Times. In the middle you’d see the Catholics, shambling somewhat reluctantly into large and ornate buildings, most them wearing the kind of clothes you put on for a seventh date with someone you’re not especially fond of.
2. Evangelicals are willing to attend long and involved services and don’t resent the time commitment involved. While they face no penalty of mortal sin for missing services, they attend them with vigor and grit — sometimes once on Wednesdays and twice on Sundays. For non-liturgical Christians, they show more commitment to public ritual than most of the Catholics I know — who gleefully get their Sunday obligation card punched at the shortest Saturday evening service they can find, or the latest hangover Mass offered within their zip code.
3. Evangelicals make sacrifices to support their churches financially. Some of them actually tithe — giving ten percent of their income to their churches. However, they also hold their pastors firmly accountable for service and orthodoxy. A preacher who starts watering down the Old Time Religion is likely to find himself either out of a job or facing an empty church. While we laymen don’t (and shouldn’t) have the power to fire our pastors, we can and should be picky about which parishes we attend. Proximity is no excuse for heresy. We are no longer obliged under Canon Law to attend the nearest parish; we should feel free, even obliged, to shop around for the soundest parish in driving distance — rather than let ourselves and our impressionable children be malformed by slothful worship or cowardly homilies. Once we find (God willing) better parishes, best of all churches that offer the Church’s traditional liturgy, we might learn from our Protestant neighbors that a dollar a week in the basket really doesn’t cover it.
4. Evangelicals embrace and try to continually Christianize the culture we inherited from our country’s founders. A prickly individualism and localism survived in England as a result of its half-baked Reformation and the failure of modernizing British monarchs such as James I to revoke the medieval liberties of Englishmen. As Russell Kirk argues in The Roots of American Order, the result was that English Puritans did a better job of carrying on the decentralized, “subsidiary” political order that marked medieval Christendom than well-meaning Catholic monarchs who grabbed as much centralizing power as they could and pushed their subjects close to serfdom.
That ironically medieval spirit — which saw Puritans citing Catholic, Saxon precedents against the diktats of Anglican kings — was planted in America, where it flourished. The suspicion of bureaucracy, centralized regulation, and state-sponsored (taxpayer-funded) benevolence that marks American Evangelicals (and fuels the Tea Party movement) is ironically much more Catholic in spirit — and much more compatible with real Catholic social teaching — than the lazy willingness of U.S. Catholic bishops to rely on state coercion to solve social problems. Why bother yourself with urging your congregants to the corporal works of mercy when the state is willing to force these works on them, on pain of jail time for tax evasion? I’m reminded of the sloth and corruption that grew up in the Church in countries where it could rely on the state to punish heresy. It’s telling that, in the pro-life pregnancy centers I’m familiar with, the Catholic agencies aggressively sign up single mothers for government benefits; the Evangelical shelters train them to go find jobs.
Of course, there are many irreconcilable differences between Evangelicals and Catholics. I’m not in favor of “altar calls” — or even Mass said facing the people. But I think that Catholic Americans should look to our country’s Protestant origins not with the resentment and suspicion of sullen, reluctant guests, but rather with the generosity and creativity Father Ricci showed toward a much more alien and inhospitable civilization. If he could plant the seeds of the Church in Szechuan, maybe we can manage the same in Maryland.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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