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New Chinese saints raise old animosities

NCR Staff

While the Vatican has accused Beijing of being “partial and nonobjective” in its criticism of the Oct. 1 canonization of 120 Chinese martyrs, some observers believe the version of Chinese Catholic history offered by Rome in conjunction with the event suffers from its own lack of memory.

Specifically, the Vatican presentation of Roman Catholicism’s first Chinese saints (87 native converts and 33 foreign missionaries) seemed to gloss over papal suppression of the so-called “Chinese rites,” an attempt by missionaries in the 17th century to blend Catholicism with traditional Chinese beliefs and practices. It is an episode with contemporary relevance, observers say, as Catholicism struggles to define the proper relationship between local cultures, particularly those of Asia, and the universal church.

By cutting off this experiment with inculturation, historians believe, the church bears some responsibility for the tensions that produced the martyrdoms, as well as for the failure of Catholicism to spread more rapidly or widely in the world’s most populous nation.

The canonizations took place Oct. 1 in a rainy St. Peter’s Square. Advanced to sainthood at the same time were Katherine Drexel (1858-1955), founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the second U.S.-born saint; Giuseppina Bakhita (1869-1947), a former slave from the Sudan; and María Josefa del Corazón de Jesús Sancho de Guerra (1842-1912), founder of the Servants of Jesus.

Chinese authorities lashed out in unusually harsh terms in recent weeks against the martyrs, many of whom died during the anti-Western Boxer movement of the early 20th century. Government spokespersons accused them of having been agents of imperialism and, in some cases, criminals. Beijing also objected to holding the canonization ceremony on Oct. 1, a national holiday that commemorates the declaration of communist rule by Mao Tse-Tung in 1950.

China experts say that Beijing is worried about the impact of the canonizations on China’s underground Catholic church, which has a strong cult of martyrdom and which has taken Rome’s action as a signal of support.

A few leaders of China’s official Catholic church, which has strong ties to the state, joined the criticism, but most independent Chinese Catholic sources rejected it.

“The Western powers committed great crimes against China, but the church cannot be held responsible for them,” Fr. Gianni Criveller told NCR from the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong. Criveller, who has carefully studied the background of the new saints, is an Italian missionary with 10 years’ experience in China.

On Oct. 3, Beijing released a set of specific complaints against a handful of the foreign missionaries, claiming that one had raped women in his diocese and that another swindled money from suffering peasants. Criveller said that many of these charges are little more than recycled propaganda based on rumors used by local officials to justify persecution.

However distorted the government account, some observers believe the Vatican has overlooked its own culpability for making Catholicism seem alien to Chinese culture.

In the 17th century, a wave of Italian Jesuit missionaries led by Matteo Ricci won respect at the imperial court for their mastery of science and mathematics. They also began to adapt Catholicism to the Confucianism then officially sponsored by the emperors. Most controversially, the Jesuits tolerated veneration of ancestors -- such as pouring libations at a gravesite and bowing before a coffin -- that had long been an important element of Chinese spirituality.

Other missionary communities in China, especially the Dominicans and the Franciscans, objected to this approach.

“These other missionaries came into China by way of the Philippines, where colonialism was in full swing,” said Richard Madsen, a China expert at the University of California in San Diego. “There the rule was almost conversion by the sword. They did not want to make any compromises with the local culture.”

Jesuit successes in winning the favor of China’s ruling class led to a 1693 Edict of Toleration declaring Christianity licit. In 1704, however, Pope Clement XI sided with the Jesuits’ critics and ordered the so-called “Chinese rites” suppressed.

The act angered the emperor and produced the first wave of anti-Catholic persecution. Historians say it marked a definitive turning point in the Chinese perception of Catholicism, seen from that point forward largely as a foreign system carried by outside powers.

Missionaries, for example, were not allowed again into the interior of China until 1859, when a treaty concluding a war against China led by the French and British included a stipulation that missionaries be permitted to move freely. According to Madsen, the provision was not in the original English-language version of the treaty, but was inserted by a Jesuit translator into the Chinese copy. Madsen cited this as one among many examples of the symbiosis that existed between Catholicism and the colonial powers.

In 1938, Pope Pius XII officially reversed Clement’s decision, authorizing Chinese Catholics to take part in certain Confucian rites including the veneration of ancestors.

Noted China historian G. Thompson Brown has written that, “If the Jesuits would have been left to themselves, the Christian mission in China would have continued its remarkable growth with the possibility that China would have become a Roman Catholic nation.”

That judgment is echoed by contemporary observers.

“If the church had known how to inculturate itself, things would have been very different,” said a Taiwanese sister who works in Mainland China, and who asked not to be identified. “It would have had roots in Chinese soil. Instead it came to be seen as an extension of the imperial powers.”

The official Vatican documentation for the canonization mentions only that the “difficult question of ‘Chinese rites’ greatly irritated the Emperor K’ang Hsi and prepared the persecution.”

Speaking of the early Jesuit missions, the Vatican text reads: “Christianity was seen in that period as a reality that did not oppose the highest values of the traditions of the Chinese people, nor place itself above these traditions.” It does not mention the eventual papal suppression of just this approach.

The closest a Vatican official has come to expressing regret was when French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray traveled to China just ahead of the canonizations. Etchegaray, currently head of the Vatican’s office for the Jubilee Year, said that he hoped Ricci could be canonized soon, a comment seen as an implicit admission that Ricci was correct in wanting Catholicism to take on aspects of Chinese culture.

John Paul II likewise paid tribute to Ricci in an audience with Chinese pilgrims Oct. 2. Speaking of the new saints, the pope said: “With their witness they point out to us that the authentic way of the church is … intertwined with profound and respectful intercultural dialogue, as Fr. Matteo Ricci taught us with wisdom and skill.”

The pope apologized for any wrongs the new saints might have committed: “If they happened -- is there anyone exempt from defects? -- we ask for forgiveness. However, today we contemplate them in glory and we thank God, who makes use of poor instruments for his grandiose works of salvation.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000