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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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III

The Jesuits were meanwhile faced with a crisis of
their own, the Rites Controversy. In its origins this
bitter struggle within the Catholic Church can be
traced to Ricci's view, which stressed the idea that no
essential conflict existed between Confucianism in its
pristine form and the tenets of Christianity. The origi-
nal doctrines of Confucius, according to Ricci, taught
monotheism and possibly even contained a primitive
knowledge of Jehovah. Corruption of ancient Confu-
cianism had taken place over the centuries as was
clearly demonstrated by the growth of Taoism and the
successful introduction of Buddhism into China.

Father Nicolas Longobardi, the Jesuit successor of
Ricci at Peking, was himself skeptical that the ancient
Chinese had knowledge of the true God. The Domini-
can and Franciscan missionaries, who began to evan-
gelize in south China in the 1630's, were hostile to
“accommodation” in any form. They branded all the
Chinese sects as idolatrous, and initially made no seri-
ous efforts to study the language or to understand
Chinese civilization. The two methods of evangelizing
quickly came into conflict, as each group embarrassed
and outraged the other. It was not long before the issue
was joined in Europe as well as in the East.

At first the controversy raged over the question as
to whether or not the ancient Chinese had a conception
of the true God. Soon this debate led to the more
practical question of the Chinese term best suited to
render in its full significance the Christian conception
of God, a problem that the Jesuits had earlier resolved
in Japan by introducing the Latin word Deus into
Japanese. But in China, where the Jesuit linguists knew
that new terms could not so readily be added to the
language, and where the Jesuits held that there already
existed a primitive conception of Jehovah, the question
of terminology could not be so adroitly handled. A host
of other Christian terms, “soul” and “spirit” for exam-
ple, could not easily be given Chinese equivalents that
would carry with them the overtones that these words
and concepts necessarily must have for believers. To
the Dominicans and Franciscans the Confucianists for
all their learning were simple atheists or agnostics who
taught a materialistic doctrine inimical to the Christian
faith. They were particularly outraged when the Jesuits
permitted their Christian converts to continue per-
forming ancestral rites. The Jesuits, following the logic
of their original position, held that these rites were
social and political rather than religious ceremonies.

The controversialists first appealed to Rome for an
opinion in 1645. Pope Innocent X took a position that
was critical of the Jesuit policies. But in 1656, Pope
Alexander VII took a benign attitude on the question
of the “Chinese rites” and granted that they should
be permissible under certain conditions. The Domini-
can, Domingo Fernández Navarrete, then assumed
leadership in the struggle against the Jesuits. In China,
where he was superior of the Dominican mission from
1664, Navarrete gathered a mass of data relating to
the “terms” and “rites” questions. On the basis of these
he prepared two imposing and authoritative volumes
called Tratados historicos, politicos, ethicos y religiosos
de la Monarchia de China
(Rome, 1674). While it was
a powerful attack upon the Jesuit position, Navarrete's
book was also an excellent compilation of observations
on Chinese life, customs, and practices.

At this juncture the authorities in Rome became
understandably confused and disturbed over the Rites
Question. The Congregation of the Propaganda in
Rome decided to include the China question among
the problems of general missionary activity and proce-
dure then under investigation. The learned of Europe
were consulted and began to take sides on the question.
The Missions étrangères in Paris, which had increas-
ingly become critical of the Jesuit effort to dominate
the mission field, urged the Holy See to dispatch an
Apostolic Vicar to China. Charles Maigrot, sent to
China in this capacity, stood firmly in his mandate of
1693 against the practices being followed by the
Jesuits. In Europe the Jansenists joined forces with
those who denounced the Jesuit practices in China. The
faculty of the Sorbonne in 1700 condemned the view
advanced by the Jesuit, Louis Le Comte, that the
primitive Chinese had practiced morality while the rest
of the world still lived in corruption. The Rites Con-
troversy, as it became involved with the Jesuit-Jansenist
debate, threatened to produce an irreparable split
within the Church.

In a dramatic effort to investigate and resolve the
controversy, Pope Clement XI sent a special legate to
China in the person of Charles de Tournon, Patriarch
of Antioch. The De Tournon legation arrived at Canton
in 1705 to begin its investigation. The atmosphere
blackened quickly when, in 1706, De Tournon roundly
denounced the Chinese, including the emperor, as
atheists. Opposed on all sides for his ignorance and
intolerance, the legate was condemned and arrested
by the Chinese. De Tournon died in China in 1710
without retracting. In Europe the Papacy forbade
further controversy, and in 1715 issued the constitution
ex illa die which clearly condemned the Jesuit position.


358

Controversy nonetheless continued, both in Europe and
China, until a strong papal pronouncement, ex quo
singulari,
was issued in 1742 requiring the Jesuits in
China to take a special oath to abide by the papal
decisions.