“Well, I do believe some things, of course . . .
and therefore, of course, I don’t believe other things.”

—G.K. Chesterton, The Incredulity of Father Brown

The progressive turning away from belief in God that characterized Western intellectuals during the 19th century continues, alas, in the 20th. This intellectual shift has often been attributed to the triumphs of science and to the theories of Marx, Freud, and Darwin. But the rise of modern skepticism may also be traced to increasing awareness through textual, anthropological, and folkloric study of non-Judaic and non-Christian cultural traditions with ancient and quite sophisticated religious systems of their own. Deciding whether Western skepticism was primarily a cause or an effect of ever-increasing fascination with the East—a fascination both aesthetic and philosophical in nature—is, to be sure, something like resolving the chicken-or-egg problem. But confrontation with the Orient has forced modern man to wonder: “If there exist in fact several traditions offering exhaustive explanations for life and man’s place in the universe, who is to say that our own has any monopoly on the truth—or indeed that it is correct at all? Could it be that men have simply created more or less arbitrary explanations to account for the apparently inexplicable condition in which they find themselves? Could it be that none of these ‘religions’—our own included—has any right to lay claim to authority?”

Such musings suit ideological atheists perfectly, for obvious reasons. All they need to do is to sit back and allow skeptical questioning to continue to undermine belief But how is the intellectual who would like to see a resurgence of faith to proceed? Is he to ground himself in a fundamentalism which simply asserts the rightness of one religion and the consequent wrongness of all others? Or is he to embrace an ecumenical position so tolerant as to deny any essential differences between religions? That this issue poses one of the primary moral dilemmas of the 20th century was already fully recognized by G.K. Chesterton in the first decade of the century (see Heretics [1905] and Orthodoxy [1908]), and it is a problem as yet unresolved today.

In his fine new book on the so-called Chinese rites controversy. George Minamiki has a far more modest agenda than the resolution of this intractable problem. Yet his superbly researched and lucid exposition of the controversy may help to foster discussion of the proper balance between faithful adherence to a creed and empathetic tolerance for other religions. The experience of missionaries who served in China provides a provocative case study. Beginning with the great Matteo Rieci (1522-1610), the missionaries found themselves confronted with a most difficult question: Should they allow Chinese converts to Christianity to continue to participate in those rituals which helped define Chinese social life? This question led naturally to a still more fundamental one: Were these rituals to be seen as essentially religious (in which case they would have to be interpreted as contravening the First Commandment), or were they to be seen as merely “civil” (i.e., lacking any sense of worship of a sacred object, a deity or a soul) and therefore permissible? As Minamiki points out, the discussion of this problem in some papal bulls and other early sources anticipates Robert N. Bellah’s attempt to define a “civil religion,” a phrase which itself raises the related question of whether it is appropriate to speak of a “religion” which lacks an ontology of the sacred.

The Chinese rituals in question included burning incense and offering flowers and slaughtered sacrificial animals to Confucius in special “temples” (miao), and bowing down or kowtowing to images of Confucius or to “spirit tablets” (shen wei) understood to symbolize his presence and that of his disciples. Similar procedures addressed to family and clan ancestors were enacted in the home before ancestral altars bearing spirit tablets or in the semipublic ancestral halls. Those who refused to participate in such rituals risked conflict with their families, their communities, and indeed with society in general. Virtual ostracism was a likely result. The Church was thus faced with the problem of balancing the desire for new converts of unimpeachable practice with the risk of antagonizing or even alienating an entire society, thereby endangering the very enterprise of conversion.

Minamiki, limiting himself to a discussion of the Jesuits and other Catholic missionaries, traces the labyrinthine and often confusing interchanges of views between the missionaries in the field and the relevant papal offices (especially the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide). Most of the missionaries favored flexibility in allowing participation of their converts in certain rituals, but the papacy leaned toward a strict enjoinment from such participation. In a bull of 1742, Ex Quo Singulari, Benedict XIV effectively ended the debate by decreeing that all missionaries to the East take an oath including the words “To the best of my ability I shall never allow that the Chinese rites and ceremonies . . . be put into practice by the [Chinese] Christians.” Various ambiguities and qualifications in Ex Quo Singulari and other directives were nevertheless interpreted by some missionaries as loopholes allowing them a limited degree of flexibility.

The whole question resurfaced two centuries later when the militaristic Japanese government and its puppet regime in Manchukuo endeavored to create a state ideology by revivifying a somewhat distorted version of Confucianism and converts to Christianity found themselves pressured to participate in various public rituals. This time, the governments themselves testified to the purely “civil” character of these rituals. In a series of decrees culminating in 1939 in Plane compertum est, the papacy essentially accepted the notion that these rites had now evolved into civil and not religious events (although they may have been religious in nature at one point in remote history) and that converts could participate in them in good conscience. Plane compertum est also nullified the oath by which missionaries had pledged themselves to enjoin their converts from participation in the rituals, an oath which had continued to be administered to new missionaries in the course of the two preceding centuries.

Minamiki himself is clearly on the side of a more ecumenical approach. He quotes with approbation George H. Dunne’s view that papal actions against Chinese participation in Confucian rites had been “a death blow to the cause of Christianity in China.” Had Christian missionaries been allowed freer rein in reaching accomodation with Confucian ritual practices, Minamiki suggests, they might have been able to achieve greater success in attracting converts. He argues that “with the advance of ethnology, sociology, and comparative religion . . . their [the rites’] symbolism and meaning would not be judged simply from the standpoint of European and Judeo-Christian culture.” The implication seems to be that if only the popes and their counselors had enjoyed access to the insights of these disciplines, they might have been more flexible.

But is it not possible that the popes were right in supposing that there actually is a sense of the sacred and therefore a religious character in Confucianism? If this is so, then we are faced with the kind of hard religious choice modern man prefers to avoid: Where are we to take our stand, given the virtual smorgasbord of religions available to us in the “global village” of today? Sooner or later, we must confront the question that C.S. Lewis asked when someone told him that all religions worship the same God: “Yes, but which one?” If we cannot reconcile ourselves to the idea that one particular faith is right and the others wrong, then must we simply accept them all in one vast ecumenical embrace?

I do not know the answer to this question. But for now I would like to express the fervent wish that we set our sails to pass safely between the Scylla of willful blindness to such cultures as that of China, in the hope that such xenophobia will help us restrengthen our fraying Western roots, and the Charybdis of undiscriminating empathy for other religious cultures, in the desperate hope of relocating Ithaca (or several Ithacas!) elsewhere. For those interested in other cultures today, the greater of the two dangers appears to be not intolerance, but, on the contrary, intoxication with the differences at the expense of responsible exploration (such as that initiated by C.S. Lewis) for the ground of common belief.


[The Chinese Rites Controversy From Its Beginning to Modern Times, by George Minamiki, S.J.; Chicago: Loyola University Press]