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Christianity and Conflict: An Examination of the Chinese Rites Controversy

The Chinese Rites Controversy refers to a heated disagreement between Roman Catholic missionaries that resulted in the dissolution of one distinguished monastic order. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Roman Catholic missionaries struggled with whether or not to condone Chinese rituals such as ancestor worship. What began as a simple struggle to understand the meaning of foreign cultural traditions and their relation to the Christian faith became intertwined with political conflicts as the Catholic Church wrestled with the Protestants for influence in Europe and the Emperor for authority in China. As Catholic power diminished in the West, the Church sought to tighten its control over its churches in the East. Ultimately, the Chinese Rites Controversy was caused by the Catholic Church’s decision to change the focus of missions from the spread of the gospel to the centralization of ecclesiastical power in Rome.

Alessandro Valignano blazed the trail for Catholic missionary work in China by adapting to the local culture.

Alessandro Valignano blazed the trail for Catholic missionary work in China by adapting to the local culture.

The First Catholic Missionaries to China

From its inception, the Catholic mission to China adopted a strategy of inculturation. Alessandro Valignano, who became head of Jesuit missions to Japan and China in 1573, personally adapted himself to the culture of his Chinese hosts. Historian Dana Robert accredits this willingness to acculturate to Chinese customs and etiquette as the reason the Jesuits were allowed full entry into China, and the Emperor K’ang-hsi decreed that because the Europeans “do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, nor has [their doctrine] any tendency to excite sedition…let no one henceforth offer them any opposition (1)." Valignano’s successors continued his legacy of inculturation. Matteo Ricci, who settled in China in 1583, not only adopted Chinese practices but even lived as a Confucian scholar. He translated many Chinese classical works and wrote many treatises attempting to bridge Chinese Confucianism with Western Christianity (2). These methods of inculturation were very successful within China, but they were somewhat controversial within Western Europe.

The Church Shifts Its Position

During the mid-17th century, the Catholic Church wavered in its position toward Jesuit methods of inculturation in China. This is largely because Papal leadership in Rome struggled to understand precisely what degree religion factored into the Chinese cultural practices encountered by the Jesuits. Initially, the Church appears to be primarily concerned that the Chinese do not compromise their Christian witness by engaging in Pagan religious practices. In 1645, the Church first made an official decree concerning Chinese Rites. Juan Morales, a Dominican missionary, wrote to the Holy See requesting a ruling be made upon whether or not Chinese converts should be allowed to continue to practice traditional Chinese customs such as the veneration of ancestors and the teacher Confucius, as well as whether or not certain linguistic terms used by Christians to refer to Christ or the Holy Trinity could also be applied to Confucius or to Chinese rulers. The Dominican Order was opposed the Jesuit proclivity toward inculturation, so naturally Morales’s letter carried an anti-Chinese undertone that inferred that these practices were inherently religious. Using Morales’s letter as its only evidence, the Church condemned the Jesuit’s practice of allowing the Chinese to continue to practice their traditional customs. Nevertheless, the Church’s ruling appears to have been based not upon a desire to conserve Church power but rather to preserve the integrity of the Christian faith, for the Church restrained from ruling upon the issue of linguistic terminology until more could be learned regarding its idiom and true meaning (3).

Martino Martini was an Italian historian and a Jesuit missionary. His letter to Pope Alexander VII convinced the Pope to rule in favor of inculturation.

Martino Martini was an Italian historian and a Jesuit missionary. His letter to Pope Alexander VII convinced the Pope to rule in favor of inculturation.

The Church Rules in Favor of Inculturation

The Church at Rome compelled all missionaries to abide by this decision. However, it would soon drastically change its stance on the Rites issue. In 1656, the Jesuit Martino Martini submitted a letter to Pope Alexander VII arguing that these Chinese traditions were not religious ceremonies but merely civic duties that all Chinese were expected to perform. Upon consideration of Martini’s letter (again without considering evidence from an opposing viewpoint), the Church reversed its previous decision, ruling that the “aforesaid ceremonies should be permitted to Chinese Christians” because such “celebration seems to be merely civil and political (4). The Church—with the approval of the Pope—further ruled that Chinese converts could even attend superstitious ceremonies performed by pagans so long as they did not participate, particularly if in doing the Christians profess their Catholic faith (5). In 1659, the Church Propaganda Fide went even further, ordering the missionaries to not “try to persuade the Chinese to change their rites,...customs,…[or] ways, as long as these are not openly opposed to religion and good morals (6)." The Church even went so far as to say that Christianity “does not reject or crush the rites and customs of any race, as long as these are not evil. Rather it wants to preserve them…. Do not disdain Chinese ways because they are different from European ways. Rather, do everything you can to get used to them (7)." The Church appeared to be highly supportive of inculturation so long as it spread and did not compromise the integrity of the gospel.

Rome Reverses its Decree

However, in 1704, the Church again reversed its decision, this time taking a stance opposed to the Jesuits (8). The Church’s new position created a sort of power struggle between the Pope and the Emperor. The Chinese emperor’s response to this ruling was to order that all missionaries must be personally approved by him; he would only allow missionaries to enter China if he believed they would follow the Jesuit practice of letting Chinese Christians retain their cultural traditions (9). In 1707, Cardinal Tournon (who had been sent to China by Pope Clement XI) issued a decree which stated that the Chinese Rites “are incompatible with the worship of the true God,” as decided by the Holy See, “the infallible guide for Christians in matters of faith (10)." He threatened Christians who refused to submit to this decree with irrevocable excommunication. The Church retained strict opposition to inculturation for many years, arguing that “it is crystal clear” that the Chinese Rites “are positively superstitious” and “intrinsically illicit and superstitious (11)." The Church declared that all Catholics should practice uniform ceremonies and rites and that Christian ceremonies and practices should not resemble those of the pagans in appearance (12). While the Church did not strictly adhere to this decision in all practical cases, its stance against Chinese inculturation remained official Papal policy until 1941 (13).

Why Did the Church Rule Against Inculturation?

As Dana Robert indicates, the Catholic Church’s strict stance against Jesuit inculturation in China was caused by an amalgamation of factors, some of which were not even directly related Chinese Christianity it all. While Jesuit missionaries were struggling to adapt Christianity to an Eastern cultural context, the Protestant Reformation had fractured Europe, both religiously and politically. The subversive Protestants, who refused to submit to the Catholic Church’s rigid doctrine and ecclesiastical structure, threatened the political power and religious authority of the Catholic Church (14). Thus, when word reached Rome that the Chinese Christians were not strictly adhering to Catholic doctrine—and that the missionaries were themselves adapting to Chinese culture—the Papacy feared that they would lose control over the Eastern Church as well. In context of the events unfolding in Western Europe, it is apparent that the Catholic Church was concerned with much more than merely preserving the integrity of the Christian faith.

Western Missionaries in China, circa 1900. Note that these missionaries have adopted Chinese dress and appear to be studying Chinese characters.

Western Missionaries in China, circa 1900. Note that these missionaries have adopted Chinese dress and appear to be studying Chinese characters.

What Should the Church Have Done?

Had the Catholic Church’s interest in the Rites Controversy truly been limited to preserving the purity of the Christianity, it would have recognized its own inability to fully comprehend Chinese culture. As is evidenced in the early Rites Controversy documents, neither the Church nor the Jesuit missionaries—who themselves lived among the Chinese but still struggled to reach a consensus about where the line between Chinese civic and religious practices lay—could state with certainty whether specific Chinese practices were practiced out of civic duty, religious veneration, or an inextricable combination of the two. Realizing this, the Church should have trained Chinese Christians in orthodox Christian doctrine so that they could have assumed ecclesiastical authority in the Chinese Church. These Chinese Christians could have then taken responsibility for discerning how Chinese converts could participate in Chinese culture without tarnishing their Christian witness. As indigenous Chinese, these church leaders would have been better able to interpret their culture than missionaries raised in a Western society. Moreover, their decisions would have been far more credible than those made by a Church council thousands of miles away in Western Europe. Verily, one major reason for the banishment of western missionaries from China in 1721 was that the emperor concluded in frustration that though the missionaries purported to impose their own culture upon the Chinese, there was “not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks [about Chinese culture] are often incredible and ridiculous (15)." Perhaps the emperor would have been more amicable if the Chinese had been given a degree of autonomy over how to adapt Christianity to Chinese culture.

What Can Missionaries Learn from the Chinese Rights Controversy?

The Chinese Rites Controversy teaches much about the state of western attempts at missions during the 17-18th centuries. It is apparent that as the Catholic Church lost power in the West, it changed the focus of its missionary efforts from being primarily about the spread of the gospel to foreign cultures without compromising the purity of Christianity to being concerned foremost with centralizing ecclesiastical power in Rome. Jesuit missionaries became hopelessly entangled in this struggle for power as they attempted to adapt the gospel to Chinese culture in a way that the indigenous Chinese could understand. The Chinese Rites Controversy indicates that perhaps the greatest obstacle facing western missionaries—not only in 18th century China but also around the world throughout history—is that western and non-western cultures struggle to comprehend one another. The Europeans were unable to discern between religion and mere cultural tradition when dealing the Chinese, and the Chinese could not understand why the Europeans were so strictly opposed to their traditions. This inability to comprehend foreign cultures becomes increasingly complicated as political factors become intertwined with the debate. As Christians embark upon missionary efforts worldwide, they must be careful to strictly follow Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (16). If Christians truly make adherence to this command their consuming desire, then discerning how to adapt the gospel to foreign cultures will be determined from a desire to preserve the purity of the gospel message rather than the political power of men.

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[1] “Decree of K’ang-hsi (1692), accessed September 23, 2012 from

[2] Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 38-9.

[3] “Document 1 Relating to the Chinese Rights Controversy (1645), accessed September 23, 2012 from

[4] “The Congregation of the Holy Office, March 23, 1656, to China Missionaries,” accessed September 23, 2012 from

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[5] Ibid.

[6] “Document 3 Relating to the Chinese Rites Controversy (1659),” accessed September 23, 2012 from

[7] Ibid.

[8] Robert, 39.

[9] “Document 8 Relating to the Chinese Rites Controversy (1707), accessed September 23, 2012 from

[10] Ibid.

[11] “The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, April 10, 1777. To the Vicar Apostolic of Sutchuen,” accessed September 23, 2012 from

[12] Ibid.

[13] See Document 46 for an example of where Christians were allowed to mimic a pagan ritual to avoid persecution so long as they directed their prayer toward the true God and in no way held superstitious beliefs about the ritual.

[14] Robert, 39.

[15] “Decree of Kangxi (1721), accessed September 23, 2012 from

[16] ESV.


Francesca on December 28, 2014:

Posted on July 3, 2012 at 4:07 pmHappiness. No one rejects, disilkes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man

Josh Wilmoth (author) from North Carolina on June 26, 2013:

Thanks for the comment. I did of the lot of the research while taking a class on the history of global Christianity. I found the study very enlightening; it broadened my perspective a lot.

Anonymous on June 26, 2013:

Great article. I have never known much about Eastern Christianity. Thanks for providing a fascinating anaylsis!

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