By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania (The Tablet, September 2008)

Early Christian missionaries in India and China worked closely with local cultures to create rites that thrived until the Church insisted there should be only one – the Roman Rite. An understanding that we are poorer for this decision is critical for the future of the Church

A great but little known tragedy occurred within the life of the Catholic Church on 20 June 1599, at Udayamperoor in the southern Indian state of Kerala. On that day at the Synod of Diamper, the Archbishop of Goa, Aleixo de Menezes, set in process the Latinisation of the St Thomas Christians. It was, in short, the deliberate and enforced emasculation of the Christian tradition of India, a church tradition that had its roots in the legacy of St Thomas the Apostle.

Inspired by Counter-Reformation zeal, Menezes’ policy is now seen as being one of the darkest chapters in ecclesiastical history – an example of what can occur if the Church does not listen to the historical as well as cultural voice and yearnings of a people, and if the Church becomes so Roman that it loses its catholicity.

In the mind of Menezes, Catholicism was all about a Roman Rite, specifically, a Latin Church, teaching the world the truth of the Gospel. There is, up to a point, nothing inherently wrong in Menezes’ assumption – a path to the absolute truth and divine purpose is found within this rite and Church, but only if this rite and Church realises that exactly the same can be said of any other rite and Church within the Catholic communion.

Once this principle is lost, we are no longer a Catholic Church. Rather we become a large, sectarian Christian community, voraciously in search of new members. By the Synod of Diamper, more than 1,500 years of Eastern theology that had developed from the time of “doubting Thomas” was incinerated and lost forever because of a mindset that could not let the particular into the universal, nor the universal into the particular. The shoes of those fired up by the Council of Trent wiped clear the footprints in the sand of Malabar of those who had followed the imprint of the shoes of a fisherman.

Around the time of the Synod of Diamper, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci was deeply involved in the evangelisation of the Chinese people. Along with other Jesuits in China, such as João Soeiro, João da Rocha, Niccolò Longobardo, Lazare Cattaneo and Alessandro Valignano, the missionaries came as much to an understanding of Chinese philosophy as the Chinese with whom they were in contact came to an understanding of Catholicism.

Yet herein lay the problem. Other religious orders within the Catholic Church, such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans, questioned the extent to which the culture of the people being evangelised should be integrated within the Roman Rite that was being offered for their salvation. Whereas the Dominican Domingo Navarrete had much sympathy for the methods and practices of the Jesuit missionaries, the suspicions of Franciscans and Dominicans aroused by Jesuit missionaries dressed as Chinese literati, and by their incorporation of Confucian ideals, led to the “Chinese Rites” controversy – a controversy, as Professor J.S. Cummins highlights, that was  eventually to lead to the suppression of the Jesuit order.

A papal bull issued by Clement XI in 1715 followed by a bull issued by Benedict XIV in 1742 forbade ancestor worship as well as key elements of Confucian philosophy. The official response from the Chinese to Pope Clement’s bull was a decree by the Kangxi Emperor in 1721 in which he accused the Catholic Church of pettiness and narrow-mindedness. The emperor described Catholicism as being no more developed a religion than Buddhism and Taoism. In his mind, all three were characterised by bigotry.

The emperor declared that Western preachers were then forbidden to enter his empire. More than 200 years later, in 1939, the newly elected Pope Pius XII lifted the bans placed on Chinese Catholics and Catholic missionaries as part of the “Chinese Rites” controversy. But by then two centuries of suspicion and recrimination had settled. The Catholic Church, as at Diamper, had severely faltered once more. A Church that called itself “universal” had proven once more that it was highly myopic.

Too often, great books and great ideas become lost in libraries under a mound of comparative mediocrity. One such great book of the twentieth century is Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism: Christ and the common destiny of man – a text that to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton’s quip on Catholicism, has not been tried and found wanting, but has not really been understood and implemented. Catholicism has a relevance and a message that could guide the Church well into the new millennium. It could, that is, if the Church would dare to risk the vision of de Lubac. Both great benefit and great risk are inherent in the initiatives that he proposes.

Fundamental to de Lubac’s thesis in Catholicism is the basic premise that humanity is a diverse community; diverse not only in terms of race, but also in terms of language, culture and national ambition. This diversity is a source of richness, as every drop of humanity reflects a Creator who has imprinted within the hearts of all men and women, irrespective of the disparity, a “divine character”.

As de Lubac writes: “Christ is also all in all, for he encloses all in himself by his sole power, infinite and all wise in its goodness, like the centre to which all lines converge, so that all the creatures of the one God should not be strangers or enemies to each other without common ground whereon to show their friendship and the peace between them.”

Diversity, according to de Lubac, enhances the sublime nature of the unity. Humanity comes to understand that what separates is as God given as what unifies, and that what separates also serves the unity. A conscious agreement to a set of beliefs by peoples as racially and culturally distinct as can be empowers the agreed beliefs with a strength that transcends all possible distinction.

The way to the future development of the Church, de Lubac writes, is that the Church comes to understand that we cannot ride roughshod over culture and supplant in the forced vacuum a dogma and hope that this dogma will somehow “take”. This in fact will rob the people of a richness that could easily have been incorporated, as far as dogma allows, in the life of the local Church in question. We see in the example offered to us by Sts Cyril and Methodius that it is possible to take the culture of a people into account and embrace this with uncompromised Church teaching.

As de Lubac further writes: “This twofold desire willingly to entertain whatever can be assimilated and to prescribe nothing that is not of faith, although it is acknowledged and systematically employed, is by no means the calculated plan of cunning men in search of a successful method, as has been sometimes suggested.”

“It is governed by doctrinal considerations. It is true all the same, as experience proves, that it is the only fully effective way. But it can only be done at the cost of a systematic, persevering effort that love alone makes possible. For it requires of the apostle not only a continual adaptation of self, like St Paul, who, becoming all things to all men, did not speak before the Areopagus as he spoke to his fellow countrymen.”

It is therefore critical for the Catholic Church, as it develops in the future, to see where in the course of its history it has not spoken with the same intuition of St Paul to the Greeks, but more as Menezes to the St Thomas Christians. In its great missionary zeal, the Church in the New World incinerated as part of the fire of its apostolic work elements of human and cultural yearnings that had developed over thousands of years, and that would have, if incorporated or established as a new rite, added too, rather than lessened, the wonderful Catholic fabric of the Church.

Nations and peoples such as the Native American, the Australian Aboriginal, the New Zealand Maori or the Canadian Inuit, bring to the Church similar “dreamings” of the pre-Christian peoples of Europe and Asia.

Moreover, it would be of great benefit to the Church of the West to nourish and vivify the Mozarabic, Ambrosian and Celtic traditions, which have too often, like small shrubs in the undergrowth of a tropical rainforest, suffered from the massive canopy of the Latin Church. Let the art, culture, and mystical and spiritual yearnings of peoples find a voice both ecclesiastical and liturgical within the Church, for certainly the Holy Spirit did not cease to breathe life into the Church after the death of the Church Fathers, and the Spirit does not only call for ritual diversity in the East.

All easily said. But a contrary argument and question can be put forward. Where are the great theologians of the past: the Sts Paul, Cyril and Methodius, people of insight that could take culture and embellish it with the Gospel, without losing any of the impact or truth of the gospel message?

De Lubac was right to close his treatise on this subject with a great word of warning. For the call to ritual diversity within the Church – the establishment of new rites, and new sui juris Churches, is one that demands from the architects of such planning a strong sense of dogmatic certitude and faithfulness. A compass is only useful inasmuch as it tells the traveller where a certain direction lies from the place in which they are holding the device. If one does not know where they are dogmatically speaking, all they will do is eventually lead others into a nowhere land.

The architects of future rites within the Church cannot be people who are intolerant of dogma. But, similarly they must be people culturally sensitive, and people of imagination. As de Lubac writes: “It is equally unfitting to speak of liberalism, of tolerating error, or of making the salt of the Gospel savourless. For if Christianity must be shown with all its exigencies, it must also stand out in all its purity …

“And if it is once understood that the work of conversion consists, fundamentally, not in adapting supernatural truth, in bringing it down to human level, but on the contrary, in adapting man to it, raising him up to the truth that rules and judges him, we must especially beware, as of blasphemy, of confusing ourselves, its servants, with it ourselves, our tastes, our habits, our prejudices, our passions, our narrow-mindedness and our weaknesses.”

It is time for the Catholic Church en masse to move away from a monochrome form of Catholicism, and to understand that the message we hold is not one that has lost any of its salt. We do not need to make the errors of Menezes or the errors of the Church with regard to the work of Matteo Ricci, but acknowledge that although the message we speak is universal, the language and the symbolism by which we convey the message is not.

The call for a re-awakening of catholicity within the Church was also part of the vision of that great Englishman Friedrich von Hügel, when he wrote near the beginning of his seminal work, The Mystical Element of Religion, that Christ is too large for any single culture fully to comprehend and therefore “his character and teaching require, for an ever fuller yet never complete understanding, the varying study, and different experiments and applications, embodiments and unrollings of all the races and civilisations, of all the individual and corporate, the simultaneous and successive experiences of the human race to the end of time”.