Officia erga Patriam et Catholicum: the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide’s Translation of Universalism over the Chinese Rites Controversy (1643-1939)

Research Project

This dissertation project analyzes how the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide of Roman Curia (Propaganda Fide) translated the knowledge of Catholic universalism into pragmatic normatives dealing with the moral theological doubts and debates raised in the Chinese rites controversy.

The centuries-long controversy focused on whether it was licit that the Catholic converts participate in or assist local public ceremonies and folk rites. While these rituals were shaping the public life of the Chinese Empire with a transcendent dimension under the concept of “Teaching people through a divine way” (神道設教), the Catholic Church and Iberian empires also expanded their global jurisdiction through missions ad infidels. As this tension developed, the nature of local rites and their influence on the Catholic public life inside the Chinese communities became an unavoidable moral theological issue. The controversy involved almost all the actors of the East Asia propaganda. Even after the papal bull in 1715, which tried to close the debate permanently, the controversy did not fade away from the stage. Further, it impacted Japan and Korea with the theme of nationalistic ritual in the 20th century.

Since the friar of the Dominican order first accused the Jesuits before the Propaganda Fide in 1643, this young Roman congregation had become the storm eye of the controversy in Europe. It’s only the primary obligation of the cardinals and priests in Propaganda Fide to provide an authoritative answer for the individual case. These Roman clergies were also expected to update the guidelines for all Catholic communities facing the Chinese rites. As time went on and local situations kept changing, the Propaganda Fide had to overturn the consensus they had reached on the relationship between Chinese rites and imperium Ecclesiae time and again. The concept of “universalism” was not only a theological notion but also a set of concrete knowledge production and pragmatic strategies.

This research tries to discuss Catholic universalism and its challenge in a glocalised context. “Universal Church” incarnated from the medieval European cosmos had been drastically challenged since early modern. Some missions in East Asia were far from Europe and shared a much more flexible attitude toward moral theology and canon law. However, even the most lenient missionary was still connected to Rome and the Iberian world by the Catholic “Republic of Letters”.

The Propaganda Fide had persistent efforts to improve the knowledge infrastructure of East Asian normativities with various techniques and channels. Behind the social history of Propaganda Fide’s knowledge production, the mindsets of the gaze could be seen. Meanwhile, missionary normatives established by the Propaganda Fide and missionaries in East Asian communities constituted a “state of exception” for the imperium Ecclesiae. It suspended some Eurocentric moral doctrines and applied controversial probabilism to the Chinese rites to preserve universalism. The limits of this suspension and creation were constantly redefined by the changing semantics of “universalism”, from the 17th century to the 20th century.

The tension between universalism and local normatives still exists in today's global communities and is difficult to reconcile. The “arrogance” of universalism and the “peremptoriness” of local regimes still act as agendas dispersing around the daily life in East Asia, tearing up the modern communities. The clash between the imperium Ecclesia and the Chinese rites brought us to consider theological space and social space, which appeared in opposition but also intertextuality.

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