Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The East's pull on the West is strong and undeniable

Ancient Chinese wisdom for modern Catholic Church
When Catholic missionaries brought the Faith to the Far East they found in Confucianism a preparatio evangelium that would aid them in spreading the Gospel to the peoples of China
Tuesday, November 13, 2007 By Joshua Snyder
Discuss Insights: Religion
That Holy Mother Church borrowed from and built upon the best of pagan Greek philosophy is as uncontroversial as it is indisputable. Similarly, when Catholic missionaries brought the Faith to the Far East, they found in Confucianism a preparatio evangelium that would aid them in spreading the Gospel to the peoples of China and the nations influenced by its venerable traditions. Today, the Catholic Church in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam are as marked by Confucianism as is the Church in the West by the synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens that occurred in Rome.
We live in an age of profound self-doubt in the West. China experienced a similar age a century ago, culminating in the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty and the establishment of a republic and later a people's republic, both ideas imported from the West. Only now are the Chinese becoming disillusioned with materialist Western imports. The Chinese are now not only returning to their ancient traditions, but also finding belief in Christ to the extent that the pseudonymous Asia Times Online columnist Spengler predicts the Middle Kingdom will be the epicenter of global Christendom within fifty years.
Meanwhile, in the West, disillusioned with the materialist ideologies that replaced the Faith, people are looking toward the traditions of the East to fill their spiritual emptiness. Buddhism is said by some to be the fastest growing religion in the United States. Even professed Christians feel the pull of the venerable traditions of the East. One can imagine that at a typical Catholic parish, a workshop on Zen meditation might draw more attendees than one on Scholastic philosophy. The trouble is that this spiritual curiosity often leads to a weakening of the Faith and to superficial or even outright syncretism.
The East's pull on the West is strong and undeniable. Among modern Westerners, the traditions of the East have a certain clout that their own have long lost. More then three decades ago, Catholic economist E.F. Schumacher decided upon the title "Buddhist Economics" for what was to become the most famous chapter of his tome, Small Is Beautiful. The economic ideas this chapter contained were influenced by those expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, papal encyclicals, and Chesterbellocian distributism, but he explained, "If I had called the chapter ¡®Christian Economics,¡¯ nobody would have paid any attention!" Schumacher was not being disingenuous ©¤ he was a believer in the sophia perennis, or perennnial philosophy to which all religions to a greater or lesser extent took part of ©¤ he was only recognizing the degree to which the contemporary West looked to the East for wisdom.
The average Christian today in the West today is less likely to be influenced by our great traditionalists from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk than by Captain Kirk. But mention Buddha or Lao Tzu, and one is likely to get at least a listen. Is it possible then that de-Westernized Westerners are ready to hear from that greatest of Chinese philosophers, Confucius, who is simultaneously the most misrepresented in the West and most compatible with Western thought? Could it be that the Sage has something to say to the Catholic Church in her time of trial?
When Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., the Apostle of China, arrived in the Middle Kingdom in the late Sixteenth Century, he first adopted the dress and mannerism of a Buddhist monk, so as to appear as a man of religion to the Chinese. To a first-time visitor to China, it would indeed appear that Buddhism was the country's religion. In the Chinese non-exclusive "tridharma" of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, the first is a great religion, the second a mystical philosophy popularly degenerated into a school of divining, and the last a worldly and humanistic philosophy and ethical system.
After Fr. Ricci had mastered the Chinese language, he came to realize that Buddhism, itself a foreign import, was, in actuality, not held in very high esteem by either the Chinese people or their rulers. Monks were often the object of derision. It was the Confucian scholars, the literati, who commanded the respect and esteem of all classes of society. Fr. Ricci remade himself as a Confucian scholar and found himself with a position in the imperial court as China¡¯s chief astronomer.
But it was not for gain, material or spiritual, that Fr. Ricci remade himself as a "Western Confucian." After translating the Confucian classics into Latin, Fr, Ricci came to realize than not only was Confucianism the philosophy of the Chinese soul, it was a universal philosophy, worthy of study in the West. He bestowed upon its two great philosophers the Latinized names by which we in the West know them today, Confucius and Mencius. Fr. Ricci even came to the conclusion that original Confucianism, which had to various degrees fused with Buddhism and Taoism into Neo-Confucianism, was in fact far more compatible with the Catholic Faith than it was with these Eastern traditions.
The cornerstones of Confucianism, which in Chinese translates as the "school of the scholars," are jen and li. The former, most often translated as "benevolence," is a reality understandable to the Catholic mind. In fact, when it comes to jen, Catholics are more Catholic than the Pope, or in this case, more Confucian than Confucius. The Confucian Golden Rule is stated in The Analects, XV, 23: "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you." Our Lord's version was stated in the positive in Matthew, VII, 12 and in Luke, VI, 31. Thus, the charity work for which the Church is esteemed throughout the world, her hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and leprosoria, finds no counterpart in the Confucian East. Confucianism, as noble as it is, is but a human philosophy informed by natural theology, not a divinely revealed religion. Confucian jen is perfected by the Catholic Faith.
It is, rather, in the Confucian concept of li that the Catholic Faith is able to find a needed intellectual armament for the battle she now faces. Just as li is more difficult to understand than jen, the concept is also more difficult to translate. It has been rendered variously as "etiquette," "ceremony," "rite," "ritual," or "propriety."
Confucius understood that man was Homo religiosus, even though the Sage himself was, if anything, irreligious. He denied the presence of the ancestral spirits in the rite which has come to be known, incorrectly, as "ancestor worship" in the West. While he denied the existence of the spirits, he affirmed the importance of ceremonial propriety in the orientation of man toward the good, which, for Confucius, was filial piety. The ancestral rite was meant not for the departed ancestors, but for the living.
Confucian li proscribed a precise following of the rubrics without the slightest deviation in the ancestral rite. If Confucius meant to orient the people toward the good in the ancestral rite, how much stronger should be the li of Holy Mother Church, who means to orient the people toward God in the Divine Sacrifice of the Mass!
The Confucian understanding of li went beyond the ancestral rite to include ceremonial music and human relationships as well. It is obvious where Confucius would stand in the liturgical battles of the past four decades; he would be on the side of those who want Gregorian Chant and Palestrina, not folk guitars, at Mass. Also, the Catholic laity should find much with which to agree in the Confucian five relationships, between father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brothers, ruler and subject, and friend and friend. Particularly, the idea of filial piety and male headship of the family would do much to restore to the family the dignity it once enjoyed.
In what has come to be known as the "Rites Controversy," the Church, under Jansenist influence, determined the Confucian ancestral rite to be pagan. In one of the great ironies of Church history, Catholics in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam were persecuted for centuries for what was misunderstood as their lack of li. It was not until 1939 that the Church came around to the learned opinion of Fr. Matteo Ricci, that the Confucian ancestral rite was familial, not religious in nature, and Asian Catholics were allowed to participate in it. It has been suggested that the East might be Catholic today were it not for this error.
Pope John Paul II offered a mea culpa for this misunderstanding on Oct. 24, 2001, the 400th anniversary of Fr. Ricci's arrival in China. We today have a chance to right this wrong by fostering Confucian li in the Church Universal. No, we should not introduce to the West the Confucian ancestral rite; we already have All Souls' Day. But an understanding of li could help us in restoring Catholic liturgy and Catholic culture to its former glory. Said the Sage, "Take your stand in the li" (The Analects, VII, 8.) and "Not to know the li is to have no means of standing" (ibid., XX, 3).
The Holy Father has taken his ¡°stand in the li.¡± Pope Benedict XVI has unwittingly shown himself to be something of as Confucian sage in his liberation of the Tridentine Rite with his Summorum Pontificum and his concern for propriety, li, in liturgy. And by this linking of li and the Traditional Latin Mass, we are led back to China; Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonz¨¢lez Err¨¢zuriz of Chile observed the following after the motu proprio:
All of those Chinese Catholics are unfamiliar with any other liturgical form besides the previous one, and most assuredly in full communion with Rome, in the case of many Catholic faithful of communities not fully united with Rome, would not mean a change in liturgical form. Now, many will be able to return to the unity of the faith and will be able to do so without any change to the liturgy.
Was the li expressed in Summorum Pontificum a gift from the Holy Father to the Chinese Catholics of the underground Church? Whether or not that was the Pope's intention, it was certainly a gift to all of us. It is our job as the laity to cooperate with the Holy Father in his efforts to promote the extraordinary form of the Mass and to see to it that the ordinary form is instilled with the propriety of which it is worthy. If Confucius is among the unbaptized and virtuous pagans residing in Dante's Limbo, he will smile upon our efforts.
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.


  1. The usual half-baked self-righteously blinkered "catholic" nonsense.

    The usual apologetics for the politics and "culture" of western imperialism.
    This essay provides a unique understanding of the Eastern and Western approaches to Reality.

    1. www.adidam.in/eastwest.asp

  2. Anyone who thinks that that chap who lives in Rome is either "holy" or a "father" is seriously deluded.

    The phrase Buddhist phrase: the stench of "holiness"--- is far more accurate in its description.