Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Traditional Mass and China: thoughts about Confucius

Our Lady of China
Today I am publishing a paper about the Traditional Mass in China on Rorate Caeli: go over there to read it. I want to use this post for some more reflections on this topic.

One of the issues relevant to the Church's evangelisation in any part of the world is the nature of the indigenous culture and religion. The Jesuits who brought the Gospel to China in the 16th and 17th centuries were very aware of this (and they thought very carefully about it in India as well). They didn't go for mindless, superficial inculturation; they wanted to get to the heart of the matter and explore the deep connections, or barriers, between what they found in China and what they were bringing with them. The servant of God Matteo Ricci SJ and his successors took the view that Taoism and Buddhism, the two other influential schools of thought present in China, were radically incompatible with the Faith, but that things were different with Confucianism, the officially endorsed philosophico-religious system of Imperial China.

After decades of hostility from the Communists, Confucianism today is undergoing something of a revival in China, with schoolchildren once more studying Confucian texts. It is far from being an official ideology, and its role in modern Chinese culture is limited, but it still represents classical, authentic, Chinese culture, and it is also viewed as a potential source of social stability and bulwark against self indulgence and corruption. This is a first reason why the connections the Jesuits found are once more relevant to the progress of the Church in China.

A second reason is this. The attitude of the Chinese state towards the Church today turns in large part on the question of foreign influence, which is seen (in light of modern Chinese history) in the context of foreign political influence and domination. This throws a spotlight onto the relationship between the Faith, and Catholic practice, and classical Chinese culture. To what extent is the Church in China a vector for distinctively European, and therefore questionable, ideas and culture?

A third reason is this. The great challenge for China, socially, culturally, and even politically, is the empty consumerism which has come in the wake of its prosperity. What is coming into China today are the least attractive aspects of modern Western culture: individualism, materialism, narcissism, and a denial of moral constraints of all kinds. This raises the question: is the Church, actively or passively, an ally of these things, or of a set of values opposed to them, values parallel to some degree with those of classical Chinese culture?

Now, what if I said that the Catholic Church in China, in recent decades, was slowly abandoning those things which had some kind of resonance for Confucianism, and beginning to adopt a liturgy and devotional focus which had been decisively influenced by a distinctively European rejection of tradition and its replacement by individualism? Would this be good news? Would this aid its task in this moment of crisis in Chinese history?

I want to illustrate the connection between what we might call the attitude of the Traditional Catholic liturgy and Confucianism by quoting a few Confucian texts related to 'the rites'. I could equally have quoted texts about the importance of tradition and continuity, or about the connection between liturgy and morality, but this will have to do. It connects with an aspect of the traditional liturgy which the Catholic sociologist Anthony Archer called 'ritual efficacy'. Archer said the working class Catholics of Newcastle he had studied liked the old Mass because they understood that these mysterious goings-on at the Altar were, as ritual, objectively effective. They brought something about. Most obviously, they brought about transubstantiation. But there is a wider something too: as Dom Prosper Guéranger said, the liturgy can save the world. As Fr Zuhlsdorf likes to say, 'Save the liturgy, save the world!' The celebration of each and every Mass brings a blessing down on the whole Church and the whole world. We read in the Imitation of Christ: "When the priest celebrates, he honours God, he rejoices the angels, he edifies the church, he helps the living, he obtains repose for the dead." Similar quotations could be multiplied ad infinitum. We are not talking about its effect on the congregation, who might not exist, but its direct influence on the world.

What did Confucius think? Obviously he didn't have a ritual with the same objective power as ours, but can his followers at least understand what we are talking about?

The key to Confucianism is what he calls 'The Way'. This is a life governed by ritual, social and religious, in which behaviour at all times is in accordance with li, 'the rites', the principles of propriety, correctness. It is a matter of moral uprightness as well as etiquette and liturgy, but the point is that these things are not separated from each other in The Way. To fall down in one is to fall down in all.

From the Analects.

IX 14: The Master was wishing to go and live among the nine wild tribes of the east. Some one said, "They are rude. How can you do such a thing?" The Master said, "If a superior man dwelt among them, what rudeness would there be?"

XII 17: Ji Kang asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "To govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?"

XII 18: Ji Kang, distressed about the number of thieves in the state, inquired of Confucius how to do away with them. Confucius said, "If you, sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal."

XIII 1: Zi Lu asked about government. The Master said, "Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs." He requested further instruction, and was answered, "Be not weary (in these things)."

XIII 6: The Master said, "When a prince's personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without the issuing of orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders, but they will not be followed."

XIII 13: The Master said, "If a minister make his own conduct correct, what difficulty will he have in assisting in government? If he cannot rectify himself, what has he to do with rectifying others?"

XIV 41: The Master said, "When rulers love to observe the rules of propriety ['the rites'], the people respond readily to the calls on them for service."

XV 5: The Master said, "May not Shun be instanced as having governed efficiently without exertion? What did he do? He did nothing but gravely and reverently occupy his royal seat." [lit 'faced South']

'li': 'the rites'
Readers may think that this philosophy takes things a little far, and a bit of rationalism might not have gone amiss in Imperial China from time to time. We would do well to keep in mind that this approach to life maintained a civilisation of the utmost sophistication and refinement for vast stretches of time, collapsing in the end due to external, not simply internal, factors, while the Enlightenment led to the revolutionary bloodbath and its own replacement by unvarnished egoism in a couple of centuries. However, it is true that classical Chinese culture is incomplete, it lacks the truths of the Christian revelation. Let us make the most of what it has to offer, and not join the barbarians of Hollywood and McDonald's in destroying its last vestiges.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm currently busy working through a lot of archive material from the Council years. So, whilst I'm at it, and have the following immediately to hand, I thought I'd take the time to lodge it here, without comment, but with no little delicious irony:

    CATHOLIC HERALD, Friday, September 27th, 1963 - Pg 5


    Body text starts:

    In an open letter addressed to the Hierarchies of England, Wales and Scotland, the Executive Committee of the Vernacular Society of Great Britain express, in public form, the gratitude which they feel "for all that has so far been achieved in the Council".

    The committee recognises that "given the actual circumstances of the historical development of the Roman Rite, the natural desire to use one's own language in worship cannot find easy fulfilment. In adapting the liturgy to the contemporary needs of Christian people, we wish to see conserved all that is best in the venerable Latin tradition that we have received".

    The letter, which is signed, amongst others, by Mr C.R.A Cunliffe, vice chairman of the society, Miss Kathleen Rowland and Fr Godric Young OFM, of Forest Gate, concludes by hoping "that this indication of expectations aroused may be of some value" during the second session of the Council.

    In other letters, which accompany the Executive Committee's sentiments, Count Michael de la Bédoyère, founder of "Search", says that: "For more and more people today Latin is Chinese; and the well known liturgist Fr Clifford Howell SJ, says that "the decision on bi-lingualism in the Mass will bring immense pastoral gains, provided it is put into practice efficaciously".

    Body text ends.

    Gregory W. A. Murphy