Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic drama: Matteo Ricci, China, and the problem of inculturation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 02, 2017 | In Reviews

Throughout history there has been an interplay between human culture and Divine Revelation. Different patterns emerge in the proclamation and reception of the truths of our faith in Jesus Christ. In each culture Christianity generates a different set of tensions, as the gospel builds on, purifies and perfects what is good, while opposing and rejecting what is bad. This is why successful evangelization depends on finding points in common with the perceptions and values of those who are receiving Christ for the first time. Such reference points enable them to relate positively to the Good News, rather than perceiving it as hostile, as an attack, a denunciation or a rebuke.

This process of adapting the presentation of the Christian message to different peoples is called “inculturation”. It is absolutely necessary, but it is also endlessly controversial. When does a particular approach show a special genius in enabling others to understand the gospel, and when does a particular approach actually obscure or even deny some portion of the truth in order to find a more ready hearing? This dilemma reached a crisis point with the rise of Modernism, because the whole point of Modernism is that, since each culture perceives Christ and the Faith in different ways, the actual truths of the Faith are different in various places and times.

The Modernists grasped the fact that each culture appropriates Divine Revelation in slightly different ways, and that this must be taken into account both in preaching and in evaluating the habitual expressions of Christianity in each time and place. But the Modernists forgot the other half of the truth about inculturation, which is that Revelation transcends every human culture. Revelation is always an invitation to transcend human limitations so that we can come to know Jesus Christ. For example, when the Modernists confronted the difficulty of accepting the miraculous in modern scientific culture, they concluded that the truth about the Resurrection today is that it was not a real event, but rather a symbol of new life.


The poster boy for the challenges of inculturation is China. When the first missionaries arrived in China, they faced innumerable difficulties in being received as persons worth hearing, and in explaining Christian truths which had very little correspondence with ancient Chinese patterns of thought.

The brilliant Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, is an excellent case in point. Ricci opened China to Christianity, working there from 1583 until his death in Peking in 1610. China’s culture always looked backwards to a golden age. The Chinese believed that they were far and away the most advanced civilization on earth, and their culture centered on the preservation of past ways and past ideas. They distrusted foreigners, from whom they believed they had absolutely nothing to learn. After ten years of extraordinary labor, Ricci and his colleagues had succeeded in baptizing fewer than a hundred Chinese Christians.

Chinese culture was also highly stratified. Everyone had his place, with the understanding that certain figures who had mastered the Chinese classics were alone worthy of imparting instruction. When we add to this a system of writing based on tens of thousands of pictorial characters, of which at least three to four thousand had to be mastered to ensure functional literacy—and a mastery of some 5,000 was necessary to attain the status of a teacher—we begin to see the difficulties facing European Catholics in communicating any ideas at all, let alone new ones.

Ricci, who had a photographic memory, mastered the language—speaking, reading, writing, and even carving characters into wood blocks so that he could print the works he wrote. But it was very hard to find Chinese equivalents to accurately communicate the truths of the Catholic faith. Particular problems also plagued the effort to teach the Chinese Latin prayers and professions of faith. The Chinese could not make all of the sounds needed to enunciate Western consonants (the letter “R” is just one example). Ricci had to rewrite many Christian formulae so that the Chinese could use them in reading and proclamation.

Attaining the status necessary to be taken as a source of wisdom in China was even more difficult. Ricci and his companion initially adopted the appearance and dress of “bonzes”—essentially Buddhist priests—as a rough equivalent to his own role in the Church. It was only after many early failures that Ricci learned that bonzes were not highly regarded as sources of learning, and that if he wanted to be so regarded, he had to adopt the style, appearance and knowledge of those who had mastered the Chinese classics. These were called “graduates.”

Ricci also came to understand that Buddhism was associated with idolatry, whereas Confucianism, the received wisdom valued most by Chinese intellectuals, was a moral philosophy in tune with reason. He realized that Confucianism made a far better starting point for presenting Christianity. By referring to many aspects of the natural law which had been articulated by Confucius, Ricci was able to do the one thing that was absolutely essential in China: He could avoid automatic rejection by showing deep reverence for China’s inherited wisdom, along with a desire to perfect and extend that wisdom through the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Other keys to success

Fortunately, Ricci was also a brilliant mathematician, a decent astronomer and a knowledgeable geographer. He was able to draw maps which were highly valued by Chinese leaders as enhancing their knowledge of the world. He was able to explain why Chinese astrologers were so often wrong in their astral and planetary predictions. He could actually build clocks from scratch, and these were much sought after by the ruling class. Such talents proved critical because Chinese culture demanded the presentation of gifts when gaining audiences with influential persons. Ricci repeatedly fashioned maps, globes and clocks so that he was never short of inexpensive but highly-prized gifts.

He also found that the Chinese no longer knew how to adjust their sun dials for different angles of declination when they were moved from place to place, so he reintroduced them to this knowledge. These things are not directly related to the Gospel, obviously, but they provided points of cultural understanding which helped to establish his reputation as a wise, useful and highly regarded friend. Of course the missionary’s prodigious memory helped him in both serious and light-hearted ways. Not only did he master the Chinese classics but, as a kind of parlor trick, he could take several pages of Chinese text provided on the spur of the moment by his hosts, read them just once, and then repeat them back from memory without a single error.

Etiquette is significant in all cultures, to make a good impression and to avoid giving offense. It was astonishing to the Jesuits how much time the Chinese spent fulfilling the obligations of their elaborate etiquette, stopping to exchange bows with each person they recognized when about town, and spending long hours in receiving visitors and then paying a socially obligatory return visit within a day. This was another aspect of that inculturation which enabled Christianity to be received and understood. Here, of course, etiquette was enhanced by Ricci’s genuine saintly concern for the well-being of those with whom he interacted—an example of the perfection of human customs through Christ.

Ricci exhausted himself in the process, but he took the necessary time for all of these things. As a result, he was widely regarded as a great man by the time of his death. By then the Chinese mission had also heated up. Ricci left behind thousands of new Christians, and his methods were adopted by the other Jesuit missionaries. By the 1660s Chinese Christians numbered a quarter of a million.

At Issue

But as things turned out, this initial missionary success in China was rapidly undone because of massive disagreements over inculturation. In 1704, a group of cardinals decided, with the approval of Pope Clement XI, that key Chinese customs which Ricci had accommodated were incompatible with the purity of the Faith.

The main focus of the disagreement was on how to treat the honor accorded in Chinese culture both to Confucius and to deceased relatives. The Chinese venerated Confucius, including bows and kneeling, and they also showed deep reverence for their ancestors, expressed through the custom of leaving food at their graves. Honorific behavior ran very deep in Chinese culture, but it did not imply divinity. Again and again Chinese Christians explained that they did not consider Confucius a god from whom they would receive blessings, and that leaving food on the grave of a relative who could not eat it was no more a superstition than the Western practice of leaving flowers on a grave of a relative who could not see them.

Ricci, having spent long years living as a Catholic priest who was also a Chinese graduate, understood these matters. He recognized that Christianity would not be received without permitting such honorific behaviors; instead, he made use of them to enable Christianity to find a place in Chinese society and grow. All the Jesuits followed his lead. But after his death, the new Franciscan and Dominican missionaries who entered China were uncompromising in their condemnation of such practices as idolatry. The controversy was taken to Rome, where a committee of cardinals who had never been to the East, backed by Pope Clement, ruled that henceforth Catholic missionaries must suppress these practices.

The predictable reaction was not long in coming. The Chinese Imperial court, while venerating Ricci and sympathetic to his fellow Jesuits, concluded that Christianity—as Vincent Cronin expressed it in Ricci’s biography—“was no longer a universal religion adaptable to all peoples but a swashbuckling, narrow, prejudiced local cult.” The Emperor decreed that all missionaries must obtain an imperial permit, which would be granted only to those who agreed to abide by the practices of Matteo Ricci. Respect for Christianity plummeted. The number of Christians dwindled almost to nothing.


Because of a huge failure in inculturation, the effort to Christianize China had to start over again in connection with European mercantile interests in the nineteenth century. Sadly, mercantile depredations were also among the influences that pushed the Chinese into Marxism. Despite these setbacks, as I indicated at the start, not all forms of inculturation are good. By the mid-twentieth century, the Jesuits were as determined as any other group of theologians to use inculturation as an excuse for watering down the Faith. I have already mentioned that the Resurrection began to be treated as a mere symbol. And by now everyone is familiar with the distressing tendency of Modernist moral theologians to twist sexual deviancy into a virtue, based on Western culture’s alleged superior understanding of sexual urges coupled with a rationalized loving intentionality.

In the twentieth century, the Church became painfully aware that she was losing the West to the Faith. The Second Vatican Council said many things about the need to find points of correspondence with modern culture as a means to facilitate a new evangelization. The Council urged Catholics to affirm what is good in modern culture even while purifying it in the light of Christ. But the twentieth-century Church also acquired brutal experience with Modernism as a kind of Catholic secularization, making it absolutely essential to reaffirm that, for inculturation to work as intended, Catholics must recall and understand that Revelation transcends culture.

This is why the Church has promoted careful study of the concept of inculturation over the past fifty years, and why several documents have been issued to more fully assess its nature, its strengths, its weaknesses, and the pitfalls to be avoided. Pope St. John Paul II contributed much to this discussion. For those interested, a good place to start is the study issued by the International Theological Commission in 1988, Faith and Inculturation.

In writing of the demise of the Catholic mission to China in the 18th century, I quoted Vincent Cronin (1924-2011), who published an absolutely superb biography of Matteo Ricci in 1955, The Wise Man from the West. The son of a fine Scottish novelist (A. J. Cronin) and a Catholic, Vincent Cronin lived much of his life in France and was deeply interested in French historical figures. He wrote stunning biographies of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon. He also had a great interest in, and love for, Catholic missionaries, as evidenced by The Wise Man from the West.

A brilliant writer, well capable of making the past come alive, Cronin was by a significant margin the most popular historian of his generation. We are indebted to Ignatius Press for reprinting his biography of Ricci in 2016, with a new foreword by Fr. James Schall, SJ. This story is as fascinating as it is profound. Despite the author’s comprehensive and meticulous research, it reads like a novel. Finally, the issues it explores have become even more important with the passage of time.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Feb. 06, 2017 2:30 AM ET USA

    A generation ago the finest historian of China writing in English was the Anglo-American professor Jonathan Spence. One of his best books was "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci" a great read. I was less impressed by his other work of Christianity in China "God's Chinese Son" which charts the horrible Taiping Rebellion, but others rate it very highly. A great writer as well as a scholar. "Death of Woman Wang" is a great work.

  • Posted by: hitchs - Feb. 03, 2017 10:03 PM ET USA

    Thank you Jeffrey for an incisive assessment of the virtues of Matteo Ricci. I was aware of the debate over Ricci's use of inculturation, but this is by far the best explanation i have seen. I have ordered ordered a copy of The Wise Man from the West on your recommendation.