Ignatius Loyola, Mystic, Educator, Preacher,
and Founder of the Jesuits

31 July 1556

In^igo de Recalde de Loyola, youngest of thirteen (one of my sources says eleven) children of Don Beltran Ya'n^ez de Loyola and Maria Sa'enz de Licona y Balda, was born in 1491 in the family castle in the Basque province of Gu'ipozcoa, in northeastern Spain, near the French border. (In the preceding sentence, "n^" is used to denote "n" with a tilde over it, and is pronounced "ny" in Spanish and, I assume, in Basque, though this is just a guess--Basque has no known connection with any other language.) As befitted a boy from an aristocratic family, he spent some time as a page at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Spain. Here, by his later testimony, he was involved in gambling, wenching, and duelling. He got into trouble with the law, but escaped punishment because he was technically a cleric. (This does not mean that he was destined for the priesthood. In those days someone becoming a priest went through seven steps: doorkeeper, reader, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, and priest. The first four were called Minor Orders, and did not involve any serious commitment, but they did make one technically a cleric, which was useful if one got arrested for anything less than murder or treason. Probably many young noblemen took the first step simply as a precaution. Later the law extended the definition of "cleric" to anyone who could read. See the BIO notes on Thomas a Becket, 29 December.) He then entered military service, but fought in only one major battle, the defense of Pamplona against the French in 1521. The professional solders knew that their position was indefensible, and proposed to surrender. Inigo (or Ignatius, to give him the Latin form of his name) had visions of military glory, and urged his comrades to fight. He was promptly hit in the leg by a cannon ball, the town surrendered anyway, and the French sent him home on a stretcher.

The leg was badly set, and did not heal properly. It had to be rebroken and reset, and again it healed crookedly and let him with a permanent limp. Meanwhile, he was bedridden for many months, and spent the time reading. He asked for tales of knightly adventure, but instead was given a Life of Christ, written by a Carthusian monk. He read it, and his life was transformed. He went on pilgrimage to Montserrat (near Barcelona), where he hung up his sword over the altar, and then spent about a year at Manresa near Montserrat first working as a nurse and orderly in a hospital there, and then retiring to a cave to live as a hermit and study The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, a book urging the Christian to take Christ as example, and seek daily to follow in His footsteps. It is probably during this year that he wrote his Spiritual Exercises, a manual of Christian prayer and meditation. He directs the reader to begin with an event in the life of Christ, and to imagine the scene in detail, to replay the episode in his mind like a movie script, and to try to feel as if he had himself witnessed the event, and then to use this experience as a motive for love, gratitude, and dedication to the service of God. The book is available today in hardcover and paperback. It has been much used by Christians of all varieties--John Wesley was enthusiastic about it. Ignatius then made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to see with his own eyes the scenes of Our Lord's life and death. He wanted to stay and preach to the muslims, but the Franciscans stationed there advised him that he needed an education in order to preach effectively.

Back in Spain, he spent ten years (1524-1534) getting an education at Barcelona, Alcala', Salamanca, and Paris, beginning by going to elementary school to learn Latin grammar, and ending with a Master of Arts degree from the University of Paris. In Salamanca, he often preached to groups of people assembled by chance; but in those days a layman undertaking to preach on his own, without a license or supervision, was automatically suspected of heresy. Ignatius was twice imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition and questioned about his beliefs, an experience that made a deep impression on him. (He was finally acquitted, but forbidden to discuss religious matters for three years.) Today, his followers are aggressively proud of the fact that no member of their order has ever sat on an Inquisitorial tribunal. (It is possible that Ignatius already had doubts about the Inquisition. He was a Basque, and I am told that the Inquisition was never active in Biscay because the Basques, although thoroughly orthodox Christians, would not tolerate it.) In 1534, he and six fellow students formed a group who vowed to travel to Jerusalem and there preach the Gospel to the moslems. (The most famous of the six is Francis Xavier, who went to India and China as a missionary, and who is commemorated on 3 December.) This group later took the name, "The Society of Jesus," and were nicknamed "the Jesuits" by outsiders, a nickname that stuck.

In 1537 the Jesuits (now ten in number) gathered in Venice and (having found that renewed war in Palestine made journeying there impossible) offered their services to Pope Paul III. Ignatius and some of the others were ordained to the priesthood, and they were assigned various tasks. In 1540 they became a formal organization, with the usual monastic vows, plus a fourth vow of personal obedience to the Pope. In order to have more time for preaching and study the order abolished the practice (followed by almost all previous orders) of reciting the monastic Hours in community. Its chief goals were:
(a) renewal of the Roman Catholic Church through extensive education and the encouragement of frequent use of the sacraments,
(b) extensive missionary work in non-Christian countries, and
(c) a suitable response to the growing challenge of Protestantism.

In the remaining fifteen years of his life, Ignatius supervised the Jesuits from Rome and saw the order grow from ten men to a thousand. It was always active in missions, and became deeply involved in education, and in counselling those with difficult decisions to make, particularly rulers. The Order undertook to win back to the Roman obedience those areas that had recently become Protestant. Ignatius counselled his Jesuits (technically neither monks nor friars, but priests regular) to proceed with charity and moderation, "without hard words or contempt for people's errors." He died suddenly on 31 July 1556. His writing include the following prayer:

     Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest;
     to give, and not to count the cost,
     to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
     to toil, and not to seek for rest,
     to labor, and not to ask for any reward,
     save that of knowing that we do thy will.

Prayer (traditional language)

O God, by whose grace thy servant Ignatius, enkindled with the fire of thy love, became a burning and a shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.

Almighty God, from whom all good things come, who didst call Ignatius of Loyola to the service of thy Divine majesty and to find thee in all things: Inspired by his example and strengthened by his companionship, may we labor without counting the cost and seek no reward other than knowing that we do thy will; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

Prayer (contemporary language)
O God, by whose grace your servant Ignatius, enkindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Almighty God, from whom all good things come, who called Ignatius of Loyola to the service of your Divine majesty and to find you in all things: Inspired by his example and strengthened by his companionship, may we labor without counting the cost and seek no reward other than knowing that we do your will; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

Psalm 34:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:31-1:11
Luke 9:57-62 (St3)


A Short (sort of!) History of the Jesuits

The Society of Jesus is a Roman Catholic organization of men (about half of them priests) vowed to poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Technically, they are neither monks (like the Benedictines) nor friars (like the Franciscans and the Dominicans), but clerks regular (clergy or scholars living in accordance with a Rule of Life). Their stated purpose is the salvation and perfection (i.e. the justification and sanctification) of each individual Jesuit and, ultimately, every human being.

They were chartered by the Pope in 1540, and at first the charter restricted them to a maximum of 60 members (this restriction was lifted after 4 years). In subsequent years their membership was

   1556        938
   1565      3,500
   1626     15,544
   1710     19,998
   1749     22,589
    ---     ------
   1814        600
   1850      4,600
   1900     15,073
   1932    ~23,000
   1964     35,968
(As described below, the order was disbanded in 1773 and re-organized in 1814. The last detailed census of the order before 1773 is that of 1749.)

Jesuits differ in several respects from most other orders. The order is highly centralized in its government, with most policy decisions coming down from the top. Its members wear no distinctive dress, but simply dress like the local priests. There is no corresponding Second Order for women, or Third Order for associates following a modified form of the rule. Jesuits recite the daily prayers individually rather than in community.

They also differ from most other orders in having a long period of training before full membership. After a two-year novitiate, a member (at least a high school graduate to begin with) enters a house of study for 5 years, followed by a "few" years (say 2) of teaching experience, and then 5 more years (longer for some scholars), for a total of at least 12 before becoming a fully professed Jesuit of the Four Vows (poverty, celibacy, obedience, and the fourth vow of personal loyalty to the Pope). Only the fully professed may vote in a congregation of Jesuits, but otherwise they have no special privileges. The order is divided into provinces, which elect delegates to the general convention, which elects the superior general, who serves for life.

The Jesuit order (Society of Jesus) has often been compared to an army, and it was notable for its insistence on strict, absolute obedience to the orders of a superior. One might have expected that only shuffling, vacant-eyed zombies would enlist. On the contrary, it has attracted to its ranks many recruits of outstanding ability and intelligence.

They were begun by a group of Spanish Christians, at a time when the reconquest of Spain from the moslems was but recently accomplished, and persons with Moorish or Jewish ancestry were under suspicion. It is accordingly much to their credit that the Jesuits were firmly opposed (particularly under Ignatius and his first three successors as Superior General of the Jesuits) to ecclesiastical anti-Semitism and to the Inquisition's persecution of suspected Jews. When Ignatius was accused of having partly Jewish ancestry, he replied, "If only I did! What could be more glorious than to be of the same blood as the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin, and our Lord Himself?" Regrettably, they were often active in the punishment of suspected witches. But not all of them were. Some of them championed the cause of the suspects. The Jesuit Friedrich Speem denounced the witch-hunts in his Cautio Criminalis, writing: "Torture fills our Germany with witches and unheard-of wickedness, and not only Germany but any nation that attempts it.... If all of us have not confessed ourselves witches, that is only because we have not all been tortured."

Jesuit Missions in Non-Christian Countries

The original intent of the Jesuits was to form a mission to the moslems of Jerusalem, and missionary work among non-Christians has always been a high priority of the order. In 1749 more than one seventh of all Jesuits were missionaries--more than one fifth of all Jesuit priests.

Within months after the order was founded, Ignatius sent his ablest associate, Francis Xavier, to preach in the Far East, and his work there bore considerable fruit. He and those who followed preached in Persia, Tibet, Ceylon, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Thailand, Indochina, and the East Indian Islands, but chiefly in India, China, and Japan.

The China Mission began in the 1580's, against obstacles in that the Chinese regarded theirs as the highest of all cultures and were convinced that outsiders had nothing to offer them in goods or ideas. Hence neither traders or teachers were welcome. The Jesuits sent some of their best scientists, astronomers like Matteo Ricci, to the Chinese court, where their skill at clock-building and their scientific and techinical knowledge won them respect and a hearing. In their missionary work, they took what has been called an "accommodationist" approach. They dressed like Chinese mandarins. They used Chinese rather than Latin in the liturgy. They retained Chinese terminology, using the Chinese word for "Heaven" to refer to God. They honored Confucius as a sage, a worthy teacher on ethical questions. Most controversial of all, they permitted converts, at least on a temporary basis, to continue ancient and beloved customs honoring their ancestors. But members of other religious orders, notably the Franciscans, moved either by inter-order rivalry or by honest concern, denounced these concessions as watering down the faith to the danger of the souls of the converts, and appealed to Rome, which in 1742 decided against the Jesuits.

In Japan, the Jesuit mission prospered at first, as the Jesuits took care to present their case diplomatically. (For,example they avoided the use of crucifixes, which the Japanese had a strong aversion to. This did not mean that they failed to preach about the death and resurrection of our Lord.) In came the Franciscans, brandishing their crucifixes and in other ways treading on local sensibilities, and in came some crude political interference by the Portuguese government, and in 1651 the whole mission effort collapsed in a welter of government persecution and suppression. Jesuit martyrs totalled 111. (In fairness to the Franciscans, they had their martyrs, too.) For the next two centuries Japan was closed to Christian missions, and Japanese Christians were secret and few.

The Jesuits were active in the missionizing of the Hispanic territories in the Americas, particularly in Brazil and in Paraguay. In the Jesuit province of Paraguay (which included what is now the country of Paraguay plus portions of the surrounding countries), they set up, with the approval of the government, what were called REDUCCIONES ("reductions"), which were villages of Christian Indians, under the spiritual, social, economic, and political direction of the missioners. The intention was benevolent, and totally paternalistic. The Jesuits succeeded in protecting their charges from exploitation by the European settlers; they took no money or goods from them, saw to it that no one robbed them or enslaved them, and devoted themselves to the Indians' physical and spiritual welfare. However, they treated them like children, made all their significant decisions for them, and although they instructed them diligently in the Christian faith, they never considered encouraging or permitting them to seek the priesthood. As a result, when a change of government policy expelled the Jesuits from Paraguay, the local society simply collapsed. The missionaries were self-sacrificing parents who would do anything for their children except let them grow up. (A film was produced several years ago about the Jesuit work in Paraguay, called The Mission. See it if you can. Try a video rental, or your public library.)

The mission in non-Spanish America fared somewhat differently. The most famous work of the Jesuits there was a mission to the Huron Indians of eastern Canada and adjacent territories. The Hurons and the Iroquois were hereditary enemies, and several Jesuits, identified by the Iroquois as friends of the Hurons, were martyred.

JESUITS AND EDUCATION

It had not been the original intention of the Jesuits to become involved in schools, but popes, bishops, and laymen alike told them that schools were needed, and Ignatius accepted the argument. By 1556 three fourths of Jesuits not in training were engaged in running schools. Some were schools for the Jesuits themselves, and many of their other pupils were children of the poor or the middle class. (Tuition was free.) However, they made a special effort to enroll the children of kings, nobles, and others in power, those who would set the policies and the tone of the society. (This was not a new idea. Centuries earlier, missionaries to heathen tribes had learned that if you convert the chief, the others will tend to follow his lead.)

One of their most effective ways of spreading ideas and impressing them on the minds of listeners was through drama. Both the New Catholic Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica have separate articles under the heading of "Jesuit drama".

To quote from Paul Johnson's History of Christianity,

What in fact they did was to provide an educational service on demand. If a Catholic prince or prince-bishop wanted an orthodox school, college or univeristy established and conducted efficiently, he applied to the Jesuits; he supplied the funds and buildings, they the trained personnel and techniques. They were, in effect, rather like a modern multi-national company selling expert services. And they brought to the business of international schooling a uniformity, discipline, and organization that was quite new.


Jesuits and Scholarship

Jesuits encouraged secular learning and scholarship among their members. You cannot offer the general public a university that teaches nothing but theology. Moreover, a knowledge of secular subjects is useful in getting a hearing (see Matteo Ricci and his astronomy at the Chinese Imperial Court). Jesuit missionaries made important contributions to the study of geography and non-Indo-European languages. One group of Jesuit scholars known as the Bollandists devoted themselves to hagiography (the historical and critical study of the biographies of saints), patiently collating sources and sifting fact from legend. Their work, concentrated in Belgium, has been going on since the early 1600's and is of importance to anyone interested in church history.

Jesuits in England

When Elizabeth came to the throne of England in 1558, she changed the language of worship from Latin to English. Many of her subjects grumbled, but they continued to attend services at their parish churches. In 1570, however, Pope Paul V excommunicated Elizabeth, declared her not the lawful queen but rather a suitable target for assassination, and told his followers in England not to attend their parish churches any more than they were compelled to, but rather to attend Latin Masses celebrated by priests loyal to Rome. Not unnaturally, Elizabeth regarded anyone celebrating a Latin Mass as a fomenter of treason and of plots to assassinate her. For many years thereafter (beginning in 1580) the Jesuit seminary at Douay in France sent a steady stream of priests (Englishmen who had been smuggled out of England, educated and ordained, and then smuggled back in) to England, and in smaller numbers to the rest of the British Isles, where they celebrated Latin Masses in secret, subject to death for treason if caught. About 70 were martyred.

Jesuits as Moral Theologians

Suppose that you are faced with a choice of actions, say between A and B. Sometimes you will be torn between those who say that you have a moral obligation to do A and not B, and those who say that you have a moral obligation to do B and not A. However, it often happens that what you want to know is: "Am I free to do either A or B as I prefer, or have I a moral obligation to do A?" (Naturally, you will usually be asking this question when you would rather do B.)

One answer, often very popular with those who are not going to be affected by the decision, is what is called RIGORISM. Are you sorting your shirts into those that need to be washed and those that do not? Your mother will tell you: "If it's doubtful, it's dirty." The same applies to moral choices. If you are not sure whether it is okay to do something, be on the safe side and don't do it. If you are not sure whether that golf ball is a lost ball or just waiting for its owner to arrive, you can't go wrong by walking away and leaving it. If you are not absolutely sure that a certain expense qualifies as a tax deduction, then don't deduct it. If you are not absolutely sure that your lunch with a friend is job-related, don't put it on the company credit card.

The extreme opposite is the view that anything not unmistakably wrong is permissible. This is called LAXISM. Laxists say, "No earthly monarch with any sense of justice expects you to observe the speed limits unless they have been plainly posted for all who will to read. Shall we suppose that God is less fair?"

Another answer is PROBABILISM, that you may do B if there is a reasonable case to be made out for saying that B is lawful. (The laxist, on the other hand, is supposedly content with the remotest possibility that B might be lawful.)

Still another answer is PROBABILIORISM. ("Probabilior" is Latin for "more probable.") Those who hold this view say that you are entitled to go for B if and only if the case for the lawfulness of B is not just reasonable, but definitely more reasonable than the contrary case.

So we have at least four positions (I am probably leaving at least one out), which are ranked as follows:
rigorist
probabiliorist
probabilist
laxist
with each group regarding those below as corrupt, wallowing in sin, cynically looking for loopholes, a threat to the moral fiber of society, and certainly no true Christians. Of course each group regards those above as morbid fanatics, legalists, obsessively concerned with dotting every i and crossing every t, sanctimonious prigs, Pharisees, hypocrites, and certainly no true Christians. Almost all Jesuit theologians have been probabilists, although one Superior General, Tirso Gonzalez (1687-1705) upheld probabiliorism, thereby creating a major crisis in the order.

The Jesuits came to be associated with the notion of "equivocation." The concept is perhaps best explained by an example. There is a story (which I have no reason to suppose is true) told about Athanasius, the great champion of the full deity of Christ, who was bishop of Alexandria in Egypt in the 300's, and was five times banished by emperors who were opposed to the orthodox Christian view. On one occasion, it is said, Athanasius was in a boat, fleeing up the Nile from the Imperial police, who were in a barge close behind. As night fell, Athanasius ordered the boatman to turn around and paddle downstream. As they passed the police barge, the leader called out, "Ahoy, have you seen Athanasius?" Athanasius called back, "You are now not far from him!" and continued downstream while the barge continued upstream. This is "equivocation." An equivocal utterance is one that has two or more meanings, while a univocal utterance is one that has only one meaning. Now it is said that a lie is ordinarily wrong in two ways: it is a sin against truth and a sin against charity. But if you are asked a question by someone who ought not to have the information (say a Nazi officer looking for concealed Jews), then it is no offense against charity to leave him with the wrong impression, and if what you say to him is technically not a falsehood (say by being equivocal), then it is not an offense against truth either, and so is not wrong at all. Jesuit moral theologians developed this notion at length, and this fact contributed greatly to their reputation as slippery customers. One Roman Catholic lecturer (not a Jesuit) that I know of (Ronald Knox) comments (approximately):

Actually, you don't find much equivocation among Catholics. It takes so confoundedly much ingenuity at short notice under pressure, that for most people it is a purely theoretical option. In practice, faced with a situation where telling the truth would clearly be disastrous, devout Catholics behave exactly like devout Protestants--they lie!


Jesuits as Royal Confessors The Jesuits became the predominant group supplying confessors to (meaning, hearers of the confessions of) kings and princes and those in authority. As the NEW CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA says, "they acted as royal confessor to all French kings for 2 centuries, from Henry III to Louis XV; to all German emperors after the early 17th century; to all Dukes of Bavaria after 1579; to most rulers of Poland and Portugal; to the Spanish kings in the 18th century; to James II of England; and to many ruling or princely families throughout Europe."

Thus, they were faced with the problem of how strict to be in their moral advice to kings, knowing that if they did not cut a royal penitent some slack, he might simply find himself another confessor who understood the complexities of his situation, and did not expect the impossible from him. Since retaining the confidence of a king meant opportunities to save not only his soul but the souls of many of his subjects, the pressure to be lenient was often overwhelming. The problem is, of course, not restricted to Jesuits, but is faced by anyone who is giving moral advice and does not want the advisee to become discouraged and call the whole thing off, but at the same time does not want to give the impression that God's demands are negotiable. The Jesuits were doing this under a brighter spotlight than most, and under more pressure to be accommodating than most.

As advisors to kings, they influenced political policy. A royal confessor was not slow to tell a king that he had a duty to make the kind of political alliances that would promote the temporal interests of the Church. It was Le Tellier, Jesuit confessor to Louis XIV, who in the 1680's persuaded that monarch to revoke the Edict of Nantes, which granted religious liberty to Protestants.

One of their political involvements, in particular, proved disastrous. In October 1894, Captain Dreyfus, the only Jew on the General Staff of the French Army, was arrested for treason and spying on behalf of Germany. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, just off the northern coast of South America. Since he was in fact innocent, his arrest was a minor misdeed, which turned into a major misdeed when the French establishment showed itself ready to condemn an innocent man rather than admit a mistake. The dispute over Dreyfus divided French society, and threw it into a turmoil for the next several years. (The repercussions have still not completely died out.) Most of the officers on the General Staff were Roman Catholics, and the Chief of the General Staff had a Jesuit confessor, who was widely viewed as orchestrating the whole anti-Dreyfus campaign. The chief spokesman for the pro-Dreyfus faction was the anti-religious novelist Emile Zola. There were some devout Roman Catholics who were publicly pro-Dreyfus (Charles Peguy, for example, declared that as long as Dreyfus was denied justice, France was in mortal sin), and Pope Leo XIII spoke out for Dreyfus, but the public perception was that the anti-Dreyfus side was the clerical side, and when that side was finally completely discredited and Dreyfus himself was triumphantly recalled from Devil's Island to France, the Roman Catholic Church in general, and the Jesuits in particular, suffered the brunt of public disapprobation.

The Suppression of the Jesuits

By the middle of the 1700's (to go back more than a century), the Jesuits had made many powerful enemies, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church. There were those who wished them ill because they wished the RCC ill. But there were also those who honestly believed that their accommodatist tactics were imperilling the soul of the Church. Governments turned against them because it was thought that the political advice they gave was bad advice. And so they were banned in one country after another: Portugal in 1759, France in 1764, Spain and her territories in 1767, followed by the Sicilies and Parma. Next the Pope was pressured to suppress the order altogether. Clement XIII refused. When he died in 1769, anti-Jesuit forces backed a candidate who won and became Clement XIV. Four years later, in 1773, he disbanded the order. The superior general was imprisoned in Rome until he died in 1775. Members of the order continued to function as secular priests, and in some places were allowed to continue to teach and to run schools, though not as Jesuits. Ironically, the order survived as an organization in Russia, where the East Orthodox Empress Catherine valued them as schoolmasters, and refused to allow their dissolution. In 1814, after the fall of Napoleon, in the newly conservative political climate, the Pope restored the order.

Jesuits and Accommodationism

The principal complaint leveled against the Jesuits (not counting charges of criminal conspiracy) has been that they are politicians. Now, politics, it is said, is the art of the possible, and a good politician knows that to insist on a perfect program is often to end up with no program. Thus, the Jesuits did not expect too much of the kings they were trying to keep from slipping the leash altogether, did not expect too much of the newly converted Asian, and so on.

Example: some of their early missionaries to China dressed as mandarins, and held that the ANALECTS--the ethical maxims of Confucius--were full of sound moral wisdom, and should be regarded not as un-Christian but as pre-Christian, "a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24). This seems to place it in the same category as, say, the Proverbs of Solomon. Now the Jesuits were careful not to say in so many words that the ANALECTS were inspired or had the same authority as the PROVERBS, but they were prepared to quote them in their sermons, and to read aloud from them in church services. Again, there was the question of "ancestor worship." Chinese kept lists of their ancestors inscribed on wooden tablets, and these tablets held a place of honor in the home, and family members regularly bowed or knelt to them. This appeared to some Westerners as blatant idolatry, and something that must be stamped out. However, as a present-day Chinese Christian (Lin Yu-Tang, in his FROM PAGAN TO CHRISTIAN) has observed, Chinese backs and knees are in general more flexible than Western ones. Chinese children regularly bow or kneel to their parents as a gesture of respect. It would not occur to them that they were treating their parents as deities. The Jesuits were prepared to tolerate the retention of the ancestral tablets by Christian converts. Before you decide whether they were right, consider the following question:

Suppose that you are a missionary in China. A man has heard your preaching, and is about to be baptized, together with his family. They arrive at the church for the ceremony, and you see that the man has brought with him his ancestral tablets. He says: "I wish my ancestors to witness this important step in our lives." Do you invite him to place the tablets on a chair or table near the baptismal font, or do you tell him that the tablets are idols and must be destroyed at once before the ceremony can proceed?

The Emperor of China had agreed to become a Christian, and was about to be baptized. But rivals of the Jesuits denounced them to Rome for compromises on questions like ancestral tablets. The Pope forbade any further honoring of the ancestors or the tablets, and the Emperor decided not to become a Christian after all. As one angry historian put it, "So the Franciscans were happy, and the Pope was happy, and nothing was lost but Asia!"

A debate:

Brown says: If the Emperor would not give up his tablets in order to become a Christian, then his conversion pretty superficial in the first place, and he would never have become a thorough Christian even if he had been accommodated on the matter."

Green says: "How do you know what he would have become if he had been baptized and had started attending Christian worship. He might have spontaneously given up the tablets. Do you really believe that no one grows in the faith after his initial conversion? Besides, you are ignoring the millions of Chinese who would have heard the Gospel if the Emperor had been baptized. Constantine may not have been in all respects an ideal Christian. But his support for Christianity, even if we suppose it to have been totally hypocritical, made possible the preaching of the Gospel to those who would not otherwise have heard it."

Brown says: "But how do you expect the Emperor, or any other Chinese convert, to see that tablets are wrong if their preachers have told them that tablets are all right?"

My comment: Both positions are such as might be taken by a reasonable Christian, and the one thing that it would really distress me to hear from either Brown or Green is the assertion that the other is shown by his position to be not a true Christian at all.