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To venerate or not to venerate

Bowing to ancestral tablets should be a matter of personal conscience

  • Deacon Sherman Kuek, Johor Bahru
  • Malaysia
  • February 3, 2012
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If you have been lingering over the online social network Facebook recently, you would have noticed a particular picture of a priest from a Catholic parish in Malaysia venerating an ancestral tablet before his congregation during Chinese (Lunar) New Year celebrations last week.

The comments that this picture has garnered from viewers are all but scathing. For many of our Protestant friends, this practice constitutes a great scandal of idolatry. What say we?

This practice of venerating the ancestral tablet by the Chinese community has had a long and controversial history. It is known in Catholic history as the Chinese Rites controversy.

The proponents of the adoption of this practice in the Church were the Jesuit missioners in China from the early 17th century, who adapted many elements of local Chinese culture to evangelize the people, and they did it successfully.

This adaptation of local culture to present the Gospel in a way that is recognizable to the particular cultural senses of a specific people is called “inculturation.”

In this Chinese Rites controversy, the Jesuits argued for more aggressive forms of inculturation, in this case, the legitimization of venerating ancestral tablets in the church. According to them, venerating ancestral tablets among the people of China was more a social rather than religious rite.

They claimed that in the first place, Confucianism (from whence this practice originated) was not even a religion, but a philosophy and way of life. However, missioners of other Religious orders in China – Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans – absolutely disapproved of this practice, perceiving it as a form of idolatry incompatible with the Catholic faith.

In the early 18th century, Pope Clement XI agreed with the latter group of missioners in his papal bull Ex illa die, declaring such Chinese rites contradictory to the Catholic ethos. But this bull was not a blanket declaration against all Chinese rites and customs. It only condemned specific practices but declared other elements within Chinese customs permissible as long as they were unassociated with pagan forms of religious rituals.

Subsequently, Pope Benedict XIV in his papal bull Ex quo singulari further affirmed his predecessor’s decree on this issue.

This position taken by the popes of that era had serious repercussions on missionary work in China. The numbers of converts into the Catholic faith diminished drastically as compared to the droves of conversions that took place under Jesuit missions of aggressive inculturation.

This phenomenon persisted for two centuries until the late 1930s during the time of Pope Pius XII, who called for a relaxation of the impositions decreed by his predecessors. In his 1939 decree Plane compertum est, it was explained that Chinese rites previously assumed to be religious practices had now come to be perceived as mere social conventions.

Venerating the ancestral tablet was, therefore, a way of expressing great respect and honor for deceased relatives and friends, and was permissible in the Catholic context.

What about today among the Chinese diaspora?

This controversy took place in the historical context of China, whereas the issue at hand is the practice of venerating the ancestral tablet among diaspora Chinese who have little or no roots in China. Here, several issues have to be considered.

First, the practice of assimilating the customs and traditions of local cultures has never been an end in itself. This tedious exercise was always undertaken as a means of transmitting the message of the Gospel in a way that removes unnecessary hindrances from the perceptive faculties of its recipients.

In other words, our way of evangelization should not make it more difficult than necessary for people to accept the Gospel. In the days of ancient China, to insist on terminating veneration rites actually scandalized the populace and prevented them from accepting the Gospel.

This cannot be said of most disapora Chinese today. It is reasonable to hold that neither forbidding nor permitting veneration of ancestral tablets would gravely affect the success of the Church’s mission to evangelize the Chinese community in a place like Malaysia.

If anything, non-Christians probably find it strange that Catholics would do such a thing in the course of performing our liturgical rites. It is perhaps wise to ask ourselves if such a practice truly serves its evangelistic purpose or if we do it just because we can.

The situation today seems to be the reverse of that in ancient China. That which was considered a major scandal when prohibited is now considered a major scandal when practiced in modern Malaysia, as has been recently made evident on Facebook.

This leads to the second point: Is the practice of venerating ancestral tablets still part of the local culture? Among practitioners of Chinese religions, I believe the answer is yes. But the sizable population of Chinese-speaking Catholics has not had ancestral tablets in their homes for generations.

For them the practice is entirely alien. And yet, it is precisely these Catholics that often insist on venerating the ancestral tablet in the Chinese New Year Mass.

The practice of venerating the ancestral tablet, which was for the purpose of evangelizing ancient China, has now been redefined as one done for Chinese Catholics who have never seen the necessity of doing it in their homes but insist on doing it in the Church.

This is an aspect of incongruence nobody seems to have attempted to reconcile as yet. If they have been Catholics for three or four generations and have never venerated any ancestral tablets, what makes it so crucial for Chinese New Year Masses to be embellished by what many Malaysians today perceive as pagan practice?

The final and most important point is that whether or not the perpetuation of such a practice is to be allowed rests with the bishops.

On a personal level, a practicing Catholic may or may not be comfortable with such practice at the Chinese New Year Mass. He or she reserves the right to participate or not in this rite of veneration, and doing or not doing it neither makes the person more nor less Catholic than those who choose otherwise. But whether the practice itself is to be abolished or not falls under the competence of the local bishop.

It is unlikely that the local Church is going to come to a clear position on this anytime soon. But to the individual who feels extremely uncomfortable participating in this rite, it is probably safe to offer this advice: Refraining from participation in this practice does not make you less Catholic.

If we desire that those who wish to do it be given freedom to do so, then the same freedom must be given for those who wish to refrain to act in accordance with their conscience.
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