Sunday Levity: Two papal emissaries to China

They didn’t do too well

No, not quite laughing matter, but amusing nevertheless. Here are some excerpts from Harry Gelber’s readable account of China’s relations with the (western) World, from 1100 BC to the present:

One Christian embassy was entrusted to the Franciscan, John de Plano Carpini, a provincial of his order at Cologne. He set out in mid-April 1245, a mere eighteen years after Ghengis (sic) Khan’s death, carrying a letter from Pope Innocent IV. Carpini must have been a very brave man. He set out in his sixties, unfit, without knowledge of Asian languages and with no idea what his reception might be. Perhaps he would just have his head cut off by the first Mongol patrol he met? In the event he was hustled through Asia for weeks on horseback, to his total exhaustion, and arrived at the Mongol centre of Karakorum in time to witness the coronation of the new Great Khan, Guyuk, another of Ghengis’s grandsons. He delivered his letter and returned in 1247 with the Mongol response. Guyuk simply said:

‘… Thou, who art the great Pope, together with all the princes, come in person to serve us. At that time I shall make known all (our) commands…Now you should say with a sincere heart: “I will submit and serve you.” …If you do not observe God’s command, and if you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy. Likewise I shall make you understand…”


The empire continued to see itself as the centre of the civilised world, to which properly brought-up foreigners should pay tribute. The reception ceremonies which lay at the core of Chinese diplomacy, with everyone kow-towing in the presence of the emperor, remained more or less unchanged until the nineteenth century.

In 1687, five French fathers arrived and one of them managed to cure the (Manchu emperor) Kangxi of malarial fever by using quinine. In 1692 came an edict of toleration that allowed the Jesuits to build churches. When the Jesuits ran into trouble it was not with the Chinese but with other Christian missionaries. For instance, they claimed that it was entirely justifiable for missionaries in China to adopt any prudent adaptation to Chinese customs in order to advance the faith. That aroused strong opposition from Dominicans and Franciscans as well as groups in France itself.

That created serious trouble, for the emperor insisted, as he was bound to do, on respect for the traditional Chinese homage to Confucius and the rites of ancestor worship. He demanded that the missionaries regard these as civil and not religious ceremonies, and that Christian converts should continue to practise them. The Jesuits were willing to accept that, but the Dominicans and Franciscans were not. The disputation was sent to Rome. Pope Clement XI sent out Bishop Maillard de Tournon, to investigate. He arrived in 1705 and was granted several meetings with Kangxi which ended in total disagreement. The issue, as the Church saw it, had ultimately to do with papal supremacy in matters of religion. From that point of view, the Jesuit willingness to accept Kangxi’s opinions amounted to a critical weakening of the fundamental claims of Catholic Christianity. In 1715 came a papal bull banning the strategy of accommodation and Maillard forbade Catholic missionaries, on pain of excommunication, to obey the emperor in this matter. But there was no possibility that the emperor could tolerate that.

Kangxi’s response was to therefore expel anyone who did not sign a paper accepting his view. The emperor had Maillard imprisoned in Macao, where he died in 1707 (sic).[Harry G Gelber/The Dragon and the Foreign Devils, pp74-75 and 120-122]

Related Links: Kerry Brown’s review at the Asian Review of Books

And now, the Pope talks human rights at the UN

Intervention and sovereignty

Benedict XVI probably gets to address the United Nations by virtue of being the head of the Vatican state. Not because he is a Pope. But when he speaks of “the action of the international community and its institutions . . . should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty” he sure is voicing the opinion of the leader of an international religious institution. For the history of Europe for over a millennium has been one of a contest between an ‘international institution’ and the sovereign state. So you would expect him to say what he did.

But the Pope is wrong. Foreign intervention is always a violation of sovereignty. Now, under the UN charter and international law, it is legitimate to violate sovereignty if authorised by the Security Council. The question of interpretation does not arise with respect to the violation, but arises with respect to its legitimacy. The Pope is right to criticise the UN Security Council for its failure to intervene to protect human rights. But to seek to justify foreign intervention while arguing that sovereignty is not being violated is like arguing that an omelette can be made without breaking the egg.

The Pope would have a perfectly sound moral argument if he had said that violating sovereignty is acceptable if basic human rights are at stake. But then he would have sounded like the leader of an international religious institution and not a head of the Vatican state. But such an argument is not too practical. The international community that the Pope puts so much faith in (if you pardon the pun) can’t possibly be counted on to even define what those human rights are.

The rogue UN Human Rights Council has already made insulting religion a violation of human rights. If the Pope’s argument is stretched to the extreme—as it will probably be—it will never be an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty for the international community to intervene to protect people’s religious sensibilities from being hurt. That’s not a recipe for good things.