What One Wants to Believe

Cover page of the work, which was published anonymously in 1709, probably in Germany. It is the Latin translation of an Italian paper written by the Jesuit Tommaso Ceva.

Reflexiones supra modernam causae Sinensis constitutionem juxta exemplar in Italia impressum in latinum translatae

Printed by the Society of Jesus in 1709

There is probably no order that saw more success regarding the Catholic mission than the Society of Jesus. Since 1540, a significant number of Jesuits has been living dispersed all over the world. For even before Ignatius of Loyola received the official recognition of the Society of Jesus from the Pope, Francis Xavier, who was canonized on 16 March 1622, had travelled to Asia in order to convert the people there. Many, many others were to follow him.

But it wasn’t the commitment of these Jesuits that led the Society of Jesus to success. It was rather the fact that the representatives of this order were willing to adapt the beliefs of the Catholic Church, as defined in the Roman Catechism, to local conditions.

Matteo Ricci and Chinese Minister Paul Xu Guangqi, who had converted to Christianity, both wearing the costume of a Chinese dignitary. Copper engraving from 1670.

A Church for the Entire World: Or Why Did the Society of Jesus Want to Convert the Chinese to Christianity at All?

What kind of church was this to believe the Empire of China would need Christianity in order to be blessed? Well, when the first Jesuit missionary set out to Asia, the papacy was experiencing real competition for the first time since High Middle Ages. The Protestants questioned the Pope’s rule. The Catholic Church lost an alarmingly high number of members – and (this was even more tragic) sinecures and income from church taxes.

The Pope did what many absolute rulers were to do later: Instead of focusing on the problems within his realm, he shifted his ambitions to the outside: The Christian conquest of the entire world became an excellent distraction from the failure at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. With its martyr legends, the mission provided the material required to arouse the enthusiasm of romantic souls.

The Society of Jesus’ great success in China was certainly something to impress with in Europe.

The Foundation of Success: Tolerance

Europeans completely overlooked the fact that the widely travelled, highly educated and tolerant Jesuits – one may almost call them freethinkers – were willing to forget about some Catholic dogmas in order to guarantee the success of their mission. Was it really that important to ensure that a newly baptised man exclusively prayed at the grave of his deceased family members for them to intercede for him before God? It was only a tiny deviation that Chinese Christians also offered sacrifices to their ancestors at domestic altars after the baptism to make sure they remained on their side and neither caused illness nor harm.

The Kangxi Emperor among Jesuit astronomers. Painting by Philippe Behangle from the years between 1690 and 1705.

The Fundi-Realo Conflict

Then, Dominicans and Franciscans came to China and were surprised to see that their Jesuit brothers in Christ wore the official vesture of Chinese mandarins and were frequent guests at the imperial court. They asked Rome whether one should approve this conduct. Polemic papers went back and forth. The dispute on whether one should adapt to the Chinese circumstances or not went down in the history of Christianity as the Chinese Rites controversy.

Sometimes, Chines rites were forbidden. Then, they were allowed again. Paradoxically, the final decision only was made when the triumph of enlightenment and tolerance began to become apparent in Europe. In 1702, Clement XI appointed Charles-Thomas Maillard De Tournon papal legate to China and sent him to the imperial court. He arrived there in the December of 1705. The Kangxi Emperor gave him a warm reception. After all, Kangxi was well-disposed towards Christians. He had taken lessons in astronomy, mathematics, anatomy and warfare (!) by Jesuits.

And yet, while the Emperor of China was exchanging civilities with the papal legate, a messenger was already on his way to inform Maillard de Tournon about the fact that the Pope had issued a decree on 20 November 1704 prohibiting any kind of adaptation of the Catholic faith to Chinese ideas. Those who violated this rule were to be excommunicated immediately.

The Emperor of China Sends a Delegation of Jesuits

On 25 January 1707, Maillard de Tournon issued the edict of Nanjing on behalf of the Pope ordering the missionaries to cease their practice immediately. In response, the Kangxi Emperor had him captured and sent some Jesuits as his ambassadors to the Papal Court to present the Chinese position.


The publication at hand belongs in this context. In order to gain supporters, the Jesuits had polemics papers that sustained their position of tolerance printed in various languages. As early as in 1704, the Jesuit and mathematician Tommaso Ceva (1648–1736) published a book explaining the point of view of the Society of Jesus. The booklet we present in this article was probably printed in Germany in 1709 and is a Latin translation.

The End of a Success Story

Of course, Roman cardinals knew things much better than the Jesuit ambassadors of the Emperor of China. Clement XI expressed his admiration for the courage and the loyalty of his legate Maillard de Tournon, who had died shortly after his imprisonment. Then, he immediately issued a decree confirming the edict of Nanjing.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the Emperor of China didn’t accept this. He issued a counter-decree in 1721 culminating in the claim: “I have never seen a document – the Emperor refers to the papal decree (author’s note) – that contained so much nonsense.”

And that’s how the Catholic mission of China came to an end. Anyone who wanted to preach in China risked expulsion, and later his life as well.

Oh, and in 1773 Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Society of Jesus. For his taste, the members were a bit too independent in their thought.

If you would like to read the book online, the Bavarian State Library provides you with a digitalised version.

We bought this book at Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.

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