When celestial kingdoms collidePRINCETON, New Jersey One of the world's largest countries, China, is at loggerheads with one of the world's smallest, the Vatican. Yet before thinking of David and Goliath, remember that in one way, they are equally large - both claim the nominal allegiance of about a fifth of humanity. The conflict between the Chinese state and the Holy See, moreover, long predates the Communist takeover in 1949 and Mao Zedong's edict two years later isolating Chinese Catholics.
It has, in fact, been simmering for centuries, ever since the first papal envoy visited the Forbidden City in 1705. During two audiences with the Kangxi emperor in the winter of that year and the summer of 1706, the apostolic legate Monsignor Carlo Tommaso Maillard de Tournon set the tone that has dominated Rome's relations with Beijing for 300 years.
At issue were the thousands of Chinese souls that had been claimed for the Roman Church as a result of decades of work by missionaries and their converts. The primary promoters of this enterprise were Jesuits, who brought to China only their skill at learning languages and their powers of persuasion. Despite their small number - never more than 40 at one time - they managed to baptize hundreds of thousands of men and women and organize churches throughout the Chinese empire from Xian to Shanghai and Guangzhou to Beijing.
In order to keep themselves in the good graces of successive Ming and Manchu sovereigns, Jesuit priests also ran the Imperial Astronomical Bureau and tutored young emperors in math and music.
As the 18th century opened, the time seemed ripe for bishops appointed by the pope to assume their proper place at the head of the Chinese church that the missionaries had built.
But that was not the only topic on Tournon's mind as he made his way to Beijing. Both he and the Holy See had heard damning reports that the missionaries had permitted their converts to practice ancestor worship and offer sacrifices to Confucius, native customs known as the Chinese Rites. The Jesuits had gone too far and needed to be brought to heel.
Tournon had been trained at the papal court, the best diplomatic school in Europe, and given a title appropriate to his mission: Patriarch of Antioch and Apostolic Visitor of the Indies. The only thing he lacked was years; but at 36, it was hoped, he could weather the rigors of the year-long voyage to China.
Almost a century before the famous Macartney embassy, during which the English ambassador refused to bow before the Qianlong emperor and endured a famous rebuke about the worth of English exports, Tournon was received in Beijing. He, too, came before the Son of Heaven with a proposal: A representative of Rome's choosing should administer Chinese Catholics, who must abandon the Chinese Rites.
Kangxi initially warmed to the first part of this deal, but he stipulated that the representative be someone who knew China, like one of the local Jesuits.
But Tournon's view of Chinese ritual customs drew Kangxi's ire. After all, the emperor was the final arbiter in all matters relating to Confucian thought and the papal ambassador spoke not a word of Mandarin. How could someone so unfamiliar with China presume to make judgments about things Chinese?
After his second meeting with Tournon in July 1706, Kangxi ordered him deported. On his way to the coast, the papal legate stopped long enough to hurl insults and threats of excommunication against the Jesuits, whom he accused of undermining his mission.
He also informed them of a papal bull that presented the missionaries with a dilemma. The Jesuits in China could obey the papacy and make a public denunciation of the Chinese Rites or obey the emperor and risk censure from Rome. They mostly chose the latter, but to no avail.
Kangxi's successor banned the practice of Christianity in China in 1724. And less than 20 years after that, Benedict XIV confirmed the opinions of his predecessors and ended all debate over the Chinese Rites. Few new missionaries dared travel to East Asia at the risk of being excommunicated. The Jesuits who remained there eventually died of old age.
It would take the Chinese church over a century to recoup the losses. Now, Pope Benedict XVI contemplates his next step in negotiations with the powers that be in Beijing. While the moral and political terms of this struggle are vastly different than what they were 300 years ago, the fate of the 12 million Catholics in China still hangs in the balance.
Liam M. Brockey, an assistant professor of history at Princeton, is the author of the forthcoming "Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724."