This practice of venerating the ancestral tablet by the Chinese community has had a very long and controversial history. It is known in Catholic history as the Chinese Rites controversy. The specific proponents of the adoption of this practice in the Church were the Jesuit missionaries of the early 17th century in China, who adapted many elements of the local Chinese culture in order to evangelise the people, and they did it mighty successfully too. This adaptation of local culture in order to present the Gospel in a way that is recognisable 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 legitimacy of the veneration of ancestral tablets in the Church. According to them, the veneration of ancestral tablets among the people of China was more a social rite than it was a religious rite. In the first place, they claimed, Confucianism (from whence this practice originated) was not even a religion, but rather, a philosophy and way of life. The other orders of missionaries in China though - like the Franciscans, the Augustinians and the Dominicans - absolutely disapproved of this practice, perceiving it as embracing a scandalous form of idolatry incompatible with the Catholic faith.
Pope Clement XI agreed with the latter group of missionaries in his papal bull Ex illa die, declaring such Chinese rites contradictory to the Catholic ethos. However, note that this bull was not a blanket declaration over all elements of Chinese rites and customs. It only condemned specific practices but declared other elements within Chinese customs permissible as long as they were practices 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.
As one can reasonably expect, 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 taking place under Jesuit mission over the season of aggressive inculturation. This phenomenon persisted for almost two centuries until the late 1930s during the papacy of Pope Pius XII, who called for a relaxation of the impositions decreed by his predecessors of the 17th century. In his 1939 decree Plane Compertum, it was explained that Chinese rites previously assumed by Chinese society at large to be religious practices had now, during the era of his pontificate, come to be perceived by society as mere social conventions. Venerating the ancestral tablet was, therefore, a way of expressing great respect and honour for one’s demised relatives and friends. Such practice was now to be seen as permissible in the Catholic context.
What about Today?
Now, notice that this controversy took place in the historical context of China, whereas we are discussing the practice of venerating the ancestral tablet among diaspora Chinese who have little or no roots in China. In discerning the applicability of this practice among diaspora Chinese, several issues have to be considered at length lest it be embraced too simplistically.
Firstly, it needs to be made clear that 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 any possible unnecessary hindrances from the perceptive faculties of its recipients. In other words, our way of evangelisation should not make it more difficult than necessary for people to accept the Gospel. In the days of ancient China, to insist on the termination of such veneration rites actually scandalised the populace and prevented them from accepting the Gospel.
Strangely, this cannot be said of most diaspora Chinese today. It is probably reasonable to hold that neither the forbiddance nor the permission to venerate ancestral tablets would gravely affect the success of the Church’s mission to evangelise 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. In a situation like this, 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. At best, they find us odd and at worst they get scandalised by what they perceive as an adulteration of the Catholic faith.
The situation seems to have been reversed now. That which would have been considered a major scandal when prohibited in ancient China is now considered a major scandal when practised in modern Malaysia, as has been recently made evident in the social networking interface, Facebook.
This brings me to my second point. One cannot help but enquire, is the practice of the veneration of ancestral tablets still part of the local culture? Among the practitioners of Chinese religions, I believe the answer is yes. But there is also a rather sizable population of Chinese speaking Catholics who have not had ancestral tablets in their homes for generations and for whom 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!
One thing is quite clear: the practice of venerating the ancestral tablet which was for the purpose of evangelising unbelievers in ancient China has now been redefined as one which is done for Catholic practitioners 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 are already Catholics and have lived their entire lives as third- or fourth-generation Catholics, never having venerated any ancestral tablets, what makes it so crucial for Chinese New Year Masses to be embellished by what many unbelievers in the larger Malaysian society today perceive as pagan practice?
And now, the final and perhaps the most important point: whether or not the perpetuation of such a practice is to be allowed rests with the bishops, the successors of the Apostles. Therefore, on a personal level, a practising Catholic may not be entirely comfortable with such practice at the Chinese New Year Mass. On this, the individual reserves the right to decide whether he or she would like to participate in this rite of veneration. Neither doing it nor refraining from it makes the person more or less Catholic than those who choose otherwise; this, of course, assumes that those who choose to practise it are doing so without any superfluous or superstitious notions. But on whether the practice itself must be abolished or freedom should be afforded to those who choose to continue in the practice, it remains an issue that falls under the competence of the local ordinary.
At the same time, one should also notice that all the papal bulls issued on this practice refer specifically to the situation in China. They say nothing about the practice of venerating the ancestral tablet for Chinese in other parts of the world. It is an established fact that when a cluster of dioceses wish to add or alter any element to the established liturgical norms of the Church, the Conference of Bishops is required to obtain the assent of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS). Hence, if we are not a part of China, even an affirmative papal bull permitting this practice in China may not automatically grant us the right to practise the rite without express permission from the CDWDS.
Having said that, all that has been mentioned in this article are mere suggestions of aspects that need to be pondered over long and hard on the controversial issue of venerating the ancestral tablet. It is unlikely that the Local Church is ever going to come to a clear position on this anytime in the near future. 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.
Note: Published in the Herald on 10 February 2012