China and the Great Catholic What-If

History being linear, “What if….?” is an unanswerable question—but always a fascinating one. What if George Washington had failed in New York in the early days of the American revolution and the rebellion had been crushed? What if Lee had heeded Longstreet, won Gettysburg, and then taken Washington, thus ending the Civil War and achieving Confederate independence? What if Charles Lindbergh had been the Republican candidate in 1940 and had defeated FDR? What if Bush vs. Gore had been decided differently in 2000?

“What if…? questions involve more than politics, of course. What if the Apostles had turned right rather than left on leaving the Holy Land, so that Christianity was first “inculturated” in a civilization (India) lacking the Greek principle of non-contradiction: Could the Church have developed a doctrinal architecture if Christianity had first been planted in a culture where something could both “be” and “not be”?

Then there is the great “What if….?” involving Christianity and China, of which I’ve only become aware thanks to a November 2011 lecture by the distinguished historian, Hugh Thomas, published in the March 2012 issue of the British journal Standpoint.

According to Lord Thomas, a combination of Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, led by a remarkable character named Lopez de Legazpi, proposed to use the new Spanish colony of the Philippines as the launch-pad for a Spanish and Christian takeover of China—an ambition they styled la empresa de China, “the China Project.” The “project” fired the imaginations of Legazpi’s successors, who pressed the Spanish monarch, Philip II, for permission to bring China under Spanish control. Philip, whom Hugh Thomas styles “the Great Procrastinator,” dithered, being preoccupied with rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands, and eventually cooled to the idea.

True to the original Ignatian charism, the fires of evangelical (and political) ambition were rekindled by a Jesuit, Alonso Sanchez, who went to China in 1582 and returned to the Philippines determined to revive la empresa de China. It would not be a walkover, Father Sanchez conceded; but he thought 8,000 men and 12 galleons could do the job.

And what a job it would be. For Sanchez and his supporters imagined a China filled with Christian universities and monasteries as well as Spanish forts, a China in which the Spaniards would intermarry with Chinese women (“serious, honest, retiring … and usually of great grace, beauty and discretion”) to form a new mestizo race that would be thoroughly Catholic, and from whose numbers the Gospel would then come (along with Spanish hegemony, of course) to India, Southeast Asia, Borneo, the Moluccas and Sumatra.

Yet the Great Procrastinator in the Escorial continued to, well, procrastinate, and the defeat of the Invincible Armada by Howard and Drake in 1588 gave Philip II even more reason to dither about schemes of conquest and conversion in the Far East. Eventually, as Lord Thomas concludes, “nothing was done.” The plan was never explicitly rejected. Philip II simply let it die of inattention, as consummate bureaucrats know how to do.

But what if Philip had forged ahead—and succeeded? In the 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), John Paul II, noting that the great failure of Christian mission in the first two millennia had been in East Asia, urged that the mission ad gentes (the mission to the nations) be focused on Asia in the third millennium. But what if China had been evangelized in the century and had subsequently developed a vibrant form of Catholicism that blended the best of European and Chinese talents and personalities? Might the mission ad gentes, in the third millennium, be one in which this Euro-Asian Catholicism re-evangelized the religiously arid societies of Old Europe? Might we be speculating about a Chinese pope, not as something fantastic, but as something obvious?

Hugh Thomas is old-fashioned enough to lament a lost religious, cultural and geopolitical opportunity: “Christianity did not, alas, become the dominant religion of China as it had become in New Spain.” “What if” it had, merits a moment’s speculation.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Mparks12

    The Church had its chance in China a few decades later, and blew it.  Matteo Ricci the Jesuit had the entree, the understanding, and the right approach, with great success, but other Orders accused him of heresy and convinced the Vatican to forbid the rites of honoring of ancestors.  In 1939, the Vatican corrected itself….a bit late. 

  • publiusnj

    Dithering?  As though Phillip II had nothing better to do with his time than to try to take on the World’s largest country half a world away?  In truth, Phillip II had a lot else going on of critical importance to Holy Mother Church throughout his entire reign. 

    As in: the War against the Turks, which  resulted in the thwarting of the Turkish Effort to turn the Mediterranean into a Muslim Lake in a series of campaigns including the Siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. 

    Then there were the wars against Catholicism waged in France throughout the 1560s through 1595.  But for Phillip’s intercession on the side of the Catholic League, France may well have ended up a Huguenot country run by a Huguenot Henri IV in which the Catholic Religion would have been as poorly treated as it was in Lord Thomas’s own country. 

    Then there was the effort by Dutch Protestants to wrest away the Benelux Countries from Spain and from Catholicism.   Thanks to Phillip II and his half brother Don Juan’s efforts, most of Belgium and Luxemburg and a third of the Seven Provinces have remained with Holy Mother Church, despite the efforts of the English to aid the Orangists. 

    Finally, there were the sleazy efforts by England’s Queen Elizabeth to wage war on Spain in the name of “Protestantism” (not to mention the greed of her courtiers) that began with Francis Drake’s piratical Antillean depredations in the 1560s and continued up through Elizabeth’s sleazy seizure of the Spanish Payroll Fleet in 1568, more piracy throughout the 1570s and 80s and the Invasion of the Spanish Holland in 1585 right through to the raids on Cadiz and the Spanish Plate fleet that went on in the 1590s.  Because he was so busy in these other efforts, Phillip had tried to maintain peace with England despite those piracies but finally went to war in 1585 when Elizabeth sent her lover Robert Dudley to Holland to lead an English expeditionary force supporting the Protestant rebels.

    Phillip II gets as bad a press as Elizabeth gets a wonderful press.  Neither is deserved.

    • Mparks12

       Ah, so refreshing to hear the black legend denounced. 

    • Philip also counseled Mary not to turn the Protestant leaders into martyrs, and Cardinal Pole (who himself had a pretty good title to the throne) agreed with him.  But Mary followed the advice of vindictive counselors.  She came to the throne with great support from the common people, who resisted the reforms pushed through by the Suffolk faction at court during the reign of the boy Edward VI.  But she was not a great politician.  For my money, France is the biggest sinner of the 16th century….

      • publiusnj

        Mr. Esolen’s history has little relevance to my earlier comments.  On the subject of Mary I, though, one truth the British Black Legend Myth Machine tries desperately to hide is the fact that, in the Fall of 1554, the English Parliament repealed all the anti-Catholic legislation of the Henry VIII and Edward VI reigns.  The English Parliament and Nation then asked to be taken back into Communion with the Holy See of Rome.  Rome granted that, Christian unity was restored and the whole hateful incident would have been over but for the fact that Elizabeth and her two Leicester and Cecil factions were such partisans for warfare on Catholicism.  Right from the start  of her reign, Elizabeth waged external wars for Protestantism with Scotland (1559 and later), France (1562), the naval war on Spain (1565-1603), the Land war with Spain in the Seven Provinces of Holland (1585, et seq) and, worst of all, her war on the Irish Catholics beginning around 1570 and continuing until the end of her reign (1603).  Given such unholy war and such slaughters as Smerwick Fort in 1580, I believe that it was she who was the “greatest sinner of the 16th Century.”

  • Tout

     There may be a time to dream. But make time to learn. Then go ahead, help spread the truth.

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  • hattiejo

    I’ve always admired and respected George Weigel and his work. Now he’s raised some interesting ponderables to – well – ponder, based on a Hugh Thomas lecture. Thanks, Mr. Weigel (or, is it Dr., as in PhD?), for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • hombre111

    I have a better and more practical “What if” about China.  What if the Jesuit Mateo Ricci had succeeded in bringing a culturally sensitive Catholicism to China?     He realized that Catholicism would have to become a Chinese, rather than Italian, Catholicism.  He was well on his way and had gained great influence with the Chinese upper classes.  

    But the Franciscans who were trying to install an Italian style Catholicism in a country with a completely different culture took their case to Rome.    The usual Roman conservatism reacted in the usual conservative way, and decreed that every Chinese Catholic Church would have to remind a visitor of his parish church in Genoa. 

    Of course, the Catholic effort collapsed overnight.   The country remained the “pagan” country it had always been.   But what if?   It would have changed the course of history. 

    And what if the Roman Church of today had learned anything at all from the past?

  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    Truly, discussing “What if…?” is always difficult.  In this case , however, China’s long history of absorbing its conquerors (e.g., Mongols, Manchus) means that a Spanish conquest of China might have had unexpected results.  So maybe, if this had happened, the Spanish governor of China and his staff and their fellow colonists would have gone local and converted from Christianity to Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism.  Truly, we will never know.

  • poetcomic1

    The early Jesuits in China were quite divided about whether to build upon the Confucian aspects of Chinese culture or the Taoist.  Either amalgam, in full flower, would have been fascinating.

  • Clifford

    Weigel’s little essay shows an absolutely stunning ignorance of history. Quite apart from his nostalgia for Catholic wars of conquest, how can he seriously suggest that a few thousand Spanish troops, backed with some ships, could have overcome China? He apparently knows nothing of China’s history, and I suspect he knows little of the history of the Christian missions in that country (I wonder if he’s ever heard of Matteo Ricci, SJ, for example).