Our brief visits to China and North America this week reminds us that although most of the politics and key protagonists of the Suppression and Restoration of the Society of Jesus were in Europe, its impact was felt much further afield. This was an age of unprecedented expansion of the Catholic Church. Foreign missions were flourishing, sometimes under the protection of colonial powers, sometimes without. It is ironic when one considers that catholic means ‘universal’ that for so long Catholicism often on the coattails of colonialism exported cultural hegemony and hierarchical emissaries to far-flung corners of the world, often unconcerned with the "reception" process of the faith. Architecture, literature, traditions often supplanted from Spain, Portugal, England (in the case of Anglicanism) were installed with little regard for the distinctiveness of the lands to which they were being sent, for good and for ill.
The issue of Eurocentrism is a polemical one. The model of nation- state, liberalism, modern science, timekeeping and the mapping of the world and much more were heavily influenced by European societies. The Catholic Church centred on Rome – at the tomb of the first Pope Peter and the great missionary apostle Paul - has contributed to this Eurocentrism. How entrenched this has been is evident by last year’s election of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope of course but also the first non-European Pope for nearly 1300 years.
It is interesting to note however that it was often the Jesuit missionaries – in countries with no significant colonial footprints who pioneered inculturation. In India there was a Portuguese colony in Goa – but much of the work that Xavier and de Nobili did was far away from these colonial bases. Similarly in China with Mateo Ricci. Both mission were to fall foul of Cardinal de Tournon and investigations from Rome. Famously de Tournon exasperated the Jesuits in China with his lack of willingness to meet Chinese officials. Both the Chinese Rites and Malabar Rites controversies were to fall foul of Euro-centric judgements, many of them later to be rescinded. These ‘inculturation battles’ were only to harden the opposition to the Jesuits back in Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and most importantly Rome.