Home > Archives > 10 - 2005 > Vatican-Manchukuo, mea culpas are not necessary
from issue no. 10 - 2005


Vatican-Manchukuo, mea culpas are not necessary

An unpublished memorandum of the great missionary Charles Lemaire, a leading figure in the event, shows that the Holy See gave no diplomatic recognition to the puppet State created in Manchuria in the ’thirties by the Japanese invaders. But exactly there the centuries old controversy about the “Chinese rites” was settled. The analogies and the differences with the Holy See-Taiwan “case”  

by Gianni Valente

Japanese propaganda 
in an English language 
poster in 1930 for the State 
of Manchukuo.  
Techno-economic development and social order were the topics that the aggressors counted 
on to justify the creation 
of the puppet State.

Japanese propaganda in an English language poster in 1930 for the State of Manchukuo. Techno-economic development and social order were the topics that the aggressors counted on to justify the creation of the puppet State.

A diplomatic puzzle that Karol Wojtyla’s pontificate left as inheritance to his successor is being played out far away from the Tiber, along the two separate banks of the Strait of Formosa. At the center of the affair is the Vatican Nunciature in Taiwan – 22 and a half million inhabitants, of whom 330 thousand Catholics – which is still listed in the Pontifical Yearbook as the «Vatican representation to China», and which serves as a prêt-a-porter alibi for the Beijing officials to nonchalantly snob the Vatican advances for the start of direct dialogue between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, heir to that Celestial Empire where a fifth of the human race now lives, including twelve million people faithful to the Catholic Church.
The Vatican is the only diplomatic service of note to keep its own representation in Taipei, where there are no European embassies and where the USA also, friends of Taiwan, keep only commercial offices open. And when one seeks in the past the reasons for this anomaly, Rome and Beijing recount two different stories.
It was the recently installed Communist regime that bluntly broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican, when in September of 1951 it expelled the nuncio Antonio Riberi – who up until then had been living in Nanking – as an undesirable person. Across the Tiber, this hostile act was obviously read as an episode in the persecution inaugurated in those years by the new Communist power to cancel every link between the Church in China and the Apostolic See. But the fact that only three years afterwards the same Riberi had transferred the nunciature to the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled to Formosa after having lost the civil war to the Communists, was always presented by the Chinese regime as proof of radical Vatican hostility towards the new Communist China. Or indeed as a confirmation of the negative feeling that animated the Vatican with regard to the Chinese nation tout court.
There is a preceding historical controversy that, set alongside the Taiwan episode, seems made to measure to confirm the Chinese political-diplomatic complaint. It is the Manchukuo affair, the puppet State that Japanese military occupation created in the ’thirties in the north-eastern regions of China. In that situation also, according to official Chinese historiography, papal diplomacy hastened to give its support to the illegitimate State entity created by the Japanese aggressors at the expense of China. One of the most thorough governmental documents on the religious question, the “white book” on religion drawn up by the Chinese Council of State in October 1997, also recalls that «after Japan invaded north-east China, the Vatican adopted a position that supported Japanese aggression. It was the first to recognize the puppet regime of Manchukuo, set up by Japan, and sent a representative there».
In fact, the photo of the Vatican representative as guest at the official receptions of the Manchukuo government were used for decades by Chinese anti-imperialist propaganda. But did it happen exactly like that? New unpublished documents – which 30Days is in a position to anticipate – help to reconstruct the situation in a different way. And, as a result, could set the intricate story of relations between the Vatican and Taiwan in a new light.

A controversial story
The China of the ’thirties was a feverish giant, rendered fragile by internal conflicts and exposed to the imperialist greed of foreign powers. The imperial structure had been dissolved for a few decades, beginning with the abdication of Puyi, the last Qing emperor, in 1912, but the young Republic inaugurated by the nationalists of the Guomintang couldn’t maintain control of all the immense territory. While the clash with Mao’s Communists degenerated into a bloody conflict, in September 1931 the Japanese deliberately provoked an attack on their own railway line that crossed southern Manchuria so as to justify in the name of the «principle of preventive defense» the occupation of the rich north-eastern Chinese province, as a base for further territorial expansion into the former Celestial Empire. In March 1932 the Japanese themselves, to cover up the occupation, created the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria, placing at its head Puyi himself, the dethroned emperor (a figure made famous by Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie The Last Emperor). The League of Nations refused to recognize the new state, where however Puyi was installed on 1 March 1934 with the royal title of Kang De (well-being and virtue). The Japanese carried on the comedy as far as nominating an ambassador to the government of Manchukuo. The new State was recognized only by Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, who also sent their own representatives.
In the Vatican the most pressing need appeared to be that of protecting as far as possible the ordinary life of the Catholic missions – eight, including vicariates and apostolic prefectures, plus the two provinces of Jehol and Hingan – now under the control of the new “empire”, which used its police system to prevent all contact between the ordinaries of these ecclesiastical districts and the apostolic delegate in China (who up until 1933 was still the legendary Celso Costantini). When the first difficulties emerged, in primis the threat from the new regime to close Catholic schools that did not render to Confucius the homage prescribed by the civil authorities, remedial action was taken. With a letter dated 20 March 1934 the Congregation of Propaganda Fide appointed the apostolic vicar of Kirin Auguste Ernest Pierre Gaspais as «representative ad tempus of the Holy See and of the Catholic missions of Manchukuo to the government of Manchukuo».
Already in those days the bulletin of the congregation of the Missions étrangères de Paris denounced in the local press the maneuver underway as aimed at «overvaluing the functions entrusted to Bishop Gaspais». Maoist propaganda also would read in the new duties given to the vicar of Kirin full Vatican recognition of the puppet government. But did it really happen like that? Did papal diplomacy really offer its backing to legitimate the political entity created by Japanese aggression? A memorandum, unpublished until now, written half way through the ’eighties by one who then defined himself as «the only living witness of Kirin», enables us to reconstruct from within how things really went. The testimony comes from one of the leading figures in the affair: the Frenchman Charles Lemaire, of the missionary society Missions étrangères de Paris (MEP), who was then rector of the diocesan seminary of Kirin, and who at that very critical juncture had also been nominated auxiliary bishop (in a “tactical” choice that, as will be seen, was already in itself sufficient to clarify what the Vatican mens was in regard to relations with Manchukuo). The promemoria – twelve pages written by hand, full of additions and corrections, in linear script but in some rare cases indecipherable – bears the date 16 June 1986 and was drafted by Monsignor Lemaire at the request of the great Jesuit sinologist Laszlo Ladany, who had asked him for a detailed account of the entire business. The manuscript (whose original is now deposited in the personal archive of the PIME missionary Giancarlo Politi) is one of the main documentary sources of the volume soon to be published, Santa Sede e Manciukuo 1932-1945, (author Giovanni Coco, Libreria Editrice Vaticana), along with other unpublished documents kept in the Vatican Archives.
The Japanese infantry 
in the cold winter of 1933 during 
the invasion of Manchuria

The Japanese infantry in the cold winter of 1933 during the invasion of Manchuria

The summary reconstruction of the facts proposed by Lemaire leaves no doubts. The French missionary affirms in a firm tone that «the Vatican never recognized the legitimacy of the government of Manchukuo, nor the legitimacy of Japanese power, nor that of the imperial power of Puyi and his Manchu ministers». And all of this because «the Vatican was too well informed to allow itself to be involved, too respectful of the rights of China and of the sufferings of the Chinese population of Manchuria, humiliated and reduced to silence by an omnipresent and omnipotent police force, to take part in the comedy by giving the impression of recognizing the legitimacy and having diplomatic relations». The attribution of a new role to Gaspais served only to assure the missions the presence «of someone to represent the central authority of the Church» in that condition of emergency and, in the name of the local bishops, to conduct negotiations with the illegitimate government, even without recognizing it at the diplomatic level. In the impossibility of having contact with the apostolic delegate in China, someone was needed who «by ecclesiastical law could be made aware of the spiritual and temporal difficulties of the ordinaries, and could in their name negotiate with the central authorities». Lemaire lists in detail the concrete difficulties that required the presence of a representative of the missions who could take decisions in the name of the Holy See, such as the authority to deliver dispensations, or to conduct preliminary enquiries into ecclesiastical nominations. And above all, the authority to confront «local incidents, contestations, arbitrary acts, flagrant injustices on the part of the local authorities against which the ordinaries were helpless».
Lemaire documents with precision the details, also technical and having to do with protocol, that show the non-diplomatic nature of the relations that existed in those years between the representative nominated by the Vatican and the Manchukuoan government. «To face the needs of the local Churches», he writes, «the Vatican wanted to have someone who represented it among the Churches and to the government. But it also wanted, and very firmly, to abstain from recognizing the legitimacy of the government of Manchuria; it didn’t want to perform any act, not even one, that might appear as an “implicit legitimation”». The functions of the representative corresponded more or less to those that the Code of Canon Law attributed to the figure of the apostolic delegate. But the Holy See didn’t want to furnish any pretext, not even lexical, for foreseeable manipulation by the puppet government. The investing of Gaspais with titles normally used by the Holy See to designate its representatives to States run by legitimate governments was carefully avoided. «This», Lemaire emphasizes, «explains the name, up until then unusual in ecclesiastical law, invented for this particular case, of representative of the Holy See to the government of Manchukuo and the Catholic missions of Manchukuo». The fact that it was the Congregation of Propaganda Fide that nominated Gaspais was also significant, «therefore not the Pope in person, nor the Secretary of State, but the body holding authority over the missions, a purely religious body that is, without the function of diplomatic relations with States». The choice also of attributing the new functions to an ecclesiastic already there served to emphasize that the Holy See had no intention of «sending from Rome» any representative. «All of this», Lemaire sums up, «leaves it clearly understood what the Holy See wanted: to be represented but without recognizing the legitimacy of the government», in order to «be able to approach the government in a case of necessity». This, obviously, involved the recognition of the existence de facto of the puppet state. But «also those who were convinced of the usurpation, were obliged to recognize that this government existed de facto. The protests from China themselves implied that this tyrannical power existed».

The weak link
«The Japanese», Lemaire notes, «never formally declared that the Vatican had recognized the government of Manchukuo; in practice, they did everything to make it be thought so». Gaspais was repeatedly invited to official receptions along with the Axis ambassadors. When he went on visits to the most remote communities of his ecclesiastical district, the regime propaganda reserved triumphant welcomes for him, with children who waved the little yellow and white Vatican flags, as if he were a fully ratified nuncio. At the beginning of every year, following diplomatic protocol, he went to present his greetings to the puppet emperor. The Japanese covered him with honors, including the medal of Grand Official of the Order of National Support. Through him all missionaries were granted small benefits, such as the 30 per cent discount on train tickets.
Gaspais was the weak link on which the Japanese put pressure to force the hand of the Holy See. In 1936 this good natured son of Breton peasants, by chance at the center of the intricate affair, actually wrote a letter to Rome to persuade Vatican diplomacy to send a real representative to Manchukuo. He justified the request by saying he wanted to unburden himself of the responsibilities of the post he had received ad tempus since they were distracting him from the pastoral care of the diocese entrusted to him. According to Lemaire’s account, Gaspais also placed at the disposition of the eventual Vatican appointee «a building to house the representation». The reply was not long in coming and it more than spoke for itself. In November 1936 Gaspais confided to Lemaire that he had received some forms from Rome with the invitation to compile them with the names of some of his collaborators of whom one would be appointed auxiliary bishop to help him with the pastoral care of the apostolic vicariate. The message was clear: no “representative” would be sent from the Vatican. Since Gaspais had said that he could not manage, he would be given an auxiliary bishop as collaborator to whom he could delegate part of his ordinary pastoral duties. «Monsignor», comments Lemaire, «realized he had written an imprudent letter, the solution found by Rome was very far away from what he had dreamed». In the meantime, the burden of work Gaspais had complained of also revealed itself to be a pretext. It was only three years afterwards, following further solicitation from Rome, that the vicar decided to indicate Lemaire himself as candidate for the role of coadjutor bishop . «On 10 July 1939,» recounts the French missionary who in the ’fifties was to become superior of the Missions étrangères de Paris, «I was appointed titular bishop of Otro and coadjutor of Kirin, and consecrated on the following November 13». Whereas for contacts with the government, Gaspais willingly allowed space to the “mediation” of Japanese priests, sent from the motherland and with good access to the nomenclature of the puppet regime. Among these an increasing role was assumed by Paul Yoshigoro Taguchi, future archbishop of Osaka and cardinal. «The Monsignor», Lemaire notes, «never appeared, wrote nothing. Father Taguchi almost always succeeded in smoothing difficulties. There were never diplomatic questions dealt with between the Holy See and the government».
Respecting his good personal intentions, it is certain that Gaspais’s modus operandi gave backing on certain occasions to the propaganda operations orchestrated by the puppet State, anxious to display in front of the world an inexistent Vatican “recognition”. Official Chinese historiography also benefited for years from this ambiguity in its polemics with the Vatican concerning Manchukuo. Analogously a decisive role was played by the nuncio Antonio Riberi in the events that led to the transferring of the Chinese nunciature to Taiwan in the early ’fifties. It was he who, after the expulsion imposed by the Maoists, came up with the notion of making a fait accompli of the transfer of Vatican representation to the nationalist Chinese government that had taken refuge on the island of Formosa, to their obvious satisfaction. Only when the Vatican documents on this matter are published, will it be possible to assess in detail analogies and differences in the handling of the two different historical predicaments for Vatican diplomacy. Which, as with all diplomatic services in the world, relies on men, with their ambitions and their limitations.

Above, the Chinese imperial cavalry 
during the enthroning of Emperor 
Puyi as Head of  the State of Manchukuo

Above, the Chinese imperial cavalry during the enthroning of Emperor Puyi as Head of the State of Manchukuo

Chinese rites,
the case is closed
There is however at least one question in which Gaspais himself played a part, without being aware of it, a role that should merit more attention from historians of the Church.
In Manchukuo, Lemaire again recounts, «the Japanese, in order to insure the submission of the people to the government, had the idea of re-establishing the teaching of Wang Tao», the Confucian doctrine that prescribes full loyalty to the sovereign. The rituals in honor of Confucius and the emperor were imposed as obligatory for the students and teachers in all the schools, «with the threat of closing the schools if they refused».
As has been seen, it was precisely this blackmail against the Catholic schools that convinced the Catholic Church to effect the nomination sui generis of Gaspais. After receiving his new assignment, when he met the foreign minister he asked him innocently whether the Confucian rites prescribed had a religious character or whether they could be considered simple manifestations of civic deference.
Behind the question posed by Gaspais the controversy about the Chinese rites resurfaced, the century old torment of the missions on Chinese land. In the ’thirties of last century the decree Ex quo singulari of 1742 whereby Benedict XIV had prohibited all Catholics of the Celestial Empire from taking part in rites in honor of Confucius, condemned as idolatrous, was still in force. All missionaries, before leaving for the mission in China, still had to take an oath of obedience to the prohibitions contained in the decree.
It was Gaspais’s naïve question itself that set off the process which in 1939 led to the definitive settling of what Celso Costantini defined as «the cursed question of the rites». It received a written reply, signed by the minister of Education, in which the ceremonies in honor of Confucius were formally defined as «exterior manifestations of veneration» devoid of religious character and stated that their nature was that of acts «of purely civic significance». On the basis of these assurances, in March 1935 the bishops of Manchukuo sent a report to Rome to request at least the possibility of authorizing the «passive participation» of Catholics in the Confucian ceremonies. At the end of May Gaspais himself was received in audience by Pius XI.
The political circumstances of emergency, with the threat looming over the Catholic schools, encouraged a pragmatic approach. For the first time the Holy See conceded some departures from the prohibitions that it had always opposed to the requests of missionaries working in China. On May 28 1935 the Congregation of Propaganda Fide delegated to the bishops of Manchukuo the right to regulate the participation of Catholics in the Chinese rites case by case. Only in December 1939, with the Propaganda Fide decree Plane compertum, was permission to offer ritual homage to Confucius and his forefathers extended to all of China.
In his memorandum Lemaire is intent on emphasizing that «the question of the Chinese rites was never itself an object of any diplomatic act between the representative of the Holy See and the government. The Holy See did not give any mandate to Gaspais to negotiate this matter with the government. The government’s written reply was not destined for the Holy See, but for monsignor Gaspais». It remains a fact that the accommodating realist stance taken on by the Holy See, in response to the blackmail of a puppet state considered illegitimate, freed the Church of a deadweight that had for centuries hindered its mission in the Chinese cultural world. As Father Jean Charbonner, one of the foremost living Catholic sinologists, noted during one of his teaching conferences on relations between the Vatican and Manchukuo held at the Catholic University of Taipei, «It is only to be regretted that the Church was ready to make a greater compromise with the Japanese aggressors rather than with the legitimate Chinese emperors of the past».

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