Early History of Catholic Power in Siam and China
The attempt to set up repressive Catholicism in Vietnam via President Diem, was only one of the latest efforts in the pattern which she had pursued many times on the Asiatic continent. In the past the pattern had been varied but consistent. In the case of Vietnam a couple of centuries ago, closely knit Catholic groups cemented themselves into the surrounding non-Christian Buddhist environment. Once well established they assert themselves over their Buddhist neighbors as independent economic and political factions.
Their assertions required not only bold, religious self confidence, but also the imposition of Catholic authority upon their Buddhist co-religionists. Such imposition led to punitive legislation, which, when resisted brought repression, leading in time to the use of brute force.
In the case of President Diem and his Catholic junta they established themselves and their authority first with gradual legal discrimination against the Buddhist majority. The unrestricted use of terror followed when the Buddhist population refused to submit. Diem's approach was not just a freak example of contemporary Catholic aggressiveness in a largely non-Christian society. It has been repeated on the Asian continent for three hundred years.
In those times of course, there were kings, a ruling aristocracy, with cultural mandarins, the ruling trio of society, whose acceptance or rejection was paramount. However, the basic pattern of Catholic religious exclusiveness and aggression, like that exercised by Diem and his brothers, was no mere coincidence. Without going into too many details, we shall therefore confine ourselves to illustrate one or two typical instances which occurred in a regional ethnic conglomerate once known as Indo-China.
France's first bid for Asiatic dominions took place as already indicated, in the early 17th century via the French East India Company. The company's goal was to bring that region into the French commercial orbit. A less visible, though no less concrete aim, was the propagation of the Catholic faith. This last objective, although apparently prompted mainly by individual Catholics, was directly inspired by the Vatican, which backed the French East India Company from the very start.
However having established its first outposts in India, the company soon encountered unforeseen resistance by the British until the French decided to look to other fields and turned her attention to the small kingdoms of Indo-China and, in particular, to Siam. The first exploration of the new regions on behalf of the French East India Company was not undertaken by company officials or French diplomats, but by Catholic missionaries. These went with the permission and encouragement of the Vatican, under the pretense of religion, to investigate the commercial, political and strategic resources on behalf of French imperialism.
Alexander de Rhodes, a Jesuit, arrived in Indo-China about 1610, and only a decade later sent a very accurate description of the possibilities of Annam and Tonkin. French Jesuits were promptly recruited to help him in his double work of converting those nations to the Catholic faith and of exploring the commercial potential. These tasks, in the eyes of both Rome and Paris, could not be separated, being the two most important stepping stones to political and military occupation.
The missionaries were so successful that by 1659 Indo-China was marked as an exclusive sphere of French commercial and religious activity. Subsequent missionaries extended their dual activities into Pegu, Cambodia, Annam and Siam. Siam, the most highly developed country of the Indo-Chinese peninsula, soon became the base for religious, commercial and political activities of both the East India Company and the Vatican. Their plans were simple: each would contribute to the Siamese subjugation according to its means; the company through its commerce, the French government through its armies, and the Vatican through its religious penetration.
When commercial bases and missionary stations had been successfully established, the French government pressed for an official trade alliance with Siam. Simultaneously the Vatican concentrated on expanding its spiritual influence, not so much by converting the populace as by focusing upon the conversion of a single person: the Siamese king himself. If this could be accomplished, Catholic priests would then attempt to persuade the new Catholic king to admit French garrisons into the key cities of Mergui and Bangkok upon the pretext that this was in the best interests of the Catholic Church.
In 1685 the French government concluded a favorable trade alliance with its ruler. Two years later the Siamese king and the ruling elite converted to Catholicism. This powerful Catholic group set out to dominate not only the governmental machinery, but also use it to exert pressure upon the Buddhist society. Relentless streams of discriminating regulations were issued against Buddhist institutions and in favor of the Catholic minority.
Catholic Churches were erected everywhere while pagodas were closed at the slightest pretext or even demolished. Catholic schools replaced Buddhist ones. Discrimination against the Buddhist majority could be found at all levels. In no time the Catholics became top citizens to be found wherever there was power, privilege and wealth.
The Catholic ruling elite, like in Diem's time, turned into a kind of religious political Mafia, identified with the unrestricted exercise of absolute power which it used and abused without discretion. Resistance was ruthlessly suppressed by the Church's main supporter, the French, always ready to come to her help with their gunboats.
Like with Diem, the Buddhist majority finally, after many fruitless protests, organized popular resistance. This was also ruthlessly suppressed. The measures provoked widespread anti-Catholic feelings, which in no time swept the whole country. Churches were attacked or destroyed. Catholics were hunted down and soon the resistance, which curiously started at the royal court where originally the Catholics had been so welcomed, surged at all levels.
Catholic priests and French officials as well as native Catholics were expelled or arrested until finally all Catholic activities ceased. In no time the Catholic minority which had acted as the persecutors, became the persecuted. French commerce ceased entirely and missionary work was stopped. The French-Vatican bid for the political and religious control of Siam ended in 1688. Result: for a whole century and a half Siam became practically a forbidden land to both.
At almost the same time the Catholic Church was also attempting to impose herself upon another Buddhist culture, the largest in the world: China.
Early in the seventeenth century, Jesuits had managed to penetrate the Imperial Court and convert a Chinese Empress to Catholicism. This conversion was a major coup for the Catholic Church in her strategy to impose herself, upon the whole of Buddhist China. Since the Empress was the center of the Imperial Court, the source of Supreme power, she became the pivot round which the Catholic Church planned her exercise of mass conversion.
The potential appeared unlimited. The Chinese Empress had become a pliable tool in the hands of the Jesuits, who manipulated her to implant Catholic influence at all levels. Her piety had turned into a personal zeal to serve the Catholic Church in everything. She even changed her Chinese name into that of the Empress Helena after the Roman Empress, mother of Constantine, who had given freedom to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Indeed, not content with that, she baptized her son with the name of Constantine to indicate the role which the boy was intended to play in the future conversion of Buddhist China to the Catholic Church.
Her religiosity soon radically altered the practices and regulations of the entire Court so that Roman Catholicism seemed to have superseded everything. Conversion to the Catholic Church meant advancement, privilege, and wealth, not to mention power in the administration and even in the Army. This Catholic minority grouped round the Empress began to exert such influence that it became first resented, then feared, and finally opposed by those who wished to maintain the traditional Buddhist culture of China.
If the Empress and her advisors the Jesuits had contented themselves within the restrictive circles at court, her religious operations, although objectionable to the Buddhists, might have been tolerated. But the Empress and those surrounding her set out on a grandiose scheme: the conversion of the whole of China to the Catholic Church.
They sent a special mission to Rome to ask the Pope to send hundreds of missionaries to help accelerate the conversion of China to the Catholic Church.
While waiting for the Pope's response, the Catholic minority began implementing this conversion from the Empress to the Mandarins, to the bureaucratic machinery, and finally to the teeming millions of Chinese peasantry. The scheme however, encountered wide spread resistance from the beginning. Persuasion to conform to the semi-official influence of the Catholic Church soon necessitated special regulations, and later legislation. Opposition was suppressed at first by discriminatory measures, then arrests, and finally with brute force.
Outside the Court circle and the Catholic minority, the campaign met bitter mass resistance. This bitterness was nourished by the fact that those who became Catholic enjoyed the most blatant privileges, while the Buddhists suffered under the most discriminatory laws ever recorded in living memory by the Buddhist majority.
The campaign reached its most controversial level, when rumors came that the Pope had agreed to send hundreds more missionaries to help convert the whole country to Catholicism. The news created more unrest and mass demonstrations which were ruthlessly suppressed. Popular resistance eventually grew to such intensity that finally the European nations had to intervene to quell the "rebellion" as it was called, using diplomacy and commercial measures carried out under the menacing presence of European gunboats off the Chinese coast.
The Catholic Church's attempt to rule and then convert China through a Catholic indigenous minority ended in total failure; but not without having first created unrest, chaos, revolution, national and international commotion, in her attempt to impose herself upon a great, unwilling, Asiatic nation.