Philip II, 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 17th 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 is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. 

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • James H

    Sometimes the ‘What if…?’ has an anguished tone. This wasn’t the only lost opportunity. Kublai Khan never got his hundred Christian missionaries; Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit who was *invited* to be an advisor the the Emperor, and was the first Westerner ever to enter the Forbidden City, died in Beijing at 57.

    If only…

  • Peter Nyikos

    Perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of all came later,  due to the agitation of Dominicans and Franciscans and despite the opposition of the Jesuits, who were far more experienced in the ways of the Chinese.  Warren Carroll writes of it in _The Cleaving of Christendom_, volume 4 of his monumental series, _A History of Christendom_:

    “[A]ll Chinese practices honoring the dead were banned for Christians, an action confirmed by the bull “Ex illa” of Pope Clement XI in1715. …

    “It was probably the most disastrous single decision in the history of Catholic Church evangelization.  Eventually it was explicitly repealed, in 1939, far too late.  The surge of conversions in China, still continuing at the turn of the 18th century, stopped almost completely. … A splendid missionary opportunity in the world’s most populous nation, without a clearly formed  national religion to be overcome and moral teachings that could easily be adapted to Christianity, was lost.  The Church had turned decisively away from millions of souls.”  [pp. 712-713]

    In a footnote to “1939, far too late,” Carroll writes: “By then the Chinese Empire had fallen (1911) and China was desperately searching for the  `secret’ of the West — what had enabled the West to develop what China finally realized was the most advanced civilization in the world.  The `secret,’ of course, was Christianity; but the intellectuals of the West no longer knew it.  When they were asked to send spokesmen to explain to the Chinese the reasons for the superiority of Western civilization, they sent Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, an atheist and a pragmatist, respectively.  China listened to them. To a considerable extent as a result, at the turn of the millennium she remained one of the world’s last four Communist nations.”