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Synod for Asia

The following is one of a series of articles published in preparation for the Synod for Asia, which opens April 19 at the Vatican. This week NCR looks at the Vatican’s lineamenta, or preparatory document, and the responses to it from bishops’ conferences in East and Southeast Asia. Next week NCR looks at the instrumentum laboris, the synod’s final working document prepared by the Vatican. To read these documents and other resources, go to the Documents section of NCR Online.

In advance of the Synod for Asia, set to begin April 19, the Vatican is telling Asian Catholics that their primary task is to proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, as the one and only savior. The Asian bishops, in return, are saying the way to proclaim faith in Jesus Christ is to be less declarative -- to make the proclamation, instead, by service and by being in dialogue with the other great religions.

The Vatican’s view and the view of the Asian bishops delineate a fundamental breach as preparations are completed for the upcoming synod.

Some surprisingly feisty Asian bishops will arrive in Rome later this month determined to press hard on behalf of their visions of church, as well as to warn Rome that its views appear out of touch with Asian realities.

Based on their writings, many Asian bishops also think that a truly global Catholicism requires more local autonomy and greater respect in the West for Asian spirituality and cultural attitudes.

The Asian landmass and related islands is home to some 50 nations and 3.5 billion people, two-thirds of the world’s population. The area has 97 million Catholics.

An examination of more than a dozen responses from East and Southeast Asian bishops’ conferences to the synod preparatory document reveals serious differences between the Asian bishops and Vatican officials regarding church theologies and governance -- starting with the purpose and process of the synod itself.

The degree of Eastern disillusionment with Vatican leadership is underscored by a request contained in the Indonesian bishops’ response calling upon the synod to establish a mechanism “responsible for exploring the possibility of an East Asian patriarchate, at least endowed with autonomy comparable to that of the patriarchates in Oriental churches of the near East.” This would, the suggestion reasoned, “relativize the primacy of the ‘Western’ church and enhance authentic inculturation of Christian faith.”

A patriarch has jurisdiction over all bishops, clergy and people in a territory or in a specified rite (such as the Roman, Melchite or Syrian rite). The division of the church into patriarchates goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. The Council of Nicea (325) recognized the patriarchal status of Alexandria and Jerusalem in its canons, and by inference that of Rome. By the time of Justinian, the title was reserved to these three sees plus Constantinople and Antioch.

Patriarchates are an example of subsidiarity in church government. Each patriarch is responsible -- according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia -- “for the election of the bishops of his patriarchate in the best possible way.”

The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia is to run April 19 through May 14. It was called by Pope John Paul II in his November 1994 Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente. Bishops’ conferences represented at the synod will include those from the Middle East, the Persian Gulf countries, South Asian countries, the Central Asian countries, the Southeast Asian countries, Asian Siberia and the countries of the Far East.

The Vatican first circulated its 24,000-word synod lineamenta, or preparatory document, throughout Asia in 1996. Asian bishops sent their responses to Rome last year. While the length and tone of these documents vary, most share common visions, including strong commitments to the poor, to social justice and to dialogue with other Asian religions. They also share frustrations with perceived Vatican efforts to pull back from Second Vatican Council reforms aimed at decentralizing church authority.

The Asian bishops are sending a strong message to Rome: Evangelization efforts not grounded in Asian realities and Asian sensitivities are certain to fail. This theme arises repeatedly in Asian bishops’ responses to questions posed by the Vatican in the synod lineamenta, whether the issue deals with inculturation, interfaith dialogue, missionary work or the role of Mary in church life.

On the social front, the Asian bishops are sending out warnings as they see growing disruption on the Asian continent stemming from the spread of Western consumer values brought on by new economic forces. They also see a growing gap between rich and poor, further dividing the peoples of Asia.

While many Asian bishops’ conferences have taken exception to aspects of the lineamenta, the Japanese bishops were its strongest critics. They saw the lineamenta as so inadequate for Asian realities that they simply refused to answer the questions posed in it. Instead, they drew up their own questions and answers for the synod (NCR, March 27). The stark tone of the Japanese document revealed serious tensions between the Japanese bishops and the Vatican on issues of culture, theology and mission.

In dismissing the document, the Japanese bishops said its questions “were composed in the context of Western Christianity.” They wrote, “From the way the questions are proposed, one feels that the holding of the synod was like an occasion for the central office to evaluate the performance of the branch offices.”

They called for all synod proceedings to include Asian languages, that the synod’s agenda be determined by the Asian bishops after it has been convened, that committee chairpersons be chosen by the Asian bishops and that participating bishops be permitted to consult with experts, including women, whom they would choose to attend.

Other Asian bishops’ conferences also made it clear to Rome that they are not satisfied with some key suppositions in the synod preparatory document.

The bishops’ conference of Indonesia, among the most critical of the Vatican, in a response sent to Rome last September, took issue with the growth in centralized church authority. Citing Vatican II collegiality initiatives, the Indonesian bishops stated that “the specific responses of Asian churches should come out clearly as their contribution to the universal church as a ‘communion of communities.’ ”

They also said that evangelization as outlined in the lineamenta “does not adequately reflect” the longtime approach of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, which has encouraged a “triple-dialogue” with the poor, other religions and cultures.

The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences was formed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. It includes bishops from some 20 Far East and Southeast Asian nations. It has been the primary international Asian episcopal network and has published important documents on Asian church life over the years. The federation convenes formally every four or five years.

Preparatory document

The Vatican lineamenta is divided into six chapters and is followed by questions the Asian bishops were asked to answer. The chapters are mission-oriented, including: “Asian Realities,” “Evangelization,” “God’s Salvific Design in History,” “Jesus Christ as Savior to All,” “Church as Communion” and “The Church’s Mission of Love and Service in Asia.” Some bishops’ conferences criticized the format for being too institutionally oriented and not stressing enough the pastoral nature of the church.

The document depicts Asia as a continent facing severe material and spiritual challenges but one populated with resourceful people. Economic progress, the document notes, has not been uniform. The poor are getting poorer. It sees the church as helping to carry the burdens of Asia.

Much of the document deals in abstractions. For example, it states in Chapter I, “In a humble way, the church wants to take upon herself the burdens of Asia and carry them along with her brothers and sisters and have them redeemed in Jesus Christ through His saving death and resurrection.”

The lineamenta attempts to focus the synod on Jesus Christ as savior of Asia. The lineamenta states that the task of the bishops of Asia is to “proclaim” Jesus Christ to all. Proclamation becomes the primary church task, and dialogue with other religions is rooted in the clarity of this proclamation.

“The church in Asia has and wants to proclaim Jesus Christ to her brothers and sisters on the continent so that they may be enriched by the inexhaustible riches of Jesus Christ,” the preparatory document states. “In turn, the church shall be enriched by the profound seeds of truth and goodness present among them through dialogue,” the lineamenta states in Chapter III.

The Asian bishops repeatedly respond that dialogue with other religions comes first and that it is the means of effective proclamation.

The lineamenta, however, takes a cautious, even, at times, suspicious, approach to interfaith dialogue. For example, it warns the Asian bishops against “false inculturation,” which, it says, can occur when the focus of dialogue is not placed on Jesus Christ. “The church cannot abandon her faith in Jesus Christ for the sake of a false inculturation or irenicism, despite the fact that Asia has such a wide variety of cultures and religions,” the lineamenta states in Chapter IV. “If she did, the church would not be true to herself. It must be admitted that a Trinitarian faith may indeed be a stumbling block to cultures that are so diverse. Yet, if this faith is lived in love, service and humility, it will receive increasing acceptance, as it has at all times in the history of evangelization.”

The lineamenta goes on: “This lays a heavy responsibility on church leaders that they become truly Christlike in their lives. A life of witness wins hearts, not theoretical doctrines. ... The Christian apostle is not just a social worker; nor is the Christian faith merely an ideology or a humanistic program.”

This central issue of contention arises again when many Asian bishops’ conferences respond to the lineamenta’s view that the missionary’s primary task is to “proclaim” Jesus Christ as Savior. The lineamenta laments that “for several theoretical and historical reasons, an opinion has been expressed from some quarters in Asia during the last three decades that the age of mission is over. Now is the time for dialogue and inculturation. Radical pluralism of religion and salvation seems to become a dogma itself. At times, one’s culture is so absolutized that conversion is looked upon as violence done to the other. Others claim that the church’s mission is only the proclamation of the values of the Kingdom, human promotion and liberation.”

The lineamenta insists this is the wrong path. It stresses that “the primacy of the proclamation of Jesus Christ in all evangelizing activities has been repeatedly stressed by the [Second Vatican] council and the magisterium of the church because it is of the essence of the faith and the very continuation of the saving event of Jesus Christ. ... In the current theological, missiological and missionary situation of Asia, the proclamation of Jesus Christ is the central issue of the faith and life of the church. It is incumbent on the pastors of the church to give priority to proclamation in all their pastoral planning. They must be seen primarily as evangelizers and only secondarily as administrators.”

The Vatican document allows a place for dialogue but a secondary place. “Even though dialogue is essential and forms part of every evangelizing activity of the church, it does not exhaust the whole reality of evangelization, nor is it a substitute for mission ad gentes [to the nations], and much less is it to be seen as something in opposition to the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”

Addressing the subject of Mariology, the lineamenta reminds the Asian bishops that the church must “look to Mary for her intercession, example, guidance and strength. ... On the eve of the third millennium, the church in Asia, therefore, turns to Mary for fresh inspiration, guidance and intercession for her challenging mission of proclaiming her Son to the peoples of Asia.”

Most Asian bishops’ conference responses allowed Mary considerable respect but did not echo the Vatican’s bold admonitions. To the contrary, some conferences, including the Philippine conference, warned that Marian devotions sometimes are overemphasized and take the focus off a Christ-centered church. They also noted that these devotions often become tainted with superstitious beliefs.

Asian realities

Responding to Chapter I, “Asian Realities,” the Asian bishops depict increasingly harsh economic conditions across the continent. Conference after conference condemned the pernicious influence of growing consumerism and spreading economic hardships and stressed a church committed to social justice.

The Indonesian bishops stated that besides its positive aspects, industrialization in Indonesia has produced such negative effects as the growth of materialism, consumerism, secularism, unemployment, poor working conditions, unjust remuneration, exploitation of women and children, restriction on labor organizations, inadequate land distribution and the rapid increase of the tourism and sex industries.

Industrialism, they wrote, is increasingly showing its effect on traditional ways of life, causing many, especially the younger generation, to disregard ancient cultural values. “Many still profess a religion but have no genuine faith,” the bishops stated.

The Indonesian conference was one of several that saw a need for the church to emphasize Jesus Christ as liberator.

The Korean bishops warned of the decline of the family structure and a growing individualism caused by “rampant materialism, the breakdown of the traditional hierarchy of values.”

The Malaysian bishops said the church has not been able to stop “the negative influences arising out of economic development, affluence, consumerism, individualism.”

Taiwanese bishops warned that “money is becoming a god. There is no equal progress in morality and education. ... Though the economic boom extends right through Asia, the plight of workers (local and foreign), which has become a global problem, hardly gets the attention of either civil or church leaders.”

The Taiwanese bishops added that the “whole of society is dominated by the quest for profits and consumerism. The traditional spirit of hard work and the simple life has been lost; the hierarchy of values is confused and disoriented; most people feel a spiritual emptiness. Unemployment is high, therefore people are more anxious to make money than to search for truth.”

The Philippine bishops spoke of the “massive poverty of the people, often caused by injustice; the scandalous gap between rich and poor; the concentration of power in the hands of the elite.”

The Indian bishops added another concern -- rapid population growth. “No matter which way our national population is looked at, we admit that our country is approaching the limits of national resources as they are now being systematically abused. India has more than doubled her population within the first 50 years of her independence. ... The country’s population problem is not just a challenge for the Indian subcontinent; it is a problem for Asia and the world as well.”

Also addressed in responses to the “realities” chapter were more parochial church concerns. A sampling includes:

  • The Taiwanese bishops: “The church is still very hierarchical in structure. Though accepting some degree of democratization, she is not facing enough the equality of men and women.”
  • The Sri Lankan bishops: The faithful need to understand the important difference between “performing mere acts of charity and carrying out the church’s evangelizing mission of love and service inspired by the social doctrine of the church. Very few in the Sri Lankan church, including the clergy, realize this difference.”

Responding to Chapter II, “Evangelization,” many Asian bishops’ conferences expressed serious concerns that the lineamenta failed to understand or reflect Asian religious conditions.

The Indonesian bishops began their response to the issue by listing current challenges to evangelization efforts. These include new pressures from science and technology, a growing mass media culture, growing materialism and the atmosphere of secularization. All these, the bishops stated, obscure “precious traditional cultural values.”

They took on the lineamenta, saying its approach to evangelization simply disregards the many years of experience contained in the writings of the Asian bishops since Vatican II. “The lineamenta does not adequately reflect the [Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences’] view since its First Plenary Assembly in Taipei [in Taiwan] 1974,” the Indonesian bishops lamented. “There -- as also in the Fifth Plenary Assembly of the FABC in Bandung [in Indonesia] 1990 -- Evangelization is linked with the triple dialogue: dialogue with the poor, dialogue with the religions and dialogue with the cultures.”

Structural problems

The Indonesian bishops cited structural problems in the lineamenta saying its assessment of Asian realities appears divorced from what follows. Chapter I of the lineamenta on Asian realities, the Indonesian bishops wrote, “does not flow into the following chapters (it seems juxtaposed), whereas it is the FABC’s main concern that evangelization should immerse itself in concrete life situations in order to save humans within the very conditions of their lives.”

The bishops of Thailand criticized the Vatican evangelization line from another angle, saying it did not support interfaith understanding enough. “Evangelization must establish good relationships with other religions through respect and acceptance of each other’s values,” they wrote. “Evangelization must recognize the traditions of other religions as friends or even relatives living together.”

The Vietnamese bishops questioned the lineamenta’s suppositions as they pertained to evangelization in Asia and recalled approaches encouraged at the Second Vatican Council. “The first reason is that this continent is not virgin or fallow soil on which one can sow any kind of seed,” they wrote. “It is a land of very ancient religions and civilizations when compared to Europe. ... The inhabitants are not without knowledge of God, quite the opposite: they have a certain experience of His presence, and invoke Him under different names such as ‘Sky,’ ‘Heaven,’ ‘Brahman,’ etc. Consequently, to ‘evangelize’ in this particular case does not mean to present a God, a Christ, as totally unknown, but, in a certain way -- perhaps borrowing from Buddhist language -- it is ‘to make shine more brightly the Light’ present but hidden; it is to help in ‘seeing the truth illuminated,’ which Vatican II recognized was partially present in other religions.”

Responding to Chapter III, “God’s Salvific Design,” a number of the conferences raised questions dealing with church imagery contained in the lineamenta.

The Japanese bishops wrote that the imagery “is not as rich or deep as that [in the documents] of Vatican II. Especially, the images of ‘the church as people of God’ and ‘the church as servant’ are not stressed. These two images have special meaning for the church in Asia, which in order to serve God’s kingdom lives in a minority position with and for others. Their absence would be unfortunate for the synod.”

Japan’s bishops continued: “The central issues of service and dialogue developed by the [the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences] are two very important points for the Catholic church in Asia that are not sufficiently stressed in the lineamenta. ... The lineamenta still reflects an ecclesiological pattern ‘from above’ and somewhat abstract. For the synod of Asian bishops, clearly the most appropriate model will be the church as ‘communion of communities.’ “

The Philippine bishops also called for use of Vatican II imagery, saying the “main image of church that should be used in this section and throughout the document should be that of a co-pilgrim, companion and servant accompanying the peoples of Asia in the journey to full life.”

The Indian bishops said their “completely indigenous hierarchy” helps their church image. More than 90 percent of the nation’s clergy and religious are Indian. “This has been a plus,” the Indian bishops wrote. “However,” they added, being “an overly clerical institution, the church’s ways of thinking, speaking and acting not infrequently hinder her communication and hurt her credibility.”

The Indian bishops cited a contradiction within the church, saying the church “rightly proclaims freedom of conscience and religion, but in matters of grievances within the church her public image at times appears harsh and therefore one of counterwitness.”

Also on the negative side, the Indian bishops lamented that “the spiritual and mystical elements of Asian religions have been practically ignored” in the lineamenta. “In place of understanding, appreciation and promotion of this different yet complementary world-view, we regret to observe that today within the church there is an atmosphere of fear and distrust. These are destructive of communion and collaboration for mission.”

The Indian bishops also dealt with the role of women in the church, saying “the structures of patriarchal traditions in Indian society and even in the church continue to offend and oppress women.”

Finally, they noted that “more and more faithful are vocalizing their dissatisfaction with some church institutions that appear to be more at the service of the rich, powerful and better-off sectors of our country.”

Jesus as savior

Responses to the lineamenta’s Chapter IV, “Jesus Christ as Savior,” were frequently unfavorable. The Japanese bishops said the document’s Christology is too defensive. “This does not help the faith of Asian Christians,” they wrote. “What is necessary is an open and spiritual Christology rooted in real life and alert to the problems of modern people.

“We should try,” the Japanese bishops stated, “to discover what kind of Jesus will be a ‘light’ to the peoples of Asia. In other words, as the fathers of the early church did with Greco-Roman culture, we must make a more profound study of the fundamentals of the religiosity of our peoples, and from this point of view try to discover how Jesus Christ is answering their needs. ... Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, but in Asia, before stressing that Jesus Christ is the truth, we must search much more deeply into how he is the way and the life.

“If we stress too much that ‘Jesus Christ is the one and only savior,’ we can have no dialogue, common living or solidarity with other religions.”

The Japanese bishops seemed to delight in reminding Rome that “the world’s great religions were born in Asia.”

The Philippine bishops also called for toning down the emphasis placed on Jesus Christ as savior in the lineamenta, saying it does not help interfaith dialogue -- even though most of the Philippine population is at least nominally Catholic.

In its response, the Philippine bishops’ conference emphasized: “[interfaith] dialogue is not contrary to but is a mode of proclamation.”

The Indian bishops asked, “To what extent can [our] church learn from and collaborate with other religions to bring about God’s Kingdom and peoples’ integral liberation? ... To be religious itself means to be interreligious ... authentic dialogue does not seem to be well understood by many Christians.”

The Indian bishops then brought the issue of dialogue back within the Catholic church. They stated that the “spirit and practice of dialogue is not restricted to interfaith matters among the Christian-Muslim, Christian-Hindu, Christian-Buddhist and Christian-traditional religions. It very much includes dialogue between the local church and the universal church as a communion of communions.”

This dialogical model, the Indian bishops wrote, is not only a tool, it is essential to being church. It is nothing less, they wrote, than “the new Asian way of being church, promoting mutual understanding, harmony and collaboration. This way of relating to and serving other religions is indicated by a careful reading of the signs of our times: It appears to us as God’s will for Christian communities in Asia today. It is a timely answer to Asia’s vast and varied problems, which threaten her very life.”

Some Asian bishops said they found in the lineamenta an unwelcome return to church triumphalism. The Philippine bishops asked the Vatican to further explore “in an open and humble way” the “revelatory nature” of the religions of Asia and their impact on the church’s proclamation of Jesus. Their response specifically warned against “triumphalism and a superior attitude” when discussing Jesus with religions that thrived long before 13th-century European explorers arrived in Asia.

The Philippine bishops suggested that the synod would prove more successful if it highlights Asia’s rich contributions of contemplation and its “spirituality of harmony.”

The Korean bishops called for more study of the role of the great traditional religions in Korea. “They, too, play a part in the salvific economy of God,” the Korean bishops wrote. “This understanding is essential for the inculturation of the gospel. Ignorance of these religions and their culture and a sense of superiority and exclusivism in religion should be eradicated.”

The Indonesian bishops called aspects of the lineamenta “alarming.” It’s “dominant concern between the lines appears to be: ‘too much (local) emphasis on dialogue, so that proclamation is not highlighted enough.’ “

The Indonesian bishops reasoned that proclamation of Jesus Christ “has to take full account of whatever good and true is found in other religions, and to proceed according to Christian principles of authentic inculturation.”

The Indonesian bishops went on to explain that “sincere Christian dialogue appreciates values of the Kingdom wherever they are found and provides room for indigenous Christians to make use of their religious traditions in order to express those values in ways familiar to them.”

They added: “In pluri-religious societies it is often difficult to directly and explicitly proclaim the central role of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation. This proclamation must be adapted to concrete life conditions and to the disposition of the hearers.”

The Indonesian bishops concluded that “native religious values are not to be abolished but ought be purified through reflection in dialogue between Christian leaders and leaders of traditional religions. This may result in Christianity being enriched by traditional values and in a truly inculturated practice of Christian faith.”

The issue is important because Christians remain a minority among Asia’s 3.5 billion people, most of whom are Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists.

In responses to Chapter V, “Church as Communion,” Asian bishops again asserted the need for interfaith dialogue and solidarity with the poor as the paths to effective evangelization.

The Japanese bishops recalled that in the context of evangelization in Asia, “compassion with the suffering” had been identified time after time at the general assemblies of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences “as a most important element.”

The Japanese bishops stated: “In missionary work among those of other religions, what is more important than convincing words is the attitude of standing by the side of the weak and powerless and showing them compassion.”

The Indian bishops again defended dialogue “as the means to evangelization.”

“We can only do this by listening respectfully to our neighbors and dialoguing with them. Dialogue is not merely one ecclesial activity among many. It is a constituent dimension of every authentic local church,” the Indian bishops insisted. “After Vatican II, to be church means being a faith community-in-dialogue.”

The Sri Lankan bishops suggested the same approach, even cautioning Rome to remember that they live in a “multireligious setting” in which Jesus Christ is viewed in many different forms. “Muslims accept Jesus as a great prophet, as he is mentioned in the Koran. Hindus treat him as an avatar, an incarnation of God. Buddhists see him as a social reformer and a great teacher, and for many others he is a great liberator. Generally speaking, there seems to be an awesome respect for this person Jesus Christ.”

A perennial problem

The Sri Lankan bishops went on to explain that the uniqueness of Jesus and the church “has been a perennial problem and poses its own distinctive difficulties for authentic dialogue.”

A number of conferences also referred to the difficulties of building local churches in a post-colonial era. Many of the churches of Asia are traced to colonialism and its pernicious history.

The Sri Lankan bishops reminded Rome that “Christ in Sri Lanka came in foreign garb. Hence, inculturation is becoming part of the missionary mandate for us. All impressions to the contrary must be carefully avoided. We must insist on Christ Jesus as a religious founder who came from Asia, which is such a rich continent in the history of religion.”

This leads to, the Sri Lankan bishops wrote, “the necessity of a missionary spirituality of dialogue.” They added: “Our dialogue will be a two-way street. In this endeavor, we need to cultivate attitudes toward other religions that must be sincere. Hence, for us in Asia, religions are a part of the universal context in which the true identity of Jesus must find new expressions. While we affirm the uniqueness of Christ, we need to move toward a non-threatening articulation, an articulation that would be more conducive to dialogue in Asia.”

The Vietnamese bishops were also among those who made references to the trappings of their colonial past, stating that the synod must pay special attention to the modest settings of local churches as well as to their “historical circumstances.”

“Only a poor church,” the Vietnamese bishops wrote, “will be able to adapt itself to a huge mass of poor people. A church that is humble and small will blend more easily with the poor masses of Asia. A church without power will more easily approach so many men and women who only ask for the right to live as men and women, to have enough to eat and to wear, to study and to find work.”

The Vietnamese bishops then asked: “Has not the time come to create new types of church, such as small communities that are more easily set up in society, especially that of the poor; poorer communities, without show, without obstructions that inspire discomfort and fear to those who wish to approach them; communities that are open rather than closed; communities that are more attentive to the whole of human living -- and not just the purely religious -- to help improve the physical and material life of the poor, to raise up their cultural level?”

In an apparent reference to the Vatican’s emphasis on proclaiming Jesus as savior, the Vietnamese bishops replied: “Jesus did not proclaim the Good News only in words, but this Good News for him also meant that ‘the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear and the dead come to life.’ ”

The Vietnamese bishops also said that they found the lineamenta to be “paternalistic” toward the people of Asia.

In their responses to Chapter VI, “The Church’s Mission of Love and Service,” the Asian bishops described their options on issues of inculturation and missionary activity.

The Indonesian bishops lamented that within the lineamenta inculturation is mentioned only with passing reference, as “an interpretation of faith in context.” They said this does “not do justice” to the subject. Inculturation, they insisted, should be a “way of life.”

“The Christian way of life should be authentic not only in the sense that it is in agreement with the ‘Regula Fidei’ [rules of faith] but also in the sense that it expresses faith fully within and through the local culture,” they wrote.

“Inculturation is based on the mystery of incarnation and implies accepting God’s word and expressing one’s faith by using local cultural elements, in order that the church be fully accepted and the faithful, even society, consider the church as truly theirs ... ”

The Indonesian bishops continued, saying, “Inculturation also is a ‘paschal’ process: The local culture has to go through ‘death’ ... But traditional cultural faith expressions as imported from the ‘West’ also have to be critically examined and purified from whatever obscures the authenticity of faith.”

As for local liturgy, the Indonesian bishops stated that “many ceremonies have been imported from the traditional church in the West, so that little room is left for a style of community life and of faith communication according to the rhythm of indigenous people. Clinging too much to the ‘substantial unity of the Roman liturgy’ may end up in rigidity that obstructs proper incarnation of Christian faith.”

The Indonesian bishops called for “urgent” development of Asian theologies, “Indonesian theology in particular,” to help in the inculturaltion process.

They then called for change within the church. “In order to promote the inculturation process, the universal church has to be more open and ready to change its own pattern of thinking and to allow local churches the freedom to think and act in response to concrete life situations, guided by the Spirit and led by the local hierarchy.”

In order for this to be achieved, the Indonesian bishops argued, local episcopal conferences “need greater freedom of decision-making with regard to inculturation.”

They noted that “continuous and serious study and experimentation by experts not only in liturgy but also in indigenous cultures are required, and wherever possible cooperation with interested groups from other Christian denominations ought to be promoted. Such efforts need to be wholeheartedly supported [and not restricted] by Rome.”

Finally, the Indonesian bishops asked: “Why should every change and adaptation in liturgy have the approval of the central ecclesial authority? Is the bishops’ conference not competent to grant official approval? Does not pluriformity in unity (that is, ‘Catholic’) express the immense richness of God’s glory?”

The Japanese bishops similarly called for more inculturation in liturgy and religious life. “Though elements of cultural forms are found in liturgy, there have been no sustained efforts at inculturation in liturgy. ... As a church, we have not sufficiently grasped the urgency and the importance or the necessity of inculturation.”

The Japanese bishops also spoke out against the underlying premise in the lineamenta’s missionary viewpoint.

They wrote: “A ‘success orientation’ of ‘trying for better results’ can only discourage the missionary. We need a vision of evangelization that gives joy and a sense of purpose to a Christian living as one of a minority in the midst of many traditional religions. An evaluation based not on the number of baptisms but rather from the point of view of ‘How faithful have we been to our mission of evangelization?’ is necessary.”

The lineamenta evoked a number of responses to Vatican admonitions to integrate Mariology into modern church life. Several conferences offered cautionary advice. The Japanese bishops, for example, while stating that novenas to the Blessed Virgin Mary are a popular form of devotion, noted “there are, of course, very real dangers in some of the devotional practices, which tend to be shallow, self-centered, individualistic and success-profit-oriented with little emphasis on accepting the will of God, recognition of the role of suffering and solicitude for the concerns of one’s neighbor.”

Some conferences in responding to Rome suggested wholly different approaches to the synod. The Japanese and Indonesians were the most outspoken, with the latter calling for more encouragement and understanding from the West. Why must the synod examine church mission? the Indonesian bishops asked. Would it not be better “if the churches in Asia receive wholehearted encouragement rather than be reminded of their duties? Is it not perhaps better to take as a main theme ‘Asian Spiritual Life,’ ‘Asian Religious Experience’ or even ‘Mysticism in Asia,’ in order to foster values already alive in this continent?”

Some responses focused on canonical issues, including the granting of dispensations from priesthood. The Indonesian bishops asked why dispensations should be reserved “strictly to the central authority of the church? Why should one have to live for many years in ‘sin’ before he could be freed?”

Throughout the responses to the lineamenta, questions of who makes the decisions and how they are made are mixed with equally important questions of church mission and direction for the years ahead.

Thomas C. Fox was formerly editor of NCR and is currently its publisher. Gary MacEoin of San Antonio is the author of 30 books and a frequent contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, April 10, 1998