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Synod working paper skips host of concerns Asian bishops voiced


The following is the last of a series of articles published in preparation for the Synod on Asia. In the March 27 issue, NCR looked at the strikingly blunt responses of the Japanese bishops to the Vatican’s lineamenta, or synod preparatory document. Last week NCR looked at responses of the East and Southeast Asian bishops’ conferences. This week NCR looks at the instrumentum laboris, the working document for the synod.

Clear differences have surfaced between many Asian bishops and the Vatican in the preparatory documents for the Synod for Asia. If the final working document for the gathering is any barometer, however, few of those differences will surface publicly at the synod in Rome beginning April 19.

The instrumentum laboris, the working document prepared by the Vatican after receiving the responses to the lineamenta from the Asian bishops’ conferences, makes only faint references to critical concerns raised by Asian bishops on matters of church mission, theology, interfaith dialogue, inculturation and missionary activities.

The 24,000-word working paper does not lay out an agenda for the synod. Instead, it meanders from narration to exhortation and to dogmatic assertion. There are several excursions into apologetics and catechetics, as well as frequent bursts of triumphalism.

Various episcopal responses to the lineamenta had criticized its defensive tone. That tone still pervades the working paper. Meanwhile, urgent episcopal conference calls lose their thunder in the homogenized language of the document, becoming vague generalities.

Calls for urgent upgrading of the role of the laity in evangelization, for example, are softened to: “Many responses mention that the laity seek to become more actively involved.” Insistent criticisms of the lay/clerical gap become a call for “greater cooperation among the various states in the church.”

What ultimately emerges from a comparison of the working document and the responses to the lineamenta of the Asian bishops is two radically different ecclesiologies.

The Asian bishops appear to work out of the theologies of Vatican II, especially of its vision of the role of the church contained in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. That view, as articulated by many of the Asian conferences, sees the church committed to liberation from both individual sin and from whatever hinders full growth as human beings. The working document reflects a different view, concentrating on preaching Jesus as Savior of the world.

The final working document ignores altogether Asian bishops’ concern that the Vatican has withdrawn from Vatican II’s vision of the church’s mission and purpose, as well as their calls for greater shared decision-making.

Requests sidestepped

Nowhere does the document refer to the demand of the Japanese bishops’ conference that the synod format be changed to allow the Asian bishops to take control of the synod’s agenda and proceedings.

Nor is there any reference to a request by the Indonesian bishops’ conference to explore possibilities for establishing an East Asian patriarchate, to “relativize the primacy of the ‘Western’ church and enhance authentic inculturation of Christian faith.”

A patriarchate is an autonomous, self-governing federation of dioceses. The five ancient patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were determined in 451 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. In the six Eastern Catholic churches with a patriarchal structure (Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and West Syrian), the patriarch is subordinate to the pope.

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. In preparation for the synod, the Vatican in 1996 sent its initial preparatory document to the bishops of Asia. Responses were returned to Rome last year.

At a meeting held at the Vatican Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 1997, the synod’s general secretariat considered the bishops’ responses and completed the instrumentum laboris. The document was translated into the synod’s official languages, French and English, and distributed to the bishops of Asia late last year.

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 area represented covers some 50 nations and nearly two-thirds of the world’s population.

The working paper, ignoring requests in several responses for major changes, roughly follows the outline of the original lineamenta, consisting of an introduction, seven chapters and conclusion. It develops the synod theme, chosen by Pope John Paul, of “Jesus Christ the Savior and his mission of love and service in Asia, that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

The working document stresses the important preaching function of the church, particularly the call to Jesus Christ, Savior, as well as the unique role played by the church in God’s salvation process.

The central aspect

Chapter IV, “Jesus Christ: The Good News of Salvation,” is described in the document as dealing with “the central aspect of the church’s message of evangelization and her mission, i.e., the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior and Son of Man.”

The document repeatedly exhorts the bishops to the “New Evangelization,” a theme Pope John Paul has stressed in recent years as the means of taking Christianity into the new millennium.

The document says that the success of the New Evangelization in Asia will depend “on how people come to recognize Jesus so as to respond to the perennial invitation to experience fullness of life in him through participation in the communion of the church, his body.”

The document goes on to say it finds widespread support among the Asian bishops’ responses to the lineamenta for stressing the unique salvation path centered upon Jesus Christ, as Savior.

The instrumentum laboris at one point puts it as follows: “Responses to the lineamenta indicate that the overriding title for Christ among his disciples, associated with his mission to all humanity, is that of Savior and redeemer, who in freeing a ‘people’ from sin and all its effects -- particularly death -- has established a church, or worshiping community, called to give praise to God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.”

The document continues: “Acknowledging Jesus as Savior involves not simply confession of sin but a change of heart, that is, accepting Jesus Christ as lord of one’s life in an ongoing process of conversion.”

The overwhelming support claimed by the Vatican in the synod working paper to stress the New Evangelization with its preaching focus on Jesus Christ as Savior is not borne out by a reading of responses from more than a dozen bishops’ conferences to the lineamenta.

To the contrary, many Asian bishops’ conferences view evangelization as a subtle matter requiring dialogue with other religions and the avoidance of undue focus on Jesus as Savior.

The Indonesian bishops’ conference, for example, in their response to the Vatican’s lineamenta, said that “with regard to Christological concern expressed in the lineamenta” the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences “makes attempts at an integral and holistic approach to the mystery of Jesus Christ by using ‘inclusive language,’ so that Christology truly becomes ‘Catholic,’ i.e., embracing all humans of whatever religious conviction.”

Solidarity with people

The conference said that Jesus Christ is best preached as the Savior “by a church that is in solidarity with people whose lives are marked by poverty, oppression, discrimination and all kinds of injustice.”

The bishops cautioned that “in pluri-religious societies it is often difficult to directly and explicitly proclaim the central role of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation.”

The Japanese bishops had similar concerns but were more blunt, writing, “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 church, learning from the kenosis [emptying, self-abasement] of Jesus Christ, should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the mystery of Christ.”

The Philippine bishops’ conference wrote that it preferred a “witnessing” approach to the preaching of Jesus as Savior. “Witnessing is primary,” they wrote.

The Indian bishops’ conference spoke of the “deficiency of our present Christology” in that “it sometimes uses exclusive language, which deals with only one part of the great mystery of Christ.”

“In union with the Father and the Spirit, Christ is indeed the source and cause of salvation for all peoples,” they wrote, adding “but this fact does not exclude the possibility of God mysteriously employing other cooperating channels.”

They then cautioned the Vatican that the lineamenta expression that Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior of the whole of humankind should be understood in the Indian context “in a way that takes seriously into account the multicultural and multireligious situations of our country.”

“In the light of the universal salvific will and design of God, so emphatically affirmed in the New Testament witness, the Indian Christological approach seeks to avoid negative and exclusivistic expressions. ... We cannot, then, deny, a priori, a salvific role for these non-Christian religions,” they wrote.

The Indian bishops asked if it is really necessary to choose one approach or another. “There is more than one theology evident in the New Testament,” they wrote. “This pluriformity of theology is catered to different churches of varied cultures and life-situations. Christology is never a finished product but always in process ... ”

“So today the churches around the world and here in Asia need to create contextualized theologies of our one faith incarnated into many cultures. ... The agents of such contextualized faith expressions are the local churches themselves under the guidance of ‘a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.’ ”

Issues glossed over

While focusing on salvation and the role of Jesus as Savior, the Vatican’s working document glosses over other issues raised by a number of Asian bishops’ conferences. Several conferences, for example, identified the church’s association with its colonial past as a continuing handicap.

The Philippine bishops stated that they are conscious “of our baggage from the past” and its “culturally imperialistic mission approach.” They called for a “self-emptying,” “the unloading of our culturally imperialist baggage” and an “openness to discern the footprints of the Lord among Asian peoples -- in their stories, traditions, cultures and religions.”

Only faint echoes of such sentiments found their way in the working document, although it describes itself as “composed on the basis of the responses.” It mentions colonialism only twice and without any of the condemnatory tone evident in the bishops’ responses. Similarly, while Asian bishops’ responses to the lineamenta spoke of the Catholic church as being seen, in some instances, as foreign in Asia, the working document prefers to replace foreign with “not totally Asian.”

Several Asian bishops’ conferences told Rome that it is not the Asian style to challenge other religions but rather to enter into dialogue with them, to search for points of agreement and downplay differences. The Japanese bishops told the Vatican that its thinking had come out of “the traditional Western scholastic tradition with emphasis on distinctions and differences.” The Japanese said they preferred seeking creative harmony.

The working document admits that history and circumstance require dialogue, but insists, in the final analysis, on the obligation to proclaim Jesus as Savior. “In this spirit,” the working document states, “the church in Asia, engaged in the synod process, wishes to look to Jesus Christ, the Savior of all, in order to come to a proper understanding of the life she shares in him, to strengthen her union with him and to renew her dedication to her mission to all peoples of Asia.”

The issue of proclamation versus dialogue is at times subtle, but the distinction becomes clear by repeated emphases.

Wording may insult

The issue surfaced in Quezon City, Philippines, last month when 55 delegates at a forum organized by the Geneva-based International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs-Pax Romana, came together to study the instrumentum laboris.

Most Muslims would be insulted by the wording of the working document, Professor Arif Mayed of the International Institute of Islamic Thought of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, told the gathering. The document makes it sound as if the church is out to convert rather than to dialogue with people of other religions, he said, according to a UCA News report.

The document is critically damaged, Mayed said, by its conservative strategic attitude and eventually by its arrogance in saying that the church is the sole source of abundant and authentic living.

According to the professor’s view, the church of the Second Vatican Council was open to and ready for an authentic dialogue of life, while the vision of the church seen in the synod working document is closed and conservative.

The major “mistakes” of the document, he said, center on its Christology, which he claimed makes everything else from education to social and charity work part of a strategic evangelization.

An attempt to “speak” with Muslims to learn their symbols, actions and religious terminology and then to use this to try to convert Muslims is offensive to all Muslims, the Islamic scholar added.

He proposed a discussion on the Holy Spirit or even on the Father as an alternative starting point for dialogue, but not Jesus as the Son of God. “The document makes it sound as if the church is out to convert rather than to dialogue with people of other religions.”

The shift from an openness apparent at Vatican II to a more closed and conservative church attitude today was also alluded to by the Indonesian bishops in their response to the lineamenta. They spoke of developments as “alarming.” Conversion, they wrote, “occurs not only as fruit of proclamation. It is the spirit of God who alone works ‘conversion to God’ in Jesus Christ through proclamation as well as through inter-religious dialogue.”

The work for social justice as an integral part of the Christian mission is stressed repeatedly in the Asian responses to the lineamenta, but this emphasis is largely absent from the synod’s working paper.

A greater voice

The document ignores the recommendation made by several Asian bishops’ conferences to adopt the see/judge/act method in analyzing Asian reality. This method has been associated with liberation theology.

There is no mention of liberation theology in the working document. The word “liberation” appears five times in the document, three of these in quotations from statements written by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. In their responses to the lineamenta, many Asian bishops’ conferences had objected to the way the Vatican had overlooked the federation’s work. The working document gives the federation a greater voice.

Sources close to the preparations also said the Vatican had made some concessions in the final document on theological concerns of the Asian bishops about the Second Person of the Trinity. But the sources said that nothing in the document had changed regarding the First and Third Persons of the Trinity, areas where some Asians feel they have the best chance of dialogue with other world religions.

The document also is reluctant to accord the title of “liberator” to Christ. It even states that “some (Asian bishops) responses caution that the term ‘liberator’ in reference to Christ should be avoided.”

This is strange, because none of 13 Asian bishops’ responses available to NCR expressed such a caution, while three of them specifically recommended use of the title.

“The church is called to give concrete shape to the mission of Christ as ‘liberator,’ “ the Indonesian bishops said.

“Jesus Christ is presented as redeemer and liberator who fought injustice and oppression,” the bishops of the Philippines wrote. The Sri Lankans made a similar statement.

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 17, 1998