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Documents portray Asian church coming alive

By Fr. Miguel Marcelo Quatra
Claretian Publications, 234 pages, $19.50


The Asian bishops are leading their local churches into radical commitments to interreligious dialogue and solidarity with the poor. For years now they have been speaking with ease about creating “a new way of being church” in Asia. They speak of building a pastoral vision through a “Reign of God” theology, one that sees the work of the Spirit in all the peoples and religions of Asia, not only in Catholicism.

Their mission is no less than the transformation of the continent and the liberation of its peoples from all forms of oppression.

The vision articulated by the Asian bishops has been developed over decades through conferences and through documents composed by the bishops and issued by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. Oblate Fr. Miguel Marcelo Quatra’s At the Side of the Multitudes attempts to synthesize 25 years (1970 to 1995) of those documents, outlining their major themes. Quatra qualifies his study, saying that federation documents are primarily pastoral in nature and are not intended as doctrinal statements. He adds that they represent more than the thinking of the Asian bishops, having grown out of many meetings involving theologians, priests, religious and lay leaders, as well as bishops. Yet the federation’s documents, taken together, he writes, portray a vision of church coming to life in Asia. Theological divisions do not exist in Asia among the bishops as they do in the West. They work out of a spirit of consensus, and so their documents represent the general sense of episcopal thinking.

Catholics make up 2 percent of Asia. A minority religion seeking to reach out must enter into dialogue, the Asian bishops say. Further, the dialogue must be not with the specific goal of conversion but rather to seek harmony and gain wider truth. For three decades, the Asian bishops have written about the importance to evangelization in Asia of the “triple dialogue” with religion, culture and the poor.

While the vision expressed in Quatra’s book is not new, it is receiving increasing attention from Rome and elsewhere as the universal church awakens to the far-reaching implications of aspects of Asian theology and its pastoral commitments.

Vatican officials appear particularly concerned about how Reign of God theology could affect evangelizing efforts in Asia. They are troubled by such Asian episcopal statements as the one that came out of a 1998 colloquium on interreligious affairs: “The coming of the Kingdom requires of us Christians a genuine conversion. We need to recognize first our failures; and we need to abandon our self-image as sole possessors of the Kingdom.”

Cardinal Jozef Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, challenged Asian bishops 12 years ago, arguing that their theology marginalizes the role Christ plays in the divine salvation plan. Tomko’s concerns have not diminished. He raised the same issue at a gathering of the Asian bishops in Thailand in January. Each time the bishops defend themselves by pointing to Asian episcopal statements that speak of the centrality of Christ in salvation.

The jousting between the Vatican and Asian bishops had gone largely unnoticed by most of the Western world until April 1998, when the Asian synod convened in Rome. During that gathering, Vatican prelates and Asian bishops outlined two very different ideas about how to best evangelize Asia. The Vatican told Asian bishops to proclaim Jesus Christ as universal savior -- the unique savior for all of humankind. The Asian bishops responded that witnessing to the gospel is more effective. The debate has continued.

In November 1999, Pope John Paul II flew to India where he unveiled his response to the synod in a papal exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia. While the document was more sympathetic to the Asian perspective than some observers thought it might be, it clearly called on the church in Asia to proclaim Jesus as universal savior. In New Delhi, the pope called upon Catholics to convert Asia. His remarks caused consternation and widespread criticism within India and elsewhere.

Only weeks later, when the Asian bishops met outside of Bangkok for their once-every-five-years gathering, Tomko was on hand, telling the bishops to pay attention to the pope’s urging. However, Ecclesia in Asia drew scant attention during the meeting.

Rome’s worries have popped up elsewhere. Two years ago, the Vatican excommunicated Sri Lankan theologian, Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, saying he was watering down the faith. Rome eventually backed off under pressure. More recently, the Vatican targeted Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, a man who has helped craft Asian thinking on interreligious affairs. Dupuis is author of the book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis).

To understand how the Vatican and the Asian bishops have come to this point of disagreement and to gain a sense of what appears to be at stake, it is helpful to go back 30 years to 1970. The first post-colonial generation of Asian bishops and theologians had come of age and they were eager to make their own mark within the church. Some had participated in Vatican II (1962-1965) and eagerly embraced its call to decentralize.

That year Pope Paul VI journeyed to Asia, where he was considered a friend, making only his ninth trip outside of Italy during his 20-year pontificate. Arriving in Manila Nov. 27, the pope was greeted by 180 bishops. By that time the Asian bishops had already established national bishops’ conferences and were determined to broaden their own associations within Asia. The papal visit afforded them a magnificent opportunity to form a new organization, and with a papal blessing. The organization eventually became the Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences, or FABC.

During the last three decades, the bishops’ federation has become the most influential body within the churches of Asia. Yet for most of that time it has been largely ignored by Rome, where officials, during the 1980s and early 1990s, focused attention on taming progressive thought in Latin America.

Quatra credits Vatican II’s pastoral vision and liberation theology’s emphasis on social context as seeds for Asian theological reflections. Looking at context in Asia has meant looking into the eyes of poverty. Eventually, Asian bishops were moved to conclude that being church in Asia means partaking in “the liberating and humanizing action of God in the world.” It means being a church of and for the poor.

Quatra details important theological shifts in episcopal thinking in the early 1980s. That was when the Asian bishops emerged from a primary focus on their own churches to a wider focus on building the Reign of God on earth. It was a shift the bishops hoped would place them in the broader flow of Asian history, eventually giving the local churches new Asian identity and allowing them to shed the last vestiges of a colonial past.

Central to the new thinking was the sense of the Spirit at work in all Asian religions. It has a creation focus and helps answer the question: Where was God in Asia before the missionaries arrived? The answer: God was with us all along. The documents produced by the bishops’ federation present a God who has been personally present to all humanity. The Creator’s presence is a saving presence. God is accessible to all -- and not bound to any one place or religion on earth. God is found in Christian and non-Christian sacred texts.

The call to interreligious dialogue grew out of Vatican II. The Asian bishops have gone further, celebrating and embracing pluralism and religious diversity as part of God’s plan. They also say that Christ’s salvific plan of redemption is at work beyond the boundaries of Christianity. How then is Christianity unique? Why Christ? Because the Creator chose Christ, the Asian bishops respond. They do not hedge.

The federation documents paint the Creator’s plan as mysterious and still evolving. They say harmony is important in Asia. They refer to the Asian sages who long ago perceived that many paths lead to the Absolute. “The Asian psyche builds concepts and practices of harmony to cope with the ongoing dialectic of unity and diversity,” state the Asian bishops.

Meanwhile, they deny that their thinking leads to religious relativism. Christ is central, they say. They quickly add, however, that other religions play providential roles. “Through them God has attracted the Asian peoples to Himself. And thus the religions have been the instrument by which God’s initiative to enter into communion with humans found its realization, and still continues to do so today.”

The Asian bishops have carried forward the church’s “preferential option for the poor,” according to Quatra. The federation documents speak of Christ’s “preferential identification” with the weak, oppressed, the poor. Through the poor emerges the true face of Christ and the pathway to fulfilling the Reign of God.

Quatra’s book is useful for anyone who wants to capture the faith reflections of Catholic leadership in Asia and to understand where the local churches of Asia are going -- and the growing conflict with Rome they may be facing -- at the start of this new century.

Thomas Fox is NCR publisher and is working on a book on the local churches of Asia. His e-mail address is tcfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000