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U.S. theology meeting signals broader vision


When the outgoing president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Franciscan Fr. Kenneth Himes, earlier this month passed the gavel to Fr. Peter Phan, the action underscored the nation’s quickly changing social and religious landscape. Phan, a professor at the Catholic University of America, is the first Asian to head the organization.

“We’re increasingly a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society,” Phan told me on the telephone. “It’s important to understand this as we think about the church’s mission.”

As the theology society’s president-elect, Phan had chosen the theme of church mission to guide conference discussions.

Significant shifts in mission thinking have taken place within the Catholic church since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). With greater sensitivities to local cultures and religious beliefs, the church changed priorities, moving away from converting individuals and toward evangelizing communities and cultures. Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, enhanced this approach.

Newer mission theologies generally focus on Jesus and his message and call for witnessing Christianity to the world. They often look beyond the church to the Reign of God, advocating labor on behalf of justice, peace and integral human development. These ideas have flourished since the early 1970s in Asia where the bishops have been especially sensitive to widespread poverty, local cultures and interreligious dialogue. In Asia evangelization based on witness and dialogue has received uncompromised episcopal support.

These post-conciliar initiatives flourished beneath Vatican radar throughout the 1970s and 1980s until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Then Rome was more focused on thwarting the influence of liberation theology in Latin America. However, in the 1990s, Rome’s target of concern moved eastward. The Vatican began to speak about the dangers of relativism and religious pluralism.

In his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II questioned the new evangelism, worrying aloud that the church was losing its missionary zeal.

However, the Asian bishops stayed the course. They shocked Roman prelates at the 1998 Synod on Asia by their insistence on their mission-driven church vision based on the “triple dialogue” with cultures, religions and the poor.

The next year Pope John Paul, in Delhi, offered his response to the synod in an apostolic exhortation called “Ecclesia in Asia.” It came as a disappointment to most Asians. Laden with church orthodoxy, the document fell far short of an emerging Asian vision of church -- a network of truly collaborative local churches working through dialogue for total human liberation. When the Asian bishops met in Thailand only weeks later for a once-in-five-years pan-Asian gathering, they simply ignored Vatican pleas to discuss Ecclesia in Asia.

It was within this Catholic debate over mission that Phan invited Indian Jesuit Fr. Michael Amaladoss, a former assistant to the superior general of the Society of Jesus and one of Asia’s most respected theologians, to be a keynote speaker at this year’s gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Phan calls Amaladoss a “bridge builder.”

Speaking before the society, Amaladoss echoed the thinking of the Asian Catholic leadership. He embraced mission theology and the building of inculturated churches in dialogue with other Asians. “Our starting point is that salvation is now understood not merely in terms of individuals being saved but in cosmic terms made familiar to us by Paul,” he said.

Amaladoss upheld the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, but rejected the notion that other religions must be seen as simply leading up to the fulfillment of Catholicism. This idea does not match the Asian experience, he said. Rather, Amaladoss argued that the divine-human dialogue has led to the emergence of many religions. It is the task of believers, he said, to work for reconciliation finally leaving it to God to gather up all things.

Again echoing ideas widely held by the Catholic Asian bishops, Amaladoss said the Spirit and Word have been present throughout history in all religions. Asian evangelization begins, he said, with contemplating this reality and then attempting to learn from other religions. This approach opens the church to true dialogue, he said.

While other religions have the Word, the Christian gift is to know the Incarnate Word. Sharing our knowledge of Jesus’ message becomes the Christian task. “We do not proclaim and prove Jesus is the Son of God. We do not preach a creed. We announce the good news that the kingdom of God is here,” Amaladoss said.

Through dialogue Christians can finally live in harmony in Asia with the other religions. Asian bishops continue to form a vision of life based on harmony, a value deeply treasured in Asia, he said.

Noting that many Asians, including Ghandi, have been deeply influenced by Jesus yet reject the church and its creeds, Amaladoss said evangelization does not necessarily require teaching church dogma.

By several accounts, Amaladoss’ talk was well received. Furthermore, his appearance represented another step in the call for a truly universal Catholicism, with local churches networked together, learning from and inspiring each other. Although under attack, the Asian theologians seem to speak out with greater confidence, stressing their unique gifts.

Could it be that their experiences contain lessons for the West? And perhaps for all local churches struggling to secure better footing in the shifting, multi-ethnic soils of the 21st century?

Fox is NCR publisher. His email is tfox@natcath.org. He is working on a book on Catholicism in Asia.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001