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Issue Date:  March 24, 2006

Prelates hail Asia's growing influence


If Thomas Friedman recently discovered that today “the world is flat,” meaning that globalization has leveled the playing field across geographic borders, one might make an analogous claim that today Roman Catholicism is “upside down.”

A church once dominated by the global North, principally Europe, is now drawing its numbers, energy and vision increasingly from the South. As a consequence, the voices of church leaders in once isolated places such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, where two-thirds of all Catholics today live, will have increasingly global echoes.

Those voices were heard in Rome March 10 and 11, at a conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on the 40th anniversary of Ad Gentes, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on missionary work.

The malaise of Catholicism in the North, especially in Europe, hung over the event. Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, Germany, still flush with the triumph of attracting more than a million people to last August’s World Youth Day, nevertheless conceded the difficulties.

“We’ve never had as much money as in the last 40 years, and we’ve never lost the substance of the faith as much as in the last 40 years,” he said. “In the Cologne archdiocese, there are 2.8 million Catholics, but in the last 30 years we’ve lost 300,000. For every one baptism, there are three funerals.”

“We’re grateful for any help we can get from the outside,” Meisner said.

Two Asians who spoke at the Ad Gentes conference seemed to feel they may be able to provide just such a boost.

“There is a new self-consciousness about the church in the South, a confidence that it can stand on its own feet, reflect for itself, and influence the direction of the church’s pastoral initiatives,” said Archbishop Oswald Gracias of Agra, India, president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, in an interview with NCR on the margins of the conference.

Archbishop Nicholas Cheong Jin-Suk of Seoul, South Korea, set to be made a cardinal by Benedict XVI on March 24, hailed Asia as a “continent of hope for humanity” in his keynote address.

Neither man, it should be made clear, is by any stretch of the imagination a church “reformer.”

Cheong told the conference that every pastoral initiative must be carried out cum Petro et sub Petro, “with the pope and under the pope.” In his NCR interview, Gracias dismissed avant garde theories of religious pluralism developed by some Asian Catholic theologians, which treat Christ as a savior alongside others such as Buddha and Krishna, as something “no Catholic would hold … and no serious theologian would hold either.”

Gracias also said that the Vatican’s recent document banning gays from seminaries caused no reaction in India, where he said its content is “taken for granted.”

Yet simply by dint of their determination to bring Asian experience to bear on the universal church, Cheong and Gracias illustrate how an upside-down Catholicism may nevertheless look and feel considerably different from its European-dominated version.

One form Asian influence may take is ever-greater attention to building a “saving dialogue with cultures, religions and peoples, especially the poor,” said Cheong, 74.

Gracias, 61, echoed the emphasis.

“The West has got to start learning from Asia about how to deal with a multicultural, multireligious situation,” he said. “The West may not always have felt [dialogue] was imperative, but for us it’s a question of survival. It’s not a strategy.”

Both men also agreed that inculturation, or allowing the Gospel to take root in local cultures, is both a challenge for Asia and something it can offer the rest of the church.

“It’s an urgent necessity to sweep out the mistaken impression that the church is culturally foreign to Asia, especially in light of the current Asian resurgence,” Cheong said.

Cheong explained that in previous eras, “modernization” for many Asians meant “Westernization,” so there was a deliberate suppression of distinctively Asian modes of dress, speech, social organization and thought. Today, however, he said the pendulum has swung towards the “Asianization of Asia,” especially among the young.

In that context, Cheong said, the church must present “Christ with an Asian face.”

Gracias agreed.

“The faith must be expressed in the various cultures of the world, and it’s so important that this be done maturely, responsibly, reflectively, on a theologically sound basis,” he said.

“Change and adaptation are necessary, and maybe the churches of the South, especially in Asia, can offer an example,” Gracias said. “Today we try to be open to the Spirit with self-confidence, believing that inculturation is not going to take the church to the ruins.”

Gracias said the Asian church seeks to “combat the darkness of poverty head-on,” something with which Cheong agreed.

“There has been impressive economic and technological progress, but there are still situations of extreme poverty and injustice,” Cheong said. “Two billion people, 60 percent of our population, still live on less than $2 a day. Most countries rank very low in human development.”

Cheong said the church must help Asia escape “structures of poverty” such as caste systems, national and international vested interests, corruption, political instability, the heavy burden of foreign debt, and a rapid pace of cultural change that is “undermining religious, moral and cultural values.”

In that light, Gracias said, the Asian church has something to teach the rest of Catholicism about simplicity of life.

“We must be poor like Christ was poor,” he said.

“Even for those of us in Asia, this is a problem. … In India, we have lots of big edifices, in the form of churches, office buildings, parish houses and so on,” Gracias said. “Today it’s a little embarrassing. When we construct places now, we’re very conscious of that. Our dress habits, food habits, our manner of travel, all should be as simple as possible.”

Gracias said the influence of the global South on Catholicism will come about “gradually,” but inexorably.

“I wouldn’t be fanatic about it,” he said, “demanding that because the majority of Catholics is in the South, therefore the majority of church leaders and theologians in prominent positions should be from the South. It will happen by osmosis, and should lead to a natural exchange.”

“The church in the South still has a great deal to learn from the church in the North, especially the West,” Gracias said. “But the West also has a great deal to learn from us, and that will come with time.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2006

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