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Japanese bishops revive leadership tradition

Revised message on "life" considers diversity of sexual orientation, nuclear power, poverty, discrimination, war

Japanese bishops revive leadership tradition

The Japanese bishops' "Reverence for Life: A Message for the Twenty-First Century" has been published and will soon be translated into English. (Background photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP) reporter, Tokyo

May 12, 2017

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The Japanese bishops have published an updated version of their 2001 message expressing their thoughts regarding "life."

Some 95,000 copies of the first message, Reverence for Life: A Message for the Twenty-First Century from the Catholic Bishops of Japan, were issued since its publication in 2001.

In their new message, tentatively titled in English, Reverence for Life: A New Look, the bishops say, "in giving priority to economic efficiency and social position, (Japanese) society is losing sight of human connections and mutual support."

They continue, "We are convinced that something is wrong, that there is something more important. We hope that this message will serve those who share that unease as a clue about how to think of life."

Auxiliary Bishop Kazuo Koda of Tokyo, chairman of the working group charged with revising the message, told an April 28 gathering of Catholic school directors and leaders of religious orders and mission societies, "The first message was based on data up to 1999. In the 16 years since then, the circumstances surrounding life have changed significantly in society. So, the bishops thought the message needed to be revised."

The updated version, a 170-page book issued in March, is a total rewriting of the earlier message except for an introductory section giving the Biblical basis for the work.

Bishop Koda pointed out that in the years since the first message, the Japanese family has changed. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, in 2014, one-person households were 27.1 percent of the population, and 28.8 percent of households consisted only of a married couple and their unmarried children.

"The poverty rate among the elderly, single women and children is particularly high," the bishops report. "In addition, the number of people receiving welfare assistance continues to increase year by year, and as of March 2016 reached 2.16 million, with the number of households receiving assistance exceeding 1.63 million."

In the newly-issued message, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan makes its first-ever official mention of gay, bisexual and transgender people.

According to Bishop Koda, in preparing the message the longest discussion among the bishops took place over a single sentence, with the bishops wondering how they could assert that same-sex marriage is not allowed by the church while at the same time declaring that the Catholic Church does not discriminate against sexual minorities. The final wording was decided upon at the bishops conference's plenary assembly in December last year.

"Without exception, the Church must accompany all people with respect, so that everyone has the necessary help to understand and realize God’s will for them in life. While holding the traditional teachings about marriage, we will continue to make efforts to consider the diversity of sexual orientation."

In addition, the latest message took up new areas such as nuclear power, economic disparity and poverty, discrimination, and war and violence.

In the first two months following its publication by the bishops conference's Department for Publications, nearly 10,000 copies were sold at 500 yen (US$4.40). About 60 percent of sales have been to Catholic schools, dioceses and parishes. Of telephone orders placed with the publications office, 70 percent were from individuals. 

An English-language translation is in preparation, and will probably, like the 2001 message, be available on the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan website.

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