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Aging societies test church in Northeast Asia

Ahead of synod, Catholics look for church to catch up with today's realities

ucanews.com reporters, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo

ucanews.com reporters, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo

Published: October 02, 2015 06:09 AM GMT

Updated: October 02, 2015 01:41 AM GMT

Aging societies test church in Northeast Asia

A man looks out from a van at a Catholic church in China's Henan province in August. Aging populations in Northeast Asian countries pose unique challenges for Catholics. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

The 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will be taking place Oct. 4–25 at the Vatican. More than 360 participants, including 18 married couples from around the world, are expected to attend and discuss "the vocation and mission of the family in the church and in the contemporary world." In a series of features, ucanews.com explores the pastoral problems and challenges of contemporary families throughout the regions we cover. Today's feature examines Northeast Asia.


In October last year, the same month the Vatican held a summit that was a prelude to the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family, Japan released a survey revealing the most skewed demographics on Earth.

Some 26 percent of Japanese are older than 65, compared to just 11 percent worldwide. Only South Korea has lower fertility, at 1.1 births per woman. China, with the world's largest population, is grappling with the effects of more than 30 years of its single-child policy amid a surge in divorces.

Few regions represent the complex challenges facing families like Northeast Asia. But as the church prepares for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family starting Oct. 4, not one representative from this region has been papally appointed among 45 voting members. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan will send a bishop each. China, which still has no formal ties with the Holy See, will not — again.

"I feel the synod is very distant from us as we are restricted in many ways politically," says Father Peter Liu, who is based in southern China's Guangxi province.

The country's 10 million Catholics and their families could use some guidance more than ever, he adds. Last year, 3.63 million Chinese couples divorced, according to figures from the Civil Affairs Ministry. Four years earlier, 2.67 million Chinese couples divorced.

China's divorce rate has soared alongside the economy. Millions of migrant families leave their children or spouses back at home as they travel thousands of kilometers to relocate for work. In a country where buildings are built in a matter of weeks, the church's slow-moving process of marriage annulments appears trapped in the past.

In Hebei, which has more Catholics than any other Chinese province at about 1 million, Father Joseph He says his parish sees one in 10 couples suffer marriage problems.

"When they could not get an answer for years, they simply remarry against the canon," he says.

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Previously, annulments in mainland China were handled by Hong Kong Diocese. But in recent years, there were simply too many cases to handle. In a bid to cope with demand for divorces, the church in China has trained a dozen canonists to postgraduate level and a handful of doctoral candidates.

Following the pope's announcement on Sept. 8 streamlining the process, couples are expected to wait for shorter periods. In turn, this should help prevent the church from alienating divorcees, says Father He.

"Many faithful from traditional Catholic families understand that marriage is for life," he says. "If they are divorced, they feel ashamed and would not go to church anymore. Even the parents of the divorcees stopped receiving communion."

Couples retake their vows at a church in China's Shandong province on Sept. 14. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)


After Communion

In Hong Kong, the church has grappled with high divorce rates for longer than on the more traditional mainland. The problem extends beyond the point when marriages breakdown, says Kevin Lai, secretary-general of the Diocesan Pastoral Commission for Marriage and the Family.

"Divorce and remarriage is not just about receiving communion. It also concerns pastoral care afterwards," he says.

A key problem seen in responses to the questionnaire issued ahead of this month's synod has been the high rate of divorces among older people in Hong Kong, home to more than half a million Catholics, says Lai.

Property prices here rank among the most expensive in the world. Hong Kong has long been a major financial center where couples too often see their union as a moneymaking partnership, says Lai. 

"When the couple stays together for 24 hours after they retire and their children grow up, they find they have no affection for each other. It's a completion of duty, and this is when the thought of separation comes in," he says.

In Taiwan, a similarly small yet developed Chinese society, the church's failure to evolve alongside new realities of family life has not gone unnoticed, says Cecilia Li, a laywoman involved in marriage counseling for Catholics in Taiwan.

"The church is still using old ways to approach problems," she says. "When a marriage problem arises, some Catholics will persuade the protagonists to stay patient for the sanctity of marriage, without considering their real situation."

Lessons from the past few months suggest the Vatican has a chance to catch up. In Japan, responses to the recent questionnaire paint an intricate portrait of family life in one of the world's most advanced societies — information that will be transmitted back to Rome. Japanese responses to the "lineamenta" point to a liberal tone at the synod.

"Even in the case of sacramental marriages, a more sympathetic acceptance of circumstances is necessary," notes a report of bishops' response to the "lineamenta" seen by ucanews.com. "Would it be possible to offer people a period of repentance and purification during which they show a commitment to living the faith?"

Afterwards, the pastor — with the approval of the bishop — could determine that the person can once again approach the sacraments, notes the report.

It remains to be seen whether such radical ideas gain traction at the Vatican. So far, the church has only shown a willingness to streamline procedures, not overhaul them.

This Sept. 3 photo shows Yeoksam Catholic Church in Seoul's Gangnam district. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)


In recent months, the debate has usually provoked neat analyses that place certain church figures in the conservative camp and others on the more progressive side. This is not helpful, says Father Augustine Lee Jeong-joo, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of South Korea.

After receiving feedback from all 16 dioceses in South Korea, Father Augustine says there's a clear need to go back to the Bible, the origin of the Canon. Instead of comparing today's family to the ideal, the church needs to take "God's family" as the starting point, he adds.

"Through this synod, we hope that the church can establish this new sight on the family," says Father Lee.

Following last year's extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops on the family, many ordinary faithful have welcomed the direction taken by Pope Francis, says Father Gabriel Byong Young Je, director of the Institute of Culture and Education at Sogang University in Seoul. There's still major catching up to do though, he warns.

"The Catholic Church hasn't done so many things on family issues recently," says Father Young. "The church has to do something."

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