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Do Catholic theologians neglect Asia's lived realities?

Asian Christians are not generic Protestants and Catholics.

Do Catholic theologians neglect Asia's lived realities?

Buddhist monks offer prayers in Bangalore on October 14, 2020, to mark the 64th anniversary since Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian constitution, who renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism. (Manjunath Kiran / AFP)

Recently, a faculty of theology in Belgium was searching for someone to teach on “the domain of Catholic ecclesiology, ecumenism, and oriental theologies.” After inquiry, the dean confirmed that expertise on Catholic and Protestant communities living in Asia was not relevant. When theologians talk about oriental theologies, they refer to multi-secular traditions rooted in the Middle East that have produced intense theological debates, distinct ecclesial structures, and refined spiritualities.

Surely, one can only praise this intellectual attention to Christian traditions coming from the Middle East. The Second Vatican Council has shown the importance and merit of the task. At the same time, it is hard to not see how Christian realities and practices across Asia are constantly and institutionally sidelined. For Catholic thinkers, the lived reality of 300 million Asian Christians – especially if they label themselves as Catholics or Protestants – is not genuinely important for 21st-century theology and ecclesiology. 

Asian Christians might have exotic features and local particularities. But being Catholic or Protestant, their core theology and ecclesiology might be the same as the ones already defined by their Church. Thus, they are something of common knowledge not worth intellectual scrutiny. Thus, the assumption is that theologians should rather turn their attention toward ancient traditions coming from the East. Not the extreme East, nor the middle one that news reports keep presenting in its tormented nature, but the East of the ancient, memorable, and somehow mystical Orient.

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These ecclesial traditions – whatever their reality on the ground is today— are interesting because they allegedly deploy distinct ecclesiologies with contrasting spiritual and intellectual legacies. Between brothers and sisters coming from 21st century Asia and spiritual figures coming from ancient Orient, Catholic intelligentsia leans toward the second. How could made-in-China or made-in-Bangladesh ecclesial practices compete with multi-secular Oriental traditions? The mind prefers to contemplate the past than to deal with the present. In other words, filial piety –or ancestral worship— can conveniently replace our duties toward our brothers and sisters.

This theological orientalism is not proper to Belgium. The same dynamic can be observed at faculties of theology based in France, Italy or the United-States. Of course, many argue that no discrimination is behind this unfortunate situation. It is only financial scarcity that explains our lack of theological attention toward Asian realities. Catholic schools of theology have limited resources and they need to focus on fundamental issues. In a Catholic Church still marked by the Western reformation, what matters is the study of dogmatics, holy scriptures, canon law, Western philosophy, and ethics. Some faculties may host satellite departments exploring world cultures and religions. But when Asia is studied, it is mostly for its “other” religions such as Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. Asian Christians –like those in Africa and Latin America— are not really a priority.

Some, however, may point out the numerous programs and partnerships that faculties of theology have developed with Asian churches. Over the past decades, hundreds of Asian priests and nuns received scholarship and remarkable support to come and study in the West. And over the years, their voices are better heard. Yet, without denying the real fraternity growing out of these partnerships, there is not yet a systematic analysis of Asian dynamics that could impact the core of Catholic theology. After all, Asian guests remain recipients of our teaching and charity.

Let us be clear. Catholic orientalism is not linked to the skin color of our brothers and sisters, nor to Asia alone. This illness is deeper and worse. It is the whole body of Christ that we do not want to scrutinize too closely. For us moderns, the revelation of God is mediated through Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. That is essential, that is the essence of the Church. Then, real theologians do not have to bother with the body of Christ per se. The lived reality of the Church – in its Catalan, Tuareg, Tibetan worldviews – is not the core of the theological enterprise. Thankfully, in the Catholic Church, the Latin rite covers most of the messiness of the body of Christ. It is maybe for pastors, journalists, sociologists, anthropologists and missionaries to deal with the many parts of this body. But theologians do not have to do so. Noblesse oblige!

This Catholic orientalism that combined a certain fascination for immaterial heritage of Eastern Churches and an untold disdain for tangible Asian (and non-Asian) Christians also lies within the core administration of the Church. After the Special Synod for Asia held in Rome in 1998, for instance, Saint John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, to set out a program for the Church in Asia. In their “Propositions” Asian bishops recognized the importance of the Vatican offices, but at the same time, they shared how local churches felt being treated as subordinate branch offices by Rome. Unsurprisingly, Saint John Paul II kept only the first part of their statement (EA 25). If the center of the Church pays attention to its Asian peripheries, it is usually to better teach and lead them. Not the other way around. For most of the Church, salvation comes from the center.  “Is it possible for any good to come out of [the remote] Nazareth?”

So, what could we (re)learn from Asian Christians? In a forthcoming book on Chinese theologies edited by Chloë Starr, I present how the Church in China has generated a consensus on ministry that is quite distinct from the rest of the worldwide Catholic Church. In the Middle Kingdom, female religious orders are becoming homogeneously multivalent, regional, and diocesan. Thus, nuns are a constitutive part of the diocesan clergy and they collectively carry out a distinct ministry that their broader Church has defined. In fact, this ecclesial service is a formally institutionalized, officially blessed –but not ordained— diaconal ministry that consecrated women belonging to diocesan religious orders fulfill.

This does not mean that the worldwide Catholic church should or could do like Chinese Catholics. This is not the point. What this Chinese reality reminds us is that the Catholic Church is not uniform. Its widespread Latin rite is neither a corset nor a uniform. Unlike what certain orientalism implies, Catholic institutions and practices are not necessarily the same everywhere. Asian Christians are not generic Protestants and Catholics. Moved by the Spirit, they are in motion. Asian faithful do not automatically fit in our predefined theological and ecclesiological categories.

When we let the Orient masks Asia, the intellectualized past recovering the messiness of the present, we avoid facing the body of Christ. Orientalism is a way to deal with ecclesial diversity by unduly opposing the other (Oriental Churches) to the same (Catholics all around the world). By drawing an ideal and reassuring line between “them” and “us”, we insinuate that the unity of the Catholic Church comes from her supposed uniformity. By denying the multiplicity of Catholics who rely on the same Latin rite, we forget that it is Christ himself who unifies the Church, and not some kind of Church rite, law or etiquette.

On one hand, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches are exalted as alternative Christian traditions. But perceived as different, either theologically or ecclesiologically, they are harmless for our convictions. On the other hand, Asian Christians are reduced to generic Catholics and Protestants. They are similar to what we already know and therefore, we can reduce them to silence. This idealized opposition between the other and the same is what makes Orientalism structuring. Orientalism is not only within the structures of the Church, it rests inside a rather binary and modern Catholic thought. Catholics are all the same. Orientals are different.

To overcome this modern illness Catholic theology and ecclesiology need to not only scrutinize Sacred Scripture and Sacred tradition but also the living body of Christ. Wherever Christ manifests himself and through whatever cultural, political, and economic circumstances he embraces, there is our object of reflection.

Elaborating on already existing methodologies and academic conversions, theologians need to improve their tools to learn from the body of Christ. This challenge is not only for pastoral studies and missiology but also for the core enterprise of theology and ecclesiology. Rooted in the example of the Trinity, a true communion of different persons, the Church becomes Catholic only when she acknowledges her living diversity unified by the action of Christ. There is no true Christ-centered unity without embraced diversity. There can be no theology without in-depth dialogue with all parts of the Church.

“Tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Michel Chambon is a French Catholic theologian and anthropologist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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