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Experts urge more studies on Catholicism in Asia

Event in Singapore discussed rise of Catholic Studies across academia around the world

The hybrid roundtable on 'Catholic Studies in Asia: Prospects and Challenges' hosted by the Asia Research Institute (ARI) of the National University of Singapore on Oct. 2.

The hybrid roundtable on 'Catholic Studies in Asia: Prospects and Challenges' hosted by the Asia Research Institute (ARI) of the National University of Singapore on Oct. 2. (Photo supplied)

Published: October 03, 2023 07:33 AM GMT

Updated: October 23, 2023 07:48 AM GMT

Academic scholars including historians and theologians have stressed the need for more focus and efforts on studies on the richness and diversity of Catholicism in Asia, which they say, remain largely underdeveloped.

The remarks came during a hybrid roundtable discussion titled “Catholic Studies in Asia: Prospects and Challenges” hosted by the Asia Research Institute (ARI) of the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the city-state on Oct. 2.

It discussed the rise of Catholic Studies across academia with special attention to Asia. It also focused on the challenges that this emerging field of research faces in the region and the opportunities Asian societies and political systems provide to enrich this conversation.

The event marked the second anniversary of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC) of the ARI. ISAC is a research initiative designed to increase social scientific research on Catholics in Asia.

Michel Chambon, a French lay theologian and research fellow of the ARI, hosted the program.

It was “part of a broader effort and a long-term initiative to support research on the intersection of Asia and world Catholicism,” Chambon, the ISAC coordinator, said in his opening remarks.

Among the dignitaries present were Janet Ong, Singapore's ambassador to the Holy See, and Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the apostolic nuncio in Singapore.

Cardinal William Goh of Singapore was unable to attend the event as he was in Rome attending the Synod on Synodality, organizers said.

Jonathan Tan, a Malaysian theologian and chair of Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan Professor of Catholic Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, explained the historical perspective of the study of Catholicism.

Tan said there's been an “emergence of an interest in global or world Catholicism as a field of study,” which moved from something that was “European or Vatican driven” to “global Catholicism or world Catholicism.”

He pointed out there have been three phases in the development of Catholic Studies, beginning with the release of Gaudium et Spes, one of four constitutions of the Catholic Church resulting from the Second Vatican Council.

The pastoral constitution defines and clarifies the Church’s mission in the modern world.

“Gaudium et Spes talks about the engagement, the Church's engagement with the modern world,” Tan said.

The second phase started with Pope Saint John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae [of 1990) which urged to “define, delineate, and promote Catholic identity at Catholic universities,” Tan said.

The “emergence of an interest in global or world Catholicism as a field of study” is the third phase of the studies of Catholicism.

Among other panelists were George Yeo, a Visiting Scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore, and a former government minister.  

Yeo pointed out that the study of Catholicism could help students realize the “cellular robustness” of the Catholic Church which is acquired through the smaller parts which function with relative independence.

“You can destroy parts of it, but it doesn't affect the other parts because the other parts are helped by transcendental qualities,” Yeo said.

Bruce Lockhart, a historian on Southeast Asia, said Catholicism has an “Asian face,” based on his experiences in the region, and spoke about the focus on missionaries and the converts or the native communities in Asia.

The missionaries were often from diverse backgrounds, in countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which contributed to the development of Catholicism in diversity.  

“We have to look at the diversity of relationships between the missionaries and the regimes that they were there under,” Lockhart said.

He suggested that to look at the Catholic communities the missionaries created, researchers need to study the life of people in Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries “to better understand the historicity and cultural background that they were from.”

He also pointed out the need to know how “how Catholic doctrine, did or did not blend in with local culture in Southeast Asia.”

“If we want to understand Catholic minorities in these countries, we absolutely have to have a foundation looking at them as Catholics in their own right with a good understanding of what they believe and how they came to be there,” Lockhart said.

Jonathan Tan noted that Catholic Studies was beyond theology and needed to delve deeper into the various socio-cultural factors that affect individuals.

“This is so much to study about Catholics beyond just theology because it is not theology that makes us Catholics,” he said.

“We are incarnated and human flesh, we bring our cultures, we bring our traditions, we bring all these things. This is what makes us universal,” he added.

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