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Part I: Catholic studies in Asia, a Way of the Cross?

In several Asian nations, Christianity is widely but inaccurately perceived as a mere colonial import
 Ruben Enaje (right) performs his 34th re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday in San Fernando, Pampanga province in the Philippines on April 7. In several Asian nations, Christianity is widely but inaccurately perceived as a mere colonial import and research on the current social realities of Asian Catholic life remains limited. (Photo: AFP)

Ruben Enaje (right) performs his 34th re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday in San Fernando, Pampanga province in the Philippines on April 7. In several Asian nations, Christianity is widely but inaccurately perceived as a mere colonial import and research on the current social realities of Asian Catholic life remains limited. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 02, 2023 03:54 AM GMT
Updated: November 01, 2023 04:56 AM GMT

Over the past decade, several leading universities have established chairs in Catholic Studies to deepen the understanding of one of the most complex social actors of the contemporary world — the Catholic Church. At 1.3 billion, the global Catholic population is almost as large as the population of India or China.

Catholics, through their diverse institutions and diplomatic engagements across the globe, influence many more people than just churchgoers. Yet, the number of scholars specialized in the analysis of world Catholicism is incomparably fewer than those studying Indian or Chinese society and politics.

However, the situation seems to be changing. Moving away from a modernist disdain towards Catholicism, more research centers and higher education institutions are upgrading their capacities to appreciate the internal diversity, socio-economic scope, and political influences of Catholic groupings.

In Asia, however, studies and systematic research on Catholicism are quite rare. While historical research on Catholicism has grown significantly and is now present across various academic circles, research on the current social realities of Asian Catholic life remains limited.

Most often researches on contemporary Catholics occur within universities managed by the Catholic hierarchy. These research projects are usually requested and sponsored by individuals or groups as members of the hierarchy and their findings are rarely made public. In other words, research on contemporary Asian Catholicism is far from belonging to the public domain yet.

This non-public research approach has numerous consequences, both for Asian societies and Asian Catholics at large. As we have argued elsewhere, a lack of interdisciplinary resources makes the Asian public understanding of Catholicism depend on colonial, Western, and clerical assumptions.

Asian policymakers, journalists, and non-governmental organizations have little access to critical and up-to-date research on the evolutions of these religious groups, the dynamics of their global networks, and the impact of their intertwined institutions.  

Our intention here is not to discuss these consequences but the roots of this situation.

We argue that the Asian delay in paying in-depth attention to world Catholicism is rooted in four deeply intertwined factors. While two of them are mostly linked to Catholicism, the other two relate to academia itself. In each case, the first group of factors is quite specific to Asia while the second group is a worldwide issue.

The Asian perception of Catholicism

The first group of factors impacting the growth of Catholic Studies in Asia is grounded in perceptions of Catholicism quite specific to the Asian context. As Catholics are a religious minority in most Asian countries, Catholicism is generally perceived as marginal force and not as an important social group that deserves scholarly attention.

Simultaneously, Asian Christianity is widely but inaccurately perceived as a mere colonial import. In several Asian nations, this discourages Christians from owning up their religion and academics from advocating for the relevance of Catholic Studies. This becomes even more difficult in nations where nationality is perceived as linked to the culture of a particular religion.

Paradoxically, the general perception of Catholicism as a non-violent religion does not benefit academic research. In a continent where resources for higher education can be limited, the study of Catholicism is not a priority. Local governments have well-established channels to negotiate with Church authorities at home and at the Vatican. They do not see the need for an academic and public contribution.

Unlike financially strong American universities allowing more research on Catholicism, Asian universities cannot spare resources on their own for research on something that is not perceived as vital for their national well-being. With this lack of internal resources and incentives, Asian scholars and leaders take the risk of reading Catholicism through ideas and discourses mostly debated and framed in the West.

The Church’s paradoxical structure

A second group of reasons explaining the scarcity of Catholic Studies in Asia derives from the structure of the Catholic Church itself. This is a worldwide issue. The Church is commonly perceived as a coherent, homogenous, and pyramidal system with the pope as the head. Most people assume that cardinals, bishops, and priests represent the sub-levels of this very homogenous organization. Most academics do not immediately perceive the need for further inquiry into an institution that seems to have the same features all around the world.

The lack of intellectual curiosity is reinforced by a modern bias rooted in Western history and exported through intellectual avatars like state secularism and communism. In this modernist paradigm, religion is not perceived as something transformative and positive. It is something mostly irrational coming from the past. This assumption is especially strong toward Catholicism, the archetypal religion of Europe that is seen as static and archaic and a declining reality.

In Asia like elsewhere, modern academia has an apathy toward the study of Catholicism. Subsequently, the subtle socio-religious realities of Asian Catholics will rarely attract intellectual attention unless they perform some painful crucifixions or rituals considered as exotic and truly Asian.

At the structural level, however, the Catholic Church has another specificity that does not necessarily benefit the rise of Catholic Studies. It relates to the central role of its clergy. For a religious body highly interconnected with its ordained ministers, the emergence of an alternative body of professionals holding some expertise in Catholicism can appear as a challenge.

Who has the authority to speak about Catholics? In some cases, clergy and Catholic groupings can feel perturbed, even threatened, by the types of discourse and analysis that sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, or political scientists may develop about them. Therefore, between autonomous academia and Catholic groups, there is a potential hermeneutic tension.

One unsatisfactory way to solve this tension is to have members of clergy secure a degree in one academic discipline to implicitly claim a dual authority. While these multi-skilled profiles are extremely precious to enrich scholarly conversations, they cannot be the ultimate solution. Their situation gives the impression that lay scholars cannot be fully trusted or that research cannot operate independently under its rights. With Pope Benedict XVI, we shall argue that this lack of trust in the autonomy of reason is not being faithful to the Catholic tradition.

Nevertheless, this hermeneutic tension is certainly not a specificity of Catholic organizations. Most religious, national, and social groupings are concerned with how secular academics may study and characterize them. In front of a highly organized institution like the Catholic Church, however, hermeneutic tensions cannot be ignored.

It takes significant diplomacy, from both sides, to build mutual trust and constructive support. But sometimes, academic and ecclesial authorities can find a modus operandi to stimulate public research on Catholicism. This is, for intense, what happened in Hong Kong where the Catholic diocese has actively supported the emergence of a Center for Catholic Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Over the years, the center has been able to deliver strong research output and attract various grants from funding agencies.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read part two here

*The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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