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

Asian societies need to strengthen their scholarly and public resources on Catholicism
A decorated boat carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary sails on a river in a procession in the central Thai province of Suphan Buri, ahead of Pope Francis' visit to Thailand, on Oct. 26, 2019

A decorated boat carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary sails on a river in a procession in the central Thai province of Suphan Buri, ahead of Pope Francis' visit to Thailand, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 02, 2023 11:54 AM GMT
Updated: November 01, 2023 04:57 AM GMT

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

If the institutional structure and Asian perceptions of Catholicism are important factors to explain the relative weakness of Catholic Studies in Asia, other reasons linked to academia itself must be acknowledged.

The linguistic dilemma of Asian research

A common issue in pan-Asian research is the linguistic dilemma. Most Asian countries have their distinct national language following entirely different systems such as Japanese, Tagalog, Hindi, or Putonghua. Highly fragmented, the continent has no common language to transcend ethnocentric beliefs and support a transnational community of scholars. This is not specific to Catholic Studies.

Over the past decades, however, English has become the default option to allow inter-Asia engagements. But the rise of English as a communication link also increases academic brain drain and the potential domination of Anglo-Western discourses, perceptions, and concepts.

This is especially true within small and emerging fields of study like Catholic Studies. While the continent provides a huge diversity of case studies and traditions to deepen conversations on lived Catholicism, the English-speaking literature which is so essential to building collective and scholarly engagements is mostly debated and produced outside Asia.

The inter-disciplinary nature of Catholic studies

A fourth and last factor that does not necessarily benefit the rise of Catholic Studies in Asia is the interdisciplinary nature of the field, and more specifically, the competition that occurs between academic disciplines seeking to define its research directions.

Should Catholic Studies be mostly driven by historians, philosophers, theologians, or sociologists? Which research methodologies and body of literature should stand as the foundation of the field? These questions have theoretical and practical implications of the greatest importance. They will define the capacity of Catholic Studies to truly contribute to the broader conversations of policymakers, civil societies, and the Church.

We believe that despite the absence of a regulatory body, the stakeholders of Catholic Studies need to nourish a real diversity of disciplinary backgrounds, a condition to bring something new to contemporary challenges. Otherwise, Catholic Studies will become the dull backyard of a more prestigious discipline and an airless vestry for ideological riots.

Catholic Studies needs to be truly interdisciplinary. Nobody wants to see them monopolized by theologians or sociologists unable to secure a position within a conventional faculty of theology or sociology, respectively.

What about Christian studies in Asia?

Although the Asian perceptions of Catholicism, the structure of the Church, the linguistic dilemma of Asian research, and the interdisciplinary nature of Catholic Studies are essential factors in understanding the scarcity of this field of study in Asia, one must also remember that Christianity in Asia holds a bigger picture than Asian Catholics.

Catholics represent about 40 percent of Asian Christians. Asia is home to a tremendous diversity of Christian traditions and institutions. Yet, in Asian countries where Christians are often a minority of less than 6 percent, the non-Christian majority looks at them as one group. And in some contexts, Christians themselves do not want to emphasize their internal differences.

In light of these Asian contexts, we must carefully ponder the advantages and disadvantages of setting Catholic Studies apart from Christian studies. What are the explicit and implicit reasons to separate the two? What should be the national parameters and local traditions for academics to establish such separation? This has geopolitical and theological implications.

Almost 40 years ago, the public University of Madras was eager to open new departments. In light of the ancient Christian landscape of southern India and of the ecumenical efforts of post-Vatican II Catholicism, the Catholic Archdiocese of Madras sponsored the creation of a Department of Christian Studies. In a land where the Christian faith has been present for almost 2,000 years, the point was to establish something on the scale of Christianity — something more universally Christian than just the one centered on Rome.

In other words, within Catholic Studies, the term Catholic cannot become a denominational marker or a line of division. This would not reflect the spirit of Christianity and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Rather, Catholic-Christian studies have to be built upon the catholicity of Christian commitments. In this journey, Asian countries still need to find academic ways to investigate and spell out these subtle dynamics.

Moving forward

Aware of the rich complexity of Asian societies and the constraints of their scholarly landscapes, we have spent the past two years developing the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC). From Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, and India, and with the involvement of several organizations and numerous individuals, we are weaving an international network supporting social scientific research on Asian Catholics in contemporary societies. Through this new kind of research consortium, we hope to nurture robust and multi-centered research that can benefit Asian societies at large and Asian Christians.

Of course, Asian Catholics are not the whole of Catholicism. But found all around the globe, they are a significant bridge between globalizing Asia, non-Asian societies, and the worldwide Catholic Church. Often marginalized in Church debates, scholarly research, and Asian politics, ISAC turns the attention to Asian Catholics across the globe — who are either in Sri Lanka or Norway — as a strategic way to advocate Catholic Studies in Asia and beyond. Our experience shows that either in Asia, America, or Europe, research on Asian Catholics speaks to numerous academic subfields such as legal studies, material religion, and migrant studies.

As the 21st century witnesses the rise of Asia and the rapid reconfiguration of religious traditions, Asian societies need to strengthen their scholarly and public resources to better analyze and reflect on the largest religious organization in the world, Catholicism.

*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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