MICHAEL KELLY SJ. Understanding challenges the church in Asia faces.

Dec 3, 2016

The Church in Asia can absorb and replicate its hierarchical, tiered cultural surrounds, or leave behind the clericalist conception of the Church, as a tightly run top-down organisation.

It lies at the intersection of local hierarchical cultures and the culture of the church fostered by Rome before Vatican II.

The calm confidence of Cardinal Oswald Gracias that the church in Asia will avoid or at least manage a Left-Right divide in the church’s hierarchy is an optimistic political review of our prospects.

But the challenges and divisions the churches of Asia face are both far more obvious and much more complex than a simple political analysis will reveal.

The use of “Left” and “Right” as political descriptors lost any meaning — even when applied to theological positions — with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the end of the Cold War. That signaled the end of full-blown ideologies as the controlling ideas that shaped societies, economies and polities.

Moreover, political descriptors are quite inappropriate to describe the way the church lives and changes. The Catholic Church is not a political society but a faith community and faith communities have cultures, not political ideologies, to sustain them.

The area where the church in Asia will face challenges is already well defined and is the fruit of a long history. To put it briefly, the challenge lies at the intersection of local hierarchical cultures and the culture of the church fostered by Rome for 150 years before Vatican II.

From a Catholic point of view, the church today operates on two cultural agendas — the vision of the church outlined at Vatican II and the operational agenda of the church that operated for the previous 150 years and that Vatican II sought to reform. Until the Council, the multi-tiered, hierarchical church had initiative and authority come down from the top. The council redefined that and outlined a view of the church as the People of God who are served by clerics.

In Asia, embracing that change is further complicated. Local cultures influence the shape of Catholic cultures in various countries. Local cultures are quite distinct and are appropriated in very identifiable ways. It may be said to be inculturation. Sometimes it is.

Frequently though, it’s more the unexamined integration and accommodation of a local culture to fill out how Catholic life as proposed and led from Rome is lived.

Most Asian cultures are hierarchical. In many Asian cultures — unlike most countries in the West now — the clergy and religious hold revered and highly respected places. In the West, clerics and bishops do not enjoy the trust and respect they once did. This follows the disasters of clerical sexual abuse and its mishandling by bishops.

But in most of Asia, and just as Buddhist monks and Islamic Imams hold sway in Buddhist and Islamic cultures by virtue of their status, Catholic clerics and Religious still enjoy a special status in Catholic cultures across the region. There is an almost automatic and involuntary respect and deference accorded bishops and priests that long ago disappeared in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Unfortunately, it’s not very far from an “automatic and involuntary respect” accorded to clerics to the creation and maintenance of a clerical culture that is self-protective, presumptuous and excluding.  And in some countries and cultures, there are extra elements that intensify the problem, with the Indian caste system being the most obvious instance. Caste still plays a hefty role in how Catholic life is lived in the Subcontinent.

And how does the post Vatican II church proposed by Pope Francis address these circumstances? He goes so far as to say that there is an “illness” at the heart of the church destroying the faith and he calls it clericalism. As he told the Jesuits at their October General Congregation in Rome:

“Clericalism, which is one of the most serious illnesses that the church has, distances itself from poverty. Clericalism is rich. If it is not rich in money, it is rich in pride. But it is rich: there is in clericalism an attachment to possessions.

“Clericalism does not allow growth, it does not allow the power of baptism to grow. The grace and evangelizing power of the missionary expression comes from the grace of baptism. And clericalism controls this grace badly and gives rise to dependencies, which sometimes have whole peoples in a state of very great immaturity. I remember the fights that took place when I was a student of theology or a young priest and the base ecclesial communities appeared. Why? Because the laypeople began to have strong leadership, and the first ones who felt insecure were some of the priests. I am generalizing too much, but I do this on purpose: if I caricature the problem it is because the problem of clericalism is very serious.”

Clericalism is alive and well in Asian Church cultures because it fits so neatly with the hierarchical cultures where the Catholic faith has been planted in Asia. In thrives in hierarchical cultures and naturally fits with an elitism that occurs in the exclusive clerical club. As well, that has fitted neatly with the way of being a Catholic priest and bishop that has been endorsed by Roman decrees and directives for the last 35 years.

Moreover, the Vatican has operated in a centralist, authoritarian way under the last two popes. The effect of the centralism and authoritarianism has been to neutralize imagination and local initiative as Cardinal Gracias acknowledged of the FABC in his ucanews.com interview. It has been comparatively dormant for two decades.

Moving from a tiered, command and control method of governance by Rome to a People of God — engaged and responsive, operating in servant mode, as proposed in the theology of the church at Vatican II — is an unfamiliar place for many in leadership roles in the Catholic Church.

And that’s where the divide in the church among European and North American bishops is already emerging — between those who see themselves as repeater stations for “orthodoxy,” waiting to be told what to think and do, and those who see themselves as leaders and servants of a local community in a worldwide church.

When head office asks what people are thinking and believing away from the center, many in the peripheries are puzzled. They’ve never been asked before and often don’t know what they think. They thought it was up to Rome to tell them what to think.

That will be where the divide will emerge in Asia — not between “Left” and “Right.” It will be between those who see their mission and ministry as something they get from the Vatican — they want to be told what to think and say — and those who see themselves as the Roman authorized leaders of local faith communities that make the Church Catholic.

The church in Asia can absorb and replicate its hierarchical, tiered cultural surrounds or leave behind the clericalist conception of the church, as a tightly run, top down organization. The hallmark of a post-conciliar church is the development of an open and inclusive community that fosters local initiatives before it imposes central rulings.

Listening (or not) to that local voice and allowing it to be heard (or not) will be where the divisions emerge in Asia.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand. This article first appeared in UCANews on 29 November, 2016.

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