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July 29, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 17




Tom Fox In dark times, looking east for hope

By Thomas C. Fox, NCR publisher

At a time when Catholic laity throughout North America and Europe are sobbing over pastorally inept, seemingly stone cold bishops and their handling of the clergy sex abuse debacle, some Catholics have begun to look east to find hope.

They remember fondly the Asian bishops who virtually as a group spoke as pastors at the Asian synod in Rome in the spring of 1998. The synod took the church by surprise, because arguing against Roman prelates were bishops from country after country who insisted that effective pastoral leadership required walking with their people. This means, the Asian bishops said, living in solidarity with the poor, bringing local cultures into their liturgies and churches, and working shoulder to shoulder with leaders from the other religions of Asia. (Read NCR coverage of the synod.)

Indeed, the Asian bishops have been building a pastoral vision for the local churches for some 30 years now. It is based on what they call "the triple dialogue," with the poor, local cultures and local religions. The Asian bishops have reaffirmed their path every five years under the auspices of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, which meets once again from Aug. 17 to 22 in Deajeon, South Korea.

(I will be there to cover the event, and as preparation for the event, Malaysian theologian Edmund Chia takes an in-depth look at the theological vision of Asia and what he calls "the coming age of the Asian church." Chia will be writing for the Global Perspective Web column on Aug. 3 and Aug. 10. So watch this Web site for news and updates.)

Also by Thomas Fox
July 26, 2004 When a pope is not a pontiff
May 29, 2004 Cardinal Law's new appointment
Mar. 29, 2004 We should thank Richard Clarke
Jan. 23, 2004 In resistance there is hope
Jan. 22, 2004 Common ground: the earth beneath their feet
Jan. 21, 2004 Reflections close to my heart
Jan. 20, 2004 Remember the tales from last year
Jan. 19, 2004 The last years of Martin Luther King
Nov. 20, 2003 (un)Holy Matrimony
Nov. 19, 2003 Talking about celibacy
Nov. 18, 2003 Why bishops won't talk about celibacy
Oct. 10, 2003 Why Catholics are jittery
Sept. 26, 2003 Priest of the poor
Sept. 25, 2003 A revolution deferred: sex and the church Part II
The theology underlying the Asian vision stems from the traditional Catholic notion that theology grows out of the experiences of the people. That is, that theology is local. When the Asian bishops first gathered in the early 1970s, as the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences was coming to life, they borrowed heavily from pastoral ideas coming out of Latin America where Latin American bishops and their theologians had just made what they called a "preferential option for the poor."

For centuries the Asian and Latin American churches had been formed by missionary priests who lived among commercial-minded colonizers who supported the churches. The local churches profited materially as they served the rich and largely forgot the poor. Remember that in both Latin America and Asia the relatively few wealthy order the lives of the vast numbers of very poor. Each region has a scant middle class.

Spirit-lifting change began in the churches of both regions of the world in the 1960s. Highly influenced by waves of renewal that came out of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) bishops in both regions rejected the remnants of colonialism, both inside and outside their churches. The Latin American and Asian bishops, instead, choose to enter into solidarity with the 98 percent of the people of their lands who live without much hope on one to two dollars a day.

Call it moral, opportunistic or courageous pastoral leadership, it happened. As it did, it awakened countless millions to a new belief in themselves and to their protector and loving mother, the Catholic church of their native land. Evangelization took off as once discarded and marginalized peoples began to speak with hope of liberation anchored in the life and words of Jesus Christ, savior and liberator.

However, it was not to last in Latin America, where this revolution was gaining much attention in Rome and where the changes were viewed as a threat to orthodoxy and Roman authority. Off the radar screen, the Asians continued to build their pastoral vision without much outside interference, at least until the early 1990s.

It was after the election of the Polish-born Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978 that the winds of liberation began to subside in Latin America under the weight of rigidly ecclesial episcopal appointments, men noted first and foremost for obedience to Rome. The once seemingly endless evangelical opportunities that had been coming to life in tens of thousands of small Christian communities began to dwindle as the communities and their leaders came under fierce attack from Rome.

The reasons are complex. However, most Latin American and Asian church leaders cite the fear in John Paul's Eastern European mind that Communists were infiltrating the Latin American churches and that the newly popular liberation theology, built on the notions of solidarity with the poor and the primacy of the local church, were serious threats to Roman Catholicism.

The most prominent of Latin America's bishops at the time argued forcefully against this Roman perception. However, Pope John Paul, whose early life experiences were carved by Nazi and Communist occupiers in Poland, simply would not listen.

Undeniably another element plays a role here. For centuries theologians have argued about whether the local church or Rome is primary. No pope in modern times has been as forceful as has been John Paul in insisting upon the centralization of authority in Rome. This has often created havoc in many local churches because episcopal appointments have been made without local consultation or consideration of the wishes of local clergy, laity and religious. It has been a formula for widespread spirit depletion.

After a quarter-century of such appointments, Catholics are hard-pressed to name a handful of archbishops known primarily as pastoral leaders.

Unlike the popes who preceded him, John Paul does not seem to trust that the Spirit speaks through the people and the poor. In appointment after appointment, in a pattern that seemingly reflects ideology more than gospel values, Pope John Paul has seeded the Latin American churches with rigidly conservative bishops. In the process, he has sucked the life out of liberation theology instead of working with local theologians and bishops to guide and develop it. Whatever else the more recently appointed Latin American bishops may be trying to do, they are no longer distinguished by a commitment to walk with the poor.

With the "preferential option for the poor" a fading memory now in Latin America, and with the resulting loss of evangelical opportunity and hope in that part of the world, some Catholics look to Asia's bishops as the last regional vestige of truly pastoral leadership.

The Asian bishops' pastoral vision has been under growing scrutiny and pressure from Rome since the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of global communism. In Rome the threat of liberation theology has been replaced by the threat of religious pluralism.

The new orthodoxy has made inroads in Asia. But even less pastoral-minded bishops still seem to recognize the Asia churches will never again be recrafted in the old European model. Where the Asian churches stand at the moment will become clearer next month in Korea.

Meanwhile, the Asian pastoral vision is still guided by the belief that the Spirit lives and operates in the world, especially among the poor, and that the Catholic church is called to be a servant church and a humble participant in a larger spiritual matrix guided by the Spirit operating in all the religious traditions.

Will that vision persevere? Stay tuned.

Fox is NCR publisher and can be reached at

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