National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 2, 2004

Asian lay leaders tell bishops of disappointments, concerns

Daejeon, South Korea

Leaders of Catholic lay organizations throughout Asia have called on their bishops to stay faithful to the forward-looking pastoral path they have outlined since the early 1970s.

About 40 lay leaders from eight nations gathered here, about 70 miles south of Seoul, near a seminary where Asian bishops will meet in August to add to their considerable volumes of papers that have charted the course for the Asian churches during recent decades.

The Asian bishops meet under the auspices of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, an umbrella group formed in 1972 that allows church leaders from this region of the world to share ideas, respond to common challenges and move forward with a distinctly humble vision of church based on dialogues with the poor, other religions and local cultures.

Reflecting on the Asian vision of church, the lay leaders expressed concern that:

  • A gap continues in local churches between vision and reality.
  • Pastoral visionaries who founded the bishops’ federation have passed from the scene and have been replaced with more institutional-minded bishops.
  • Leadership of the bishops’ federation is in need of rejuvenation.
  • Commitments the Asian bishops made to justice and inclusiveness have not found their way into church structures.

The final statement from the lay conference, titled “Lay Participation in New Way of Being Church in a Globalizing World,” is available in the Special Documents section of

Most who gathered here June 7-10 said the Asian vision of church is solid but its implementation has stalled. Some said this reflects larger currents in the universal church at the end of a pontificate. Others insisted that many of the younger bishops appointed in recent years have, if anything, an even greater commitment to inculturation, or incorporating elements of the local culture into church practice.

All expressed hope that when their bishops consider issues of the family the resulting pastoral guidelines fit Asian realities and are not simply repetitions of traditional moral principles.

Much of the work of the lay gathering centered on drawing up a 5,000-word paper they will share with their bishops before they come to Korea in mid-August. These laity want the document that comes out of August meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences to reflect lay concerns and experiences.

Meanwhile, the bishops’ federation draft document lists a host of ills challenging Asian families. Included are the spread of Western consumer values, widespread unemployment, the forces of globalization, migration and the trafficking of women and children.

The lay statement reflects these concerns and adds a few. Conference participants said they want their bishops to add to their considerations pressures for family planning, the growth of new family structures, the need for more positive church attitudes toward sex, and pastoral guidance for gays and lesbians and their parents.

While those who gathered represent a relatively small fraction of lay leaders in Asia, they are among the most vocal and have for years worked closely with their bishops to implement the vision of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.

Joseph Rajkumar, a human rights activist from Chennai, India, echoed the feelings of many at the conference when he said that he is proud of the federation’s vision and its strong human rights advocacy, but also frustrated that many bishops are not living up to the vision.

Millennia-old Asian patriarchal institutions have come under attack in recent years by reformers attempting to build democratic structures. These same critiques are now being heard within the Catholic church, especially by women who have become more educated and work for government and nonprofit organizations.

Conference participants called for an end of all discrimination within the church. They criticized an exclusively male hierarchy and said the laity needs to have more say in decision-making.

The statement the group issued at the close of their gathering called for an end to the practice of viewing married life as inferior to the celibate state. “Marriage has been looked upon as spiritually inferior because of its connection with the sexual life of couples.” It is not “a distraction” from the call to the kingdom, the lay document stated.

The statement said that human sexuality is a “gift from God” and that in sexual unity couples find “tenderness, solace, healing and, at times, forgiveness.”

The statement called for an end to discrimination against children, who are not allowed to receive the Eucharist until “the so-called age of reason.” The practice of withholding Communion came out of Western Europe, the statement noted. “Children, by virtue of their baptism, are full members of the church and have a full right to Eucharist.”

On the subject of homosexuality, the statement called for “pastoral openness” and guidance to parents of gays and lesbians. “Everyone is created by God and loved by God just as they are.” Acceptance of gays and lesbians varies widely in Asian cultures.

Conference participants said they needed to work harder to share the bishops’ federation’s vision with other lay Catholics, including those who head other Asian lay movements. “We need to raise awareness,” said Anselmo Lee Seong-hoon, secretary general of the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, or Pax Romana, a sponsor of the gathering. Other sponsors included the Korean Catholic Women’s Community for the New World and Korea’s Woori Theology Institute.

Bernard D’Sami, vice president for the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, Asian/Pacific and India region, said the federation has systems for self-evaluation but the bishops have not adequately used them. “Self-evaluation is missing,” he said. “They are not holding themselves accountable.” He and others said it is now the work of an active laity to hold the bishops responsible for their words.

A number of those gathered here traced their activism to the exhortations of their bishops. Now it’s time for the laity, several noted, to keep the bishops committed and active.

Thomas Fox, NCR publisher, is author of Pentecost in Asia, a book about the Asian churches. He can be reached at

More on the federation

The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences has met in plenary session only seven times. When it meets this August, bringing together some 200 bishops, clergy religious and laity, it will take up the subject of the family.

The Asian bishops have long prized the idea of inculturating their churches, working to build authentic local churches with local theologies. They surprised many when, in the spring of 1998 at a synod on evangelization at the Vatican, they unveiled their vision of church to the wider world. They called it “a new way of being church.”

Essentially, the Asian bishops said to Rome that the only way to spread the faith in Asia is to decentralize Catholicism and build models that fit into Asian culture and are compatible with Asian histories.

Meanwhile, the Asian bishops said their churches must live in solidarity with the Asian poor because Asia is overwhelmingly poor. The means, they explained, to fight poverty and other forms of oppression is to work with the other religions of Asia, which face the same plights.

The pride the Asian bishops brought to Rome six years ago was still reflected among the laity who gathered here. Missing, however, was some of the graceful confidence.

-- Thomas Fox

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004

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