Synod for Asia: Asian Bishops, Vatican Differ on Key Church Issues

Article excerpt

The following is one of a series of articles published in preparation for the Synod for Asia, which opens April 19 at the Vatican. This week NCR looks at the Vatican's lineamenta, or preparatory document and the responses to it from bishops' conferences in East and Southeast Asia. Next week NCR looks at the instrumentum laboris, the synod's final working document prepared by the Vatican.

In advance of the Synod for Asia, set to begin April 19, the Vatican is telling Asian Catholics that their primary task is to proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, as the one and only savior. The Asian bishops, in return, are saying the way to proclaim faith in Jesus Christ is to be less declarative -- to make the proclamation, instead, by service and by being in dialogue with the other great religions.

The Vatican's view and the view of the Asian bishops delineate a fundamental breach as preparations are completed for the upcoming synod.

Some surprisingly feisty Asian bishops will arrive in Rome later this month determined to press hard on behalf of their visions of church, as well as to warn Rome that its views appear out of touch with Asian realities.

Based on their writings, many Asian bishops also think that a truly global Catholicism requires more local autonomy and greater respect in the West for Asian spirituality and cultural attitudes.

The Asian landmass and related islands is home to some 50 nations and 3.5 billion people, two-thirds of the world's population. The area has 97 million Catholics.

An examination of more than a dozen responses from East and Southeast Asian bishops' conferences to the synod preparatory document reveals serious differences between the Asian bishops and Vatican officials regarding church theologies and governance -- starting with the purpose and process of the synod itself.

The degree of Eastern disillusionment with Vatican leadership is underscored by a request contained in the Indonesian bishops' response calling upon the synod to establish a mechanism "responsible for exploring the possibility of an East Asian patriarchate, at least endowed with autonomy comparable to that of the patriarchates in Oriental churches of the near East." This would, the suggestion reasoned, "relativize the primacy of the `Western' church and enhance authentic inculturation of Christian faith."

A patriarch has jurisdiction over all bishops, clergy and people in a territory or in a-specified rite (such as the Roman, Melchite or Syrian rite). The division of the church into patriarchates goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. The Council of Nicea (325) recognized the patriarchal status of Alexandria and Jerusalem in its canons, and by inference that of Rome. By the time of Justinian, the title was reserved to these three sees plus Constantinople and Antioch.

Patriarchates are an example of subsidiarity in church government. Each patriarch is responsible -- according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia -- "for the election of the bishops of his patriarchate in the best possible way."

The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia is to run April 19 through May 14. It was called by Pope John Paul II in his November 1994 Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente. Bishops' conferences represented at the synod will include those from the Middle East, the Persian Gulf countries, South Asian countries, the Central Asian countries, the Southeast Asian countries, Asian Siberia and the countries of the Far East.

The Vatican first circulated its 24,000 word synod lineamenta, or preparatory document, throughout Asia in 1996. Asian bishops sent their responses to Rome last year. While the length and tone of these documents vary, most share common visions, including strong commitments to the poor, to social justice and to dialogue with other Asian religions. They also share frustrations with perceived Vatican efforts to pull back from Second Vatican Council reforms aimed at decentralizing church authority. …