Moral Theology out of East Asia

Article excerpt

KARL RAHNER'S LAST MAJOR ARTICLE on the Second Vatican Council spoke of the watershed that the council represented in marking the beginning of the Church as a truly world Church and the challenge this presented especially for the integration of non-Western cultures: "either the Church sees and recognizes these essential differences of other cultures for which she should become a world Church and with a Pauline boldness draws the necessary consequences from this recognition, or she remains a Western Church and so in the final analysis betrays the meaning of Vatican II."(1) One ramification of Rahner's interpretation involves paying greater attention not only to how ethics is approached in various parts of the world, but also to change within Roman Catholic moral theology in places such as Asia. "Asia" is largely a Western construct. Depending on the context, the term can include countries and cultures from the Indian sub-continent through Indonesia, the Philippines, and even Australia. Rather than attempt an overview of such a large and diverse area, my contribution to these Notes on Moral Theology focuses on China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan since these countries share definite similarities in several important elements in their religious, philosophical, cultural, and historical background. The Church in this region has a particular challenge of being both a relative newcomer and a minority. Thus, interreligious dialogue is woven into its ethical reflection with a tradition that includes Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, while at the same time each region is also marked by an individual indigenous religiosity as well (such as Shintoism and shamanism). These cultures are also deeply touched by the contemporary forces of globalization and westernization and a variety of issues these forces helped to generate and/or complicate.


The special Synod of Asia held in Rome in 1998 provides a good spectrum of many of the issues, approaches, and conflicts that mark these efforts at intercultural and intracultural dialogue.(2) While at first glance, "moral theology" was not a major theme of the synod, upon closer analysis it is amazing how virtually every issue touched upon comes back in some fashion or another to ethics in East Asia in the sense of Rahner's moral challenges posed by the "essential differences of other cultures." At the Synod of Bishops on Evangelization, a quarter-century earlier, much stress was placed on careful dialogue with and respect for indigenous cultures. As the preparatory documents for the recent Asian Synod were circulated, however, many bishops felt the mandate of the 1974 synod and the charge of Evangelii nuntiandi (1975) to go to the very root and depths of the culture(3) still had not been adequately met in the Asian context, and this led to a frank expression of tensions uncharacteristic of traditional Asian etiquette. The Japanese Catholic Bishops' Conference, rather than give the requested "response" to the preparatory Lineamenta for the synod issued by the Vatican, submitted their own document which addressed some perceived deficiencies in the Vatican text, and proposed alternative approaches that differed markedly in key areas from the Vatican document. The Japanese Bishops observed that inasmuch "the questions of the Lineamenta were composed in the context of Western Christianity they are not suitable.... From the way the questions are proposed, one feels that the holding of the Synod is like an occasion for the central office to evaluate the performance of the branch offices. That kind of Synod would not be worthwhile for the Church in Asia. The judgment should not be made from a European framework but must be seen on the spiritual level of the people who live in Asia."(4) The bishops went on to warn against overstressing the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the "One and Only Savior," for that would render impossible "dialogue, common living, or solidarity with other religions. …