One of the greatest challenges—both historically and currently—to the Church in Asia is the political landscape of the continent. Though Catholicism has always been a minority religion in Asia, perhaps a greater obstacle is its perception as a foreign religion. As such, the those in authority have traditionally been very sensitive to the effects of proselytization on their peoples and on the national dynamics of their countries.
The first missionaries to Asia strongly believed in the effectiveness of a top-down approach to conversion. Upon landing in Japan, for example, St. Francis Xavier went straight to the court of the emperor to introduce him to Catholicism and ask for permission to preach the Gospel in his land. For St. Francis Xavier, obtaining this imperial support was very important, as it fostered easier conversion of the common Japanese and also secured the protection of future missionaries.
Nevertheless, this dependence on the support of the ruling class was a double-edged sword, especially in the volatile political landscape of Japan. When the politically-divided country became militarily united at the end of the sixteenth century, “the fate of the whole Kirishitan Church came to rest on the fate of a single hegemon” (Higashibaba 127). As it turned out, the new regime was fiercely hostile to the foreign faith. In 1587 all missionaries were expelled from the country, and in 1612 Christianity was declared illegal and violently persecuted, forcing missionaries and converts alike to chose between apostasy and martyrdom. (Ibid. 127, 139). In his historical novel Silence, Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s character Kichijiro epitomizes the agony of the many “Kakure Kirishitan”–or “Hidden Christians”–faced with this same choice:
God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak. Isn’t this unreasonable?…I am an apostate; but if I had died ten years ago I might have gone to paradise as a good Christian, not despised as an apostate. Merely because I live in a time of persecution… (114-115)
Japan was not the only country in Asia where the political landscape proved bloody for Christians. In Korea, Catholicism was introduced not by missionaries, but by the country’s own diplomats who themselves came across the Faith while in China (Ledyard 38). Nevertheless, it was not long before the new faith drew the ire of the established Confucian society. In 1801, Catholicism “was officially declared to be treason, and a broad persecution was organized and ruthlessly pursued” (Ibid. 39). Just like in Japan, those discovered to be Catholic were forced to decide between their faith and their lives, countless of whom chose the latter.
Although Catholicism is once again legal in both Japan and Korea, the political challenges the Church faces in Asia today have by no means disappeared. Rather, they merely involve different countries, the most notable of which are China and Vietnam. In China, the communist government has since 1957 set up its own “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” under tight state control. As a result, Catholics faithful to the pope in Rome have been forced underground. This situation of parallel churches has created enormous tensions between the Vatican and the Chinese government, especially regarding the selection of bishops. The video below features the divided Church in China and highlights many of the difficulties faced by the Catholic faithful.
In recent years, the situation of Catholics in Vietnam has been similarly grave. Owing to a communist regime increasingly intolerant of religions minorities, immigration figures revealed a thirtyfold increase in the number of Vietnamese who fled by ship to Australia in 2013. According to the same article, this influx of refugees is a direct result of the government’s “crackdown” on the underground Catholic Church in the country.
From St. Francis Xavier to today, the political landscape of the Asia has proved perhaps the greatest external challenge faced by Catholicism in the region. In the next section, however, we’ll look at an internal challenge that has arguably even more important implications—the issue of inculturation.