Catholicism in Asia: Past, Present, and Future
The Catholic Church is the oldest and most global institution in the world. From its original twelve apostles commissioned by Jesus Christ in Jerusalem to its current 1.2 billion members in every corner of the globe, no other organization is more entitled to the name catholic, meaning “universal.” Throughout its 2,000-year history, it has experienced poverty and prosperity, seen civilizations rise and fall, and measured time in units of centuries. Moved by a desire for the salvation of souls, it has sent missionaries across the world to “preach the Gospel to every creature.” And in fulfilling this mission to “make disciples of all nations,” it has transcended culture, race, time, and place to unify its members in the same unchanging creed.
The influence of Catholicism is often associated with the West, where the Church integrated the Germanic peoples after the collapse of the Roman Empire and built monasteries to preserve the knowledge of antiquity. Later on, it invented the university, developed the scientific method, and patronized the arts. Initiated by the age of exploration, the dominance of Catholicism soon expanded from Europe to the New World. Its presence today almost taken for granted, no other institution has played such a large role in shaping the civilization in which we live.
Yet it would be an enormous mistake to associate the Catholic Church solely with the West. Though less influential, Catholicism has a long and lively history in the East as well, beginning in the first century with the apostle St. Thomas who traveled to India to spread the Gospel. Fifteen hundred years later, Catholic missionaries accompanied Spanish explorers to the Philippines, now the country with the most Catholics in the world. In the same century, Jesuit co-founder St. Francis Xavier would convert hundreds of thousands throughout India, Japan, and Indonesia. Later missionaries would bring Catholicism to China, Mongolia, and eventually Korea. Today, Asia is home to over 120 million—or 10 percent—of the world’s Catholics. And, unlike many parts of the West where it is declining, Catholicism in Asia is thriving in spite of formidable obstacles.
From the first century until now, history has shown that the spread of the Catholic Faith in Asia has significant implications for the future of both the region itself and the global Church. Therefore, I am studying Catholicism in Asia because I want to find out how the Church’s future in the continent will be shaped by its past and present. By focusing specifically on the landscape of politics, the issue of inculturation, and the challenge of evangelization, my project will help Catholics in the West to understand the Church in Asia’s past history, current situation, and potentially influential future. At the same time, the Church in the East’s approach to these issues may provide valuable insight as to a possible solution to the crisis of faith in the West.
Over the centuries, changing political landscapes in Asia have dramatically affected the practice and spread of Catholicism. In his acclaimed novel Silence, Japanese author Shusaku Endo relates the violent persecution of Christians that took place in his homeland in the seventeenth century. A fictional account of real historical events, Endo’s book portrays the devastating and potentially deadly consequences of belonging to a religion that has fallen out of favor with the ruling class. Fast forward to today, and the situation of Catholics in many regions of Asia is hardly safer. In China, for example, the only form of Catholicism officially recognized is the government-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, forcing Catholics loyal to the pope in Rome to practice their religion underground. Overcoming such political obstacles, then, is crucial to the Church’s continued growth in Asia.
A more internal challenge that Catholicism faces in the Asia is the issue of inculturation. Inculturation is the two-way process by which the Catholic Faith shapes the culture where it is introduced and by which the culture, for its part, contributes to the expression of the Faith in that area. Since the first missionaries arrived in Asia, the extent to which Catholicism can—or should—be adapted to local cultures has been an important topic of discussion—and often debate. One prime example is the Chinese Rites Controversy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a heated dispute over whether certain Confucian practices were compatible with Catholicism. Today, inculturation concerns often center upon the liturgy. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Mass was always celebrated in Latin and in virtually the exact same manner across the world. As a result, the liturgy was not identifiable with any one culture or vernacular language. After the liturgical reforms initiated by the Council, however, the celebration of Mass became more flexible, causing concerns that too much adaptability could lead to a loss of Catholic identity in regions where indigenous religious practices are also very influential. Thus, a great challenge for the Church in Asia is ensuring that the liturgy reflects the Catholic Faith in all of its integrity.
Finally, the call to mission that brought St. Thomas to Asia in the first century applies no less today in the twenty-first. The challenge of bringing the Gospel to people who have yet to hear it is particularly urgent for a Church that exists to evangelize. Asia is the world’s most populous continent, making it especially important in a mission where the units of success are souls. In China, officially atheist, the Church must develop ways to reach its billion plus inhabitants. In Japan, Catholics make up less than one percent of a similarly non-religious country. And although parts of India have a strong Catholic presence, the Church must also be prepared to operate in regions that are traditionally Hindu. While Catholicism’s historic growth in Asia points to a successful approach in the past, future evangelization efforts may need to be reexamined in light of current challenges and changing conditions.
Catholicism in Asia has changed dramatically in the 2,000 years since it was introduced to India by St. Thomas. Much like in the West, dynasties have risen and fallen, missionaries have come and gone, and Catholics have experienced peace and persecution. Yet for the continent as a whole, some issues appear never to disappear. Perhaps more than anywhere else, Catholicism in Asia has constantly been affected by volatile political landscapes, inculturation issues, and evangelization challenges. By examining how the Church has responded to these issues in the past and present, my project will attempt to shed light on the future of Catholicism in Asia. Though it started faint, this light is becoming ever brighter, and only time will tell if it will eventually outshine its Western counterpart whose own light is quickly dying.