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Religion: Two Worlds of Catholicism

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HOPE PAUL’S trip was a journey to not one world but two. Australia and Asia are divided by more than the geographers’ distinction of continents. They are antipodal cultures, the polar extremes that Roman Catholicism must somehow embrace under the same mantle. Australia is the Eastern archetype of much that is new, aggressive and materialistic in Western culture. Asia, comfortable with its own ancient religions, is the far older challenge. It is also an opportunity that Roman Catholicism—ritually more attractive to Asians than Protestantism—has in the past seriously bungled. Of the continent’s estimated 2 billion people, only some 58 million—about 3%—are Christians, some 44 million of those Roman Catholics.

During the 16th and 17th century missionary campaigns in Asia, several of the early Jesuit efforts were impressively productive. In China, Father Matteo Ricci put on the dress of a Confucian scholar and won widespread respect both for his scientific expertise and for the wisdom of Catholic teaching. In India, Father Roberto de Nobili assumed the saffron robes and vegetarian diet of a Hindu sannyasi, or holy man. He used the Hindu vedas to teach about Christ and won converts among the Brahmans themselves.

Ancestor Cult. Yet such early techniques rarely developed into policy. The Jesuit methods in China scandalized the rival Franciscans, who did not approve of such cultural accommodation. A century-long controversy developed around the “rites” issue—whether or not Chinese Christian converts could be permitted to retain their cult of ancestor veneration. When the Vatican finally decided against the Confucian rites, Catholic hopes in China shrank. Not until World War II did Pope Pius XII reverse that decision. When Pope Paul VI spoke admiringly of “the cult of ancestors” in his “Message to Asia” last week, it was a gesture more than two centuries too late.

Beyond such obvious clashes between traditions, Christianity has also suffered from its cultural identification with Western Europe and the U.S. Japanese Scholar Junyu Ki-tayama has observed that “in the West, God creates towers, churches and cities; in the East, mountains, rivers and gardens.” The great Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore suggested that the East produced a “whole man,” the West only an “economic man.” Indeed, despite missionaries’ ability to find cultural accommodation with the East, Catholicism would still have faced stiff resistance. At root, Asian religion sees the individual as an inconsequential part of the cosmos, while Christianity emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual—a basic difference not easily overcome.

Many problems facing the church in Asian countries today stem as much from changing social and cultural conditions as they do from traditional antinomies. In Ceylon, where the nation’s 880,000 Roman Catholics constitute 7% of the population, the government’s vigorous nationalization efforts since independence have worked against the church: all but a few dozen Catholic schools have had to close as the government has consolidated public education.

Who Is the Pope? In the Philippines, despite considerable social concern among the younger Catholic clergy since World War II, the hierarchy, especially Rufino Cardinal Santos, is too closely identified with the Establishment. To a growing number of critics, the church is still the handmaiden of riches and privilege. On the other hand, there is a woeful shortage of priests (about one for every 7,000 Catholics), and the predominantly Catholic population remains largely unaware of many teachings of the faith. In a poll taken shortly before the Pope’s visit, 60% of those interviewed did not know who the Pope was.

Australian Catholics—who number about one-fourth of the population—face problems that are far more contemporary but no less painful. During the early postwar years, the church lost some prestige when hierarchy and laity split over the issue of Communist influence in the labor unions. Now the problem is Australia’s restrictions on non-European immigration. Archbishop James R. Knox recently spoke out publicly against a “white Australia policy,” but other Australians tend to worry about “importing” racial tensions.

Despite the problems facing the church in the Eastern Hemisphere, there are measurable gains. Prodigious Roman Catholic relief efforts in Hong Kong—second only to government efforts—have so impressed refugees in the Crown Colony that the number of Chinese Catholics there (247,000) approaches the total number on Taiwan. In all Asian countries, more and more members of both the clergy and the hierarchy are being successfully recruited from the local population. Nowhere except in Communist China does the church face official persecution, and in some places it receives unexpected encouragement. Though progress is slow in Moslem Indonesia (about 2,000,000 Catholics out of a population of 120 million), missionary kindnesses to the late President Sukarno in his rebel days have long since paid off in a public policy that goes well beyond toleration: Catholic clerics may even teach religion, in any of the schools, on government salaries.

The question remains whether the Vatican can woo a far tougher opponent: China’s Mao Tse-tung. In recent years, Pope Paul has delicately noted that the church favors the “just expression” of social changes in China, but Mao has been slow to reply. The land once so open to Matteo Ricci remains for the moment incontestably closed.

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