A Panel at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion

In the 21st century, there are around 200 million Catholic faithful scattered across Asia. Except in the Philippines and Timor-Leste where they constitute a majority, Asian Catholics are usually a religious minority, required to carefully adjust their religious life to local cultures and socio-political contexts. Yet, in places like South Korea, Vietnam, and Hong Kong, they represent a significant force able to influence the broader society. While Asian Catholics may follow rather similar liturgical norms and confess the same faith, they are shaped by very different histories, demographics, political contexts, and ethnic-cultural realities. Between Taiwan and Pakistan, Japan and Nepal, Tibet and Papua-New Guinea, the reality of Catholicism in Asia is tremendously diverse.

This interdisciplinary panel seeks to question the encompassing and unifying notion of Asian Catholicism. Following the globalization of Catholicism during the modern period and the ecclesial renewal brought by Vatican II, Catholicism became an Asian religion. Thus, a growing number of scholars are inquiring about the role of Catholicism across contemporary Asia and the possible features of Asian Catholicism. For instance, in a book chapter named “Asian Catholicism, Interreligious Colonial Encounters and Dynamics of Secularism in Asia”, the sociologist Jose Casanova (2019) highlights the role of Catholicism in the rise of secularism in modern Asia as well as the contemporary importance of pan-Asian Catholic networks. Casanova argues that “no other Asian religion has assumed such a clear and persistent general Pan-Asian voice for all the peoples and cultures of Asia, especially for the poor, immigrants and refugees, and for those who are the greatest victims of the contemporary globalization of indifference.” (2019: 34). Although Casanova is not approaching Asian Catholicism through a theological or anthropological lens, he highlights how competing projects of global Catholicism have engaged with different Asian societies and cultures. Through an approach of accommodation, various forms of imperial national Catholicism, or a romanization of ecclesial communities, Asian Catholicism is constantly dealing with national identities to integrate local customs and to respond to socio-political challenges.



Nov. 23rd, 2021

Chair: Stephanie Wong, Valparaiso University

Paper 1: Catholic Education in Vietnam: Insights and Prospects

Anh Tran, Santa Clara University

Although at present, Catholic educational institutions do not exist in socialist Vietnam, the Catholic Church is quietly renewing its contribution in education through its network of parish and religious orders, continuing its century-old approach. This presentation reviews the contribution of Catholics in the field of education -- first among the seminarians, later for the general education (before it was assumed by the Communist state in South Vietnam after 1975), and brings it to the present time. I propose that by allowing the Church to run Catholic schools again, especially at the primary and secondary level, the state can benefit from having the Church share its burden and general cost of public education. Catholic education is not to replace the public system. Still, it supplements it by contributing to the moral formation of the students, equipping them with value-driven education that is lacking in the current public education system in Vietnam.

Paper 2: Catholic News Agencies Focusing on Asia

Michel Chambon, National University of Singapore

Since the early 1980s, World Catholicism has established three news agencies focusing on the Church in Asia. Although the Post-Vatican II period has witnessed the emergence of many Catholic media outlets, these three agencies – Eglise d’Asie based in Paris, UCANews based in Bangkok, and AsiaNews based in Rome– are distinct in their nature and scope. This paper argues that these platforms of communication participate in the creation of an Asian Catholicism that is neither limited to its national manifestations nor its vertical conversations with Rome. After presenting how these agencies came to life and evolved, this paper explores the ways they report on significant events affecting Catholics in Asia. By shaping conversations revolving around the Church in Asia and opening a public space for debate, I argue that these agencies allow ecclesial actors such as missionary societies and laypeople to redefine their contribution to contemporary Catholicism. Yet, the history and functioning of these agencies also reveal how ‘Asian Catholicism’ is a concept emerging in relation to other geographical areas, and especially the West.

Paper 3: Inquiring Asian Catholicism through Chinese Catholic Women’s Theological Voices

Simeiqi He, Drew University

This paper seeks to scrutinize the benefits and limits of the notion of Asian Catholicism by presenting a collection of essays written by members of the Women’s Theological Association in China, a group of Chinese Catholic religious sisters, consecrated virgins, and laywomen in mainland China formed in 2019 following a theology colloquium held in Bangkok, Thailand. This collection presents Chinese Catholic women’s theological reflections on their ministry of faith formation and the formation of religious sisters and consecrated virgins in the Chinese Catholic Church from theological, pastoral, historical, biblical, and Canon Law perspectives. By situating this collection in the context of inquiring Asian Catholicism, this paper intends to present the novel theological voices of Chinese Catholic women in mainland China as insights rising from the Church in Asia contributing to the communal theological discernment of the world Church. It also seeks to complicate the notion of Asian Catholicism by highlighting the unique commitment of Chinese Catholic women theologians to the development and mission of the Chinese Catholic Church in mainland Chinese society.

Paper 4: The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC): Bearing Witness to the Gospel and the Reign of God in Asia

Jonathan Tan, Case Western Reserve University

The year 2022 marks an important anniversary in the history of the Asian Catholic Church and contemporary Asian Catholic theology. Fifty years ago, in 1972, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) was formally constituted by the Vatican, following the decision of the Asian Bishops' Meeting (ABM) on November 29, 1970 in Manila to establish an umbrella organization for mutual collaboration and cooperation among the Asian Catholic Bishops' Conferences. This paper seeks to present the analysis and findings in my new book, The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC): Bearing Witness to the Gospel and the Reign of God in Asia (Fortress Press, 2021), which critically examines the FABC's contributions to Asian Catholic theological reflections, including its postcolonial approach to being church in an Asia in the midst of decolonization and seismic socio-political, economic, and cultural changes, as well as the legacy of its heralded threefold dialogue with the diverse cultures, religious, and the subaltern experiences of the Asian peoples. The paper will also offer tentative ideas of how the FABC could re-imagine an Asian Christianity and an Asian Church for the future.

Paper 5: Translocal Tractions: Legacies of Faith Practices among Malaysian Chinese Catholics of Hakka Origins

Shanthini Pillai, National University of Malaysia

Angeline Wei Wei Wong, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman

This paper explores networks of the inheritance of faith practices among Malaysian Chinese Catholics of Hakka origins. It focuses on selected Hakka Catholic communities across the Catholic administrative regions of the diocese of Penang, the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, and the diocese of Malacca and Johor. Among the aspects that will be covered are the specific pathways through which these communities inherited various faith practices, be it via founding missionary personnel, their lay catechists or family elders. It will proceed to discuss possible variations that exist in these faith practices of the Catholic Hakka communities across the selected parishes and trace these to specific sub-regional domains. It will then move on to conclude with a reflection on the traction between dominant Mandarin Catholic practices and the legacies of Hakka faith practices among these communities. What do these examples tell us of the continuities of diasporic consciousness within Catholic communities of East Asian origins in Malaysia? What do these in turn reveal about the translocal tractions between dominant and minority faith practices among Malaysian Chinese Catholics?

Responding: Peter C. Phan, Georgetown University