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Every year, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) holds an annual meeting during which scholars can present and discuss research related to religion. Since its foundation, ISAC is committed to organize an event during the AAR annual meeting.

Below is the list of our past events. 


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.

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


This session explores ways through which Asian Catholics directly participate in or indirectly intersect with the making of global Catholicism. Based on anthropological and sociological approaches, presenters explore issues located at the intersection of Asian Catholic migrations, religious practices, public engagement, and ethnic identities. More specifically, our five case studies include an investigation of the transnational circulations of the Vietnamese Our Lady of Lavang, the civic participation of Indian Catholic professionals established in Dubai, the ministry of Sri Lankan clergy members serving youth in Italy, the importance of queerness in the production of cosmopolitan Chinese Catholic nuns, and the significance of the global attention surrounding the political status of Catholicism in China.
Through the discussion of these five case studies, the session questions the ways Asian Catholics are not limited to their local or national belongings – nor to a static, universal, and homogenous expression of their religious belonging. Rather, presenters shed light on the various modes through which Asian Catholics, their religious symbols, or their political awareness circulate and evolve across borders. Therefore, our session suggests that the most pressing question may not be whether Catholicism is still global, but how contemporary Catholicism is produced and made tangible in a more interconnected and interdependent world. Ultimately, the session reveals that Asian Catholic circulations that occur at different levels and through various modalities question how Catholics perceive themselves and enact a “global” Catholic economy that shapes the many locales of 21st century Catholicism.

Chair: Stephanie Wong, Valparaiso University

Paper 1: George Bayuga - Queer Affect Abroad: Chinese Nuns and Remaking Catholic Worlds

This paper is a consideration of the role of queer affect and sexuality the spiritual education of Chinese Catholic nuns who travel to Manila for religious training. Beginning in the late 1990s, Chinese clergy started arriving in Manila for education to minister to growing Catholic communities in the Mainland. For many Chinese nuns, this exposure was filled with hybrid encounters—they at once were immersed in a Catholic dominant society and also surrounded by visions of life outside the bounds of their ascetic expectations. A major point of religious reckoning was their encounter with sexualities both inside and outside of the classroom. Thinking through two cases: the discussion of sexuality beyond physical intimacy in a seminary and the recognition of queer Catholics in Filipino Church settings, this paper highlights how queer affect served the Church’s mission to form cosmopolitan Catholic nuns ready to address China’s changing religious landscape.


Paper 2: Bernardo Brown – Sri Lankan Migrant clergy and the shaping of a new Catholic youth in Italy

If you visit Caholic parishes in any Western European capital, you are likely to encounter Asian and African clergy at work. Clergy from India currently account for 30% of priests in Germany, and given the aging profile of European clergy, it is likely that most pastoral work is conducted by priests raised and trained in very different cultural contexts. This paper examines the case of Sri Lankan priests working in Italy, to reflect on how they engage with social problematics of the youth in Europe. In particular, I explore the work that priests and young parishioners do to bridge the cultural divide that separates them, and the unlikely points of convergence that they find. Sri Lankan clergy who actively organize youth groups, catechism courses and other pastoral activities for local youths are creatively developing new forms of religious engagement in European communities.


Paper 3: Michel Chambon – Local autonomy and global sovereignty: the political entanglements of Chinese Catholics

The People’s Republic of China and the Holy See have long engaged in diplomatic conversations to frame the status of Catholicism in China and establish formal diplomatic relationships. But the two sovereign entities have quite different and changing views on religion. Furthermore, the question of Taiwan adds another layer of complexity in their dialogue. While the White House has recently increased its interference in their dialogue, the ups and downs of the Sino-Vatican negotiations have attracted large media coverage. Thus, I argue that this international attention reflects the importance of the geopolitical issues that are at stake – i.e. defining sovereignty, religious autonomy, state-church relationships, human dignity, and the territorializing of Catholicism. As fieldwork in China confirms, Chinese Catholics are well-aware that they are not a mere national question but an international one with highly political ramifications.


Paper 4: Thien-Huong Ninh - Our Lady of Lavang: Mediation of the Vietnamese Catholic Diaspora in the U.S., Germany, and Israel

Since her first apparition in 1798 in Vietnam, Our Lady of Lavang has been associated with miracles within the contexts of martyrdom and other life-threatening experiences. In 1901, a French Bishop used a French model of Our Lady of Victories to (incongruously) represent the Virgin Mary with her Vietnamese name -- “Our Lady of Lavang.” It was not until 1998, that this statue was replaced. This time, the Virgin Mary was represented as a Vietnamese woman, an image created by a Vietnamese American Catholic sculptor and funded by the Vietnamese Catholic community in California. Although this Vietnamese image is a recent creation and the Vatican has not confirmed the historical accuracy of Our Lady of Lavang’s apparition, it has become popular throughout the world. This paper traces the globalization and transplantation of the Vietnamese-looking Our Lady of Lavang in the U.S., Germany, and Israel. 


Paper 5: Brandon Vaidyanathan – Engaged Expats and Disengaged Citizens: Civic Participation among Indian Catholic Professionals in Dubai and Bangalore.

How do religious institutions shape the civic participation of corporate professionals in rapidly developing contexts? Drawing on data from participant observation and in-depth interviews (n=135), this paper compares Indian Roman Catholic corporate professionals in two rapidly globalizing cities, Dubai, UAE, and Bangalore, India. The findings of this study reveal a paradox: Indian professionals in Dubai, though expatriates in a non-democratic nation, are actively involved in providing forms of economic, human, and social capital through the Church; meanwhile, their counterparts in Bangalore, despite being citizens in a democracy, are intentionally disengaged from such activities. I discuss three key factors that explain this variation—legal frameworks, authority structures, and institutional priorities—and conclude with implications for understanding the role of religious institutions in both facilitating and inhibiting the civic engagement of professionals in contexts of rapid development.

Responding: Hirokazu Miyazaki, Kay Davis Professor and Professor of Anthropology
Northwestern University

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