The Vatican's Asian Vexation

For nearly a quarter century before his election as pontiff, Joseph Ratzinger served as the Vatican's guardian of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, earning a tough reputation for his campaign to quash the Marxist-tinged movement known as liberation theology. Cardinal Ratzinger's success in that crusade won him few plaudits in Latin America, the cradle of liberation theology and home to nearly half the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics. So in April 2005, when he was introduced to the world as Pope Benedict XVI, many feared the worst. Instead, the Pax Romana that Ratzinger helped impose on "the popular church" in Latin America, along with the end of Soviet communism, made increased Vatican pressure unnecessary and unlikely.

But now the focus of Benedict's anxieties—and Vatican sanctions—has shifted to Asia, Catholicism's largest untapped market. At issue is the fear—for Rome— that too many Asian Catholics see other religions not only as bearers of truth, but as alternate pathways to salvation or spiritual insight. In Asia, God—or the gods—are everywhere, while Rome wants to stress the exclusivity of Catholicism. To Benedict, Asian theologians and church leaders are attempting to win converts by translating a Western religion—Christianity—into an Eastern idiom, relating Christ to Confucius, the Buddha or the variety of Hindu deities, transforming Jesus, as Benedict put it, into "one religious leader among others." To the Vatican hierarchy, says Thomas C. Fox, author of "Pentecost in Asia: A New Way of Being Church," the teachings of these theologians are "clearly unacceptable, even incomprehensible."

The most recent and dramatic sign of Benedict's distaste for the Asian flavor was the revelation in September that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican office that Ratzinger led for more than 23 years, was investigating Father Peter C. Phan, a Vietnamese-born theologian, now at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who has argued for a less Eurocentric church. Such an investigation is a chilling prospect: the CDF proceedings are held in secret, and Phan is prohibited from confronting the "experts" who will determine whether his work is heretical. Phan's odds for redemption appear long. According to secret correspondence obtained by the National Catholic Reporter in September, the CDF earlier this year declared some of his best-known work "notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine." Such charges could bar him from teaching theology in the Catholic world. Phan has asked Rome for clarification, but has received no word on his fate.

Asia has long presented both tantalizing opportunities and potent challenges. Franciscan missionaries established churches in China in the 1200s, but along with brutal shoguns and fickle emperors, they faced suspicion from Roman authorities, who thought they were too eager to downgrade both the "Roman" and "Catholic" aspects of the church. Yet Asian Catholicism survived, and indeed thrives today even as European Christendom shrinks. Asian Catholics now account for more than 10 percent of the world's Catholics and a quarter of all new priests and seminarians in the world, while the number of priests steadily declines in Europe and North America. Some Asian countries are even exporting priests to prop up U.S. parishes. Most Catholics today already live in the Southern Hemisphere, and by 2050, the figure will be 80 percent. "Wake up," says Phan. "This is the reality you cannot avoid."

But for Benedict any gains in Asia will be meaningless if they come at the expense of the church's European heritage. Nor can there be any hint of compromise on Christ as the only means to salvation, and the Roman Catholic Church as the mediator of that faith. Over the years, he has warned against Western infatuation with Eastern spiritual practices like meditation and yoga. He called Hinduism's belief in reincarnation "morally cruel," scorned Buddhist spirituality as "autoeroticism" and compared both to Marxism as threats to Catholicism. As a cardinal, Ratzinger's office in 1997 excommunicated Father Tissa Balasuriya, one of Asia's best-known theologians, for his efforts to recast Western theology in a way that would help Asians understand concepts such as the Virgin Birth of a Messiah. The excommunication was lifted, but the next year, Ratzinger's office censured the writing of a deceased Indian Jesuit, Anthony de Mello, for using Eastern concepts to explain Catholic doctrines. Similarly, Ratzinger's long investigation of a Belgian Jesuit, Jacques Dupuis, centered on a view of religious pluralism that grew out of Dupuis's 36 years of teaching theology in India.

As pope, Benedict has attempted to restore Europe's central role in Catholicism. For instance, he restored the old Latin mass and other rituals that were left behind in the 1960s. And he rarely leaves the European orbit, even in his foreign travels. In July, he will fly over Asia to visit Australia but has no plans to return to the region, signaling to many a pointed lack of interest.

Asian churchmen have felt marginal to Rome for so long that they are now more likely to push for reforms like a married priesthood or the decentralization of Roman authority. One of the few Asian prelates to serve in the Roman Curia, Japanese Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, regularly spoke out against an "excessively Westernized" church. Local bishops, he believed, should be given greater freedom "to adapt to the country's culture." In March 2006, just months after Benedict was elected pope, Hamao's Vatican office was suddenly merged with another department. If it wasn't exactly retribution, Hamao was also not going to be missed. He retired, leaving no Asians in senior Vatican posts, and died on Nov. 8. On Nov. 24 Benedict created 18 new cardinals who will be eligible to vote in a conclave that will one day elect the successor to the 80-year-old pontiff. Only one—62-year-old Indian Archbishop Oswald Gracias of Mumbai—is from Asia, giving the College of Cardinals a more Western cast than it has had for decades, and suggesting that the church's focus on Europe is unlikely to end any time soon.