The Vatican’s Asian Vexation

November 24, 2007

Author: David Gibson

Source: Newsweek

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."