Newsletter of the District of Asia

 November - December 2000

Roman or Japanese Catholicism?

By Fr. Daniel Couture

Catholicism is essentially a submission to the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church (see editorial).  Here are some texts from the Church hierarchy in Japan which manifest a clear tendency to de-Romanize the faith.  There is such an insistence on the need to adapt to the local Church that the need to submit to Rome is de facto denied. Or if reference is made to the Roman Magisterium, it is always to texts urging the establishment of local churches, thus revealing the existence of a big problem in Rome itself.  How can Rome urge Catholics not to be Roman?  The answer can only be that there are two Romes, a new Rome fighting against and dismantling the old Rome, Mother of all Churches and Mistress of truth.

1)From the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan


Though only a small booklet, our hope is that this English text will be of some help to readers in Japan and abroad toward an understanding of the significant events in the history of the Catholic Church in Japan.

September 1995 The General Secretariat Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) marked the beginning of a thoroughgoing renewal in the Catholic Church. It effected dramatic changes in the counter-Reformation attitude that had characterized the Church ever since the Council of Trent. This renewal worked its way into almost every aspect of Catholic life - from the inward, theological understanding of the Church, indeed of faith itself, to its outward expression in administrative re-structuring, in liturgy, in legislation, as well as in general attitudes and behavior toward the present-day world and toward other religions.

The implementation of this renewal has been an urgent task of the Catholic Church in Japan, too, from the late 1960s to the present. Beginning with the translation and publication of Conciliar and postConciliar documents, it went on to include reform of the liturgy, updating and realigning of administrative structures; re-education of laity, clergy, and religious; promotion of unity among Christians; cooperation with other religions, social involvement, and the furthering of justice and peace. Today, too, the challenge continues to be how to incarnate the spirit of the Council in the life of contemporary Japan.


The first noticeable change brought about as a result of Vatican II was liturgical reform. To manifest its great esteem for the characteristic individuality of each region, culture, and language of the world, the Council opted for use of the vernacular in the liturgy to replace Latin, which had for centuries been the sole liturgical language of the Roman Rite. Accordingly, the Church in Japan, immediately after the Council, began to use Japanese in the liturgy and make liturgical accommodations to Japanese culture.

(...) (Revised) liturgical books were (gradually) published (since 1971) and the major liturgical services came to be performed in Japanese. Liturgical music was composed to fit the Japanese liturgical texts and replace Gregorian chant. The task that still remains, however, goes far beyond Japanese translations or cultural accommodations. It is the authentic inculturation of Christianity into Japan.


(...) Interest in Zen spread among Catholics and many began to use methods of Zen meditation in their own prayer life. Dialogue with Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists, developed in many places and led to Oriental-Occidental spiritual exchanges. The first of these took place in September 1979, when 51 Buddhist monks experienced a month of monastic life in contemplative Catholic monasteries in Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. For the second exchange, in October 1983, 17 contemplative European monks, mainly Benedictines and Trappists, came to Japan to spend a month in Zen monasteries. Thus far there have been four such spiritual exchanges, with the participants traveling to each other's countries to get first-hand experience of religious life there. (...)

Some tasks still remain with regard to Japanese religions. One is the need for academic as well as experiential dialogue with Shinto, which undeniably underlies many Japanese religions and is necessary for understanding them. (...)


Vatican II refers to the "local or particular" Church (Decree on Ecumenism, no. 14), and says: " has come about that various churches established in diverse places by the Apostles and their successors have in the course of time coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity of faith and the unique divine constitution of the universal Church, enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no.23). Taken in context, this passage refers to the various churches that have existed in the East since apostolic times.

In this same spirit, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), in a Declaration issued at its first plenary session in 1974, said: "The local church is a church incarnate in a people, a church indigenous and inculturated. And this means concretely a church in continuous, humble and loving dialogue with the living traditions, the cultures, the religions - in brief, with all life-realities of the people in whose midst it has sunk its roots deeply and whose history and life it gladly makes its own." (no.12) The reference here is to the churches that have been born in various countries as a result of missionary work since the 16th century and points not to administrative districts but to various clearly delineated cultural spheres. That is to say, it envisions an "Indian Church," a "Philippine Church." or a "Japanese Church." Such national or regional groupings tend to be co-extensive with the bishops' conferences that the Second Vatican Council decreed should be established as the framework within which the bishops should carry out their mutually shared pastoral responsibility to make the services of the Church available to all.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan has been a member of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences ever since 1971 when preparations were first made to establish it, and thanks to exchanges with bishops of other Asian countries, the bishops of Japan came to a deeper awareness that the Church in Japan is a local church, an Asian Church.

(From The Catholic Church in Japan, An historical Overview, pp. 5 - 10)

2 ) The Church in Japan seen by the Eastern Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI)

At a annual meeting of EAPI held in Manila, on October 22, 1999, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas S.J.-  former Jesuit Superior for the Japanese province and who has lived 38 years in Japan - said that the Church of Japan, from having been Westernized, clerical and very structured, is in the process of transforming itself to become “an inculturated, participant, mystical and living Church, in dialogue with the other great religions and cultures from its own roots”.  Fr. Nicolas remarked that in the actual system “the roles played by the clergy and the religious sisters will become impossible or un-maintainable”.  While commemorating the 450 years of the gift of faith by St Francis Xavier (1549 - 1999), the Church finds itself challenged by stagnation; however it wants to align itself with the florishing Church of Korea, its neighbor.  Catholics represent 8% of the South Korean population, where Catholicism was introduced by lay people about 200 ago and which has seen a great lead forward between 1980 and 1990.  In Japan, on the contrary, Catholics compose less than 1% of the population (and half of them are strangers).

Nevertheless, Fr. Nicolas predicted a ‘New Age” for the Church in Japan, and quoted the “courageous and out-of-the-beaten-tract” contribution of the Japanese Bishops during the Asian Synod held in the Vatican, in April-May 1998.  During this Synod, the bishops have affirmed the right for the local Church to express its own experience and to redefine revelation, mission and salvation in a language comprehensible for lay Japanese.

(From Eglises D’Asie, no. 297, 16 Novembre, 1999, p.14)

3) From the Asian Synod April-May 1998

1) From the Asian Synod April-May 1998, interventions of some Japanese Bishops

"The theology on which the Lineamenta is based is the theology of the Christian West, and appears to the eyes of non-Christians as overly self-complacent and introverted. Based on this kind of theology, we cannot approach the unsettled Asia of today. In the Lineamenta there is a lack of understanding of Asian culture, especially the Asian culture of today, which is a mixture of traditional Asian culture and an Americanized modern culture. Moreover, it does not appear that we can be satisfied with modern Western theology, either. Especially if we consider that even in non-Christian cultures, we can never say that the redemption of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit is absent.

Liberation from a Western-style Church (…)

(Osservatore Romano, English Edition, late April 1998)

H.Exc. Most Rev. Berardus Toshio OSHIKAWA, O.F.M. CONV.,
Bishop of Naha

1. My concern here is mostly Pastoral. We do not have to go far in order to find some of the reasons why Christianity does not grow in Japan. Notwithstanding the frequent exhortations for Enculturation, it seems to me that the NORM for Christian life, for Church discipline, for Liturgical Expression and Theological Orthodoxy continues to be that of the Western Church.

2. This fact may be natural, and good for the West. However, when it also becomes the operating Norm for the Churches of the East, and, concretely, for Japan, it unfortunately becomes a very effective block to any pastoral effort to open for our young and minority Churches a meaningful and realistic process of growth in faith, spirituality and moral life.

3. In spite of the valiant efforts of both local and Foreign agents of the Gospel, the engrained Westernization of the language of our theology, the rhythm and structure of our Liturgies, the Programs of our Catechesis fail to touch the hearts of those who come searching. The fact that "some particularly gifted" ministers have had a certain success only underlines the basic problem, where our own human limitations are not helped by the requirements of the present system.

4. The "Principle of Graduality" proclaimed and recommended by John Paul II should be a leading principle in the relationships between the Roman Curia, the Western Churches in the South and the East.

5. Graduality means (1) above all, that we Asian Christians take the responsibility to grow into Christ and all that this implies for our Christian Faith. We must do this in, out of and through our own culture in an ongoing re-reading and contemplation of the Gospel and in the midst of the pains, struggles and hopes of our societies. In an Asian religious context the "WAY" is a central and most inspiring image of growth in God's love and wisdom. We must make this process of faith a real Journey, an experience of growth rather than a mental "Introduction to Christianity" as is often the case.

6. Graduality also means (2) that other Churches respect and support these local processes that take place under the guidance of the Bishops of Asia. In a world that is becoming more and more international and more globally interacting, it is more important than ever to nurture and support the diversity and peculiarities of the different Cultures and Churches. Now is the time to learn from our past mistakes and make sure that no imposition of any kind hinders the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and minds of people who in the wonderful variety of histories and cultures look for God with a sincere heart.

7. Graduality means (3) that the Holy See redefines its role and mediates with prudence, flexibility, trust and courage a new dialogue of all the Churches in the common pilgrimage to the fullness of Christ. This will mean moving away from a single and uniform abstract Norm that stifles genuine spirituality, Asian liturgical expression, earnest Asian Theological search and real growth in maturity. Together we must move to a more spiritual and creative position of working for a new harmony where the gifts of the Spirit to the Churches become the new treasure of the whole Church, into which all others, Christian and non-Christian alike, can be invited to share in the abundance of God's life.[Zenit Archives, Asian Synod, April 21, 1998 - Original text: English]


The reading of the above texts clearly shows the shift of attitude between the humble Catholics of Nagasaki - who after having been deprived of priests for 220 years, asked the first priest they met about their Father in Rome - and modern day Japanese bishops who are so eager to set up a National Church. One cannot but think of another situation where a national church was indeed erected and its members simply became … Anglican, cut off from their Mother, the Roman Church.

The blame for the lack of growth of the Church in Japan is thrown on its Westernization. Why, then, did many hundred of thousands of Japanese embrace the Catholic Faith during the period 1550 and 1640? It certainly made sense and appealed to them, at that time. And it worked. The blame of Westernization cannot be the explanation. Thus the solution proposed risks not be the right answer.

With the establishment of these national Churches, in Japan and elsewhere, what will remain of the notes of the Catholic Church? It will no longer be One in its faith (now mixed with local beliefs), government (National Bishops’ Conferences) and worship (inculturated); it will no longer be Holy, with all the ‘local elements’ borrowed from indigenous cultures and pagan religions; it will have broken the link with the Apostolic Roman Tradition and thus, it will have ceased to be Catholic, since it will no longer be a Universal Church but rather a Local Church.

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