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Roads to roam

  • 07 July 2006

One of the great enemies of understanding is simple division. When you divide your fellow citizens into Australian and un-Australian, your fellow Catholics into conservative and progressive, church members into practising and lapsed, and theologies into static and dynamic, much satisfaction may be gained, but little illumination.

But these categories can be quite useful if you ask why they don’t work. The discovery that many conservative Catholics hold views that have no support in tradition, that some liberals are quite intolerant of difference, and that many practising Christians do not practise the Gospel, may make us attend more closely to the real differences between groups.

In a little book mischievously entitled, Is the Church too Asian? (Chavara Institute of Indian and Inter-religious Studies, Rome & Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore, 2002), Norman Tanner looks at the claim that the Catholic Church is European and not Asian. Tanner’s distinction itself will ring strangely in Australian ears, because his Asia includes the Middle East and Turkey. By examining the contribution made by Eastern (Asian) bishops to church Councils, he explores the common presumption that the Catholic Church is radically Western (European).

By including Christian Egypt, Syria and Palestine within Asia, Tanner deals himself a winning hand. By any standards Jesus, Mary, the Twelve Apostles, the Four Evangelists and Paul compose a powerful and decisive Asian foundation for any Christian church! The early church Councils, too, gathered a predominantly Eastern group of bishops to decide questions which had been posed and debated in Egypt and Syria. The contribution of Western thinkers and bishops was relatively marginal.

Only when the Christian East and West were separated by the population movements of the West, and by the rise of Islam in the East, did a distinctively Western church develop. But it long displayed the alternating aggression and diffidence of a church unsure of its own identity. It classified its own Councils as general, not ecumenical, because they did not include the Asian churches. The West without the East was seen as incomplete. Unfortunately, this sense of incompleteness did not last.

In the more recent Councils, bishops from Eastern churches and from the continent of Asia have participated. Tanner illustrates the distinctive contribution of those from the Eastern churches. But the interventions of those from Asia have contained little that is characteristically Asian. These men have generally been formed in a narrowly Roman theology.

Finally, to ask whether the churches are European or Asian is