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Japan publishes family synod survey results

TOKYO (SE) : The bishops of Japan are leading the way in Asia by publishing the findings of the Church-wide consultation on beliefs and attitudes to family life as a preparation for the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome in October this year.

Although many countries conducted the Vatican questionnaire among members of their Churches, to date, only Germany, and now Japan, have made their findings public.

The Japanese report, which was published on February 19, reads as a straightforward account of what being a Catholic in a minority Church context means, where the challenges of minority status to accept the views of the Church are mixed together with the pressure of living in the midst of a culture which does not necessarily share those values.

Many of the views of the wider society about divorce, remarriage, contraception and abortion are taken for granted in Japan and the efforts to share the Catholic point of view are hampered by a small Church’s lack of resources.

The questionnaire found that the appeal to the familiar Catholic moral framework is unpersuasive.

The Japanese bishops say in their 7,400-word report on the survey, “Often when Church leaders cannot present convincing reasons for what they say, they call it natural law and demand obedience on their say-so. This has brought the whole concept of natural law into disrepute.”

The bishops then ask, “If it is natural, why do people need to be taught it?”

The report further adds, “Japanese culture emphasises societal expectations rather than abstract principles as guides to action. So, though in the west natural law may seem natural, in Japan it is perceived as abstract and out-of-touch.’

The life of the Church in Japan appears to be the same as that in most postmodern societies where Catholics, 75 per cent of whom marry non-Catholics, find themselves having to be accommodating of issues like same-sex marriage.

The bishops say their findings reveal, “Same sex relationships have not yet become an issue as in some western countries, but are likely to become an issue because Japanese society at large is becoming more tolerant of homosexuality, both as an orientation and a lifestyle.”

The report then adds, “Transgender surgery followed by marriage is already finding legal acceptance. This tolerance is increasingly true of Catholics as well as society at large.”

The report also acknowledges a practice common in some parts of Asia, but unknown in countries where Catholics are at least a significant minority.

Because of the Catholic demography of Japan, the report notes, as a means of introducing people to the Church, it has been conducting marriages, according to the Church’s rites, between two non-Christians for years.

 “Marriage between non-baptised people and non-believers using the Church’s rites has been a normal part of the Church’s activity in Japan for many years with the approval of the Holy See,” the report points out.

It then adds, “The usual practice is to require at least some pre-marital instruction that focusses on the Church’s vision of marriage. In addition, there must be no canonical impediments to marriage (such as divorce), though individual pastors generally tend towards leniency.”

The report prepared for the synod recognises that the challenges faced in communicating what the Church believes about family life are only intensified in a population where most Catholics marry non-Catholics and where “the aging of the Catholic population at large and clergy in particular, is making young Catholics less willing to be part of parish communities.”

It says, “As a result, they do not have opportunities to explore issues of sex and family life in a faith context.”

However, the report recommends the approach the Church should take in meeting the challenge.


“In developing a pastoral orientation, it is perhaps important to recall that the only time in the gospels that Jesus clearly encounters someone in a situation of cohabitation outside of marriage (the Samaritan woman at the well), he does not focus on it. Instead, he respectfully deals with the woman and turns her into a missionary,” the report concludes.

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