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An Asian challenge to the Synod on Family Life

HONG KONG (UCAN): In October last year, the same month the Vatican held an extraordinary synod as a prelude to the current Synod of Bishops on Family Life, Japan released a survey revealing the most skewed demographics on earth.

Some 26 per cent of Japanese are over 65, compared with just 11 per cent worldwide. Only South Korea has a lower fertility rate, 1.1 births per woman. China, with the world’s largest population, is grappling with a surge in the number of divorces.

Few regions represent the complex challenges facing families that northeast Asia does. But as the Church opened the second part of the synod process on October 4, none of the 45 voting members appointed by the pope were from that part of the world.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan will send one bishop each. China, which still has no formal diplomatic ties with the Holy See, will not be able to send a bishop.

“I feel the synod is distant from us as we are restricted in many ways politically,” Father Peter Liu, from the southern Guangxi province of southern China, said.

He added that he believes that the country’s 10 million Catholics and their families could use some guidance at this difficult time.

Figures from the Civil Affairs Ministry show that 3.63 million Chinese couples got divorced last year. Four years ago, the figure was 2.67 million.

China’s divorce rate has soared as the economy has grown. Millions of migrant families leave their children or spouses to look for work, sometimes thousands of kilometres away from home.

In a country where buildings are rise in a matter of weeks, the Church’s slow-moving process of marriage annulments appears trapped in the past.

In Hebei, which has more Catholics than any other Chinese province—about one million—Father Joseph He says his parish sees one in 10 couples experiencing a marriage breakdown.

“When they cannot get an answer for years, they simply remarry against the canon (Church law),” he says.

In bygone times, annulments for mainland China were handled in Hong Kong, but in recent years, there have been too many cases. In a bid to manage the demand for annulments, the Church in China has trained a dozen or so canonists to postgraduate level and a handful of doctoral candidates.

Father He says that following the pope’s announcement on September 8 streamlining the process, couples can expect shorter waiting periods. In turn, this should help prevent the Church from alienating divorcees.

“Many people from traditional Catholic families understand that marriage is for life,” he says. “If they are divorced, they feel ashamed and will not go to church anymore. Even the parents of the divorcees stopped receiving communion.”

In Hong Kong, the Church has grappled with high divorce rates for longer than the more traditional mainland.

Kevin Lai Yuk-ching, the secretary-general of the Diocesan Pastoral Commission for Marriage and the Family, points out that the problem extends beyond the point where marriages breakdown.

“Divorce and remarriage is not just about receiving communion. It also concerns pastoral care afterwards,” he says.

The questionnaire issued ahead of the synod reveals the high divorce rate among older people as being problematic in Hong Kong, which has a Catholic population of around half a million.

Property prices rank among the most expensive in the world and Hong Kong has long been a major financial centre, where Lai says  many couples see their marriage as a money-making partnership.

“When the couple stays together for 24 hours after they retire and their children grow up, they find they have no affection for each other. It is a completion of duty and this is when the thought of separation comes in,” he says.

Cecilia Li, who is involved in marriage counselling in Taiwan, says that the Church’s failure to evolve alongside new realities of family life has not gone unnoticed.

“The Church is still using old ways to approach problems,” she says. “When a marriage problem arises, some Catholics will persuade the protagonists to stay patient for the sanctity of marriage, without considering their real situation.”

Lessons from the past few months suggest the Vatican has a chance to catch up. In Japan, responses to the recent questionnaire paint an intricate portrait of family life in one of the world’s most technically advanced societies—information that will be transmitted back to Rome.

The Japanese response to the synod has a liberal tone.

“Even in the case of sacramental marriages, a more sympathetic acceptance of circumstances is necessary,” a report detailing the bishops’ response says. “Would it be possible to offer people a period of repentance and purification during which they show a commitment to living the faith?”

It suggests that after a period of time, the parish priest could recommend to the bishop that particular people could once again approach the Eucharistic table.

It remains to be seen whether such ideas gain traction at the Vatican. So far, the Church has only shown a willingness to streamline procedures, not overhaul them.

In recent months, the debate has usually provoked neat analyses that place certain Church figures in what is being dubbed the conservative camp or categorised as the progressive wing.

Father Augustine Lee Jeong-joo, the spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of South Korea, says that this is not helpful.

After receiving feedback from all 16 dioceses in South Korea, Father Lee says there is a clear need to go back to the bible, the origin of the canon. Instead of comparing today’s family with the ideal, the Church needs to take God’s family as the starting point.

“Through this synod, we hope that the Church can establish this new sight on the family,” says Father Lee.

Father Gabriel Byong Young Je, the director of the Institute of Culture and Education at Sogang University in Seoul, says that following last year’s extraordinary session of the synod, many people have welcomed the direction taken by Pope Francis, but warns that there is still major catching up to do.

“The Catholic Church hasn’t done so many things on family issues recently,” Father Young says. “The Church has to do something.”