The day before the College of Cardinals will gather in Rome to prepare for October’s General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family, the bishops of Japan released the results of a survey of that country’s Catholic leaders concerning several teachings and practices of the Church. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan presented the questionnaire distributed worldwide by the synod secretariat to individual bishops, the heads of male and female religious communities, and “various lay and clerical experts”; the summary of the responses they received was published on the conference’s website in Japanese and English (PDF).
Noting that Catholics make up a mere .35 percent of the Japanese population and that as a result “opportunities to influence society with Gospel values and teachings are severely limited,” the Japanese bishops see a wide divergence between the teachings of the Church and the beliefs and practices of many Japanese Catholics. They also state that despite these limitations, opportunities for evangelization exist in Japanese society, even if the Church has often failed to utilize them:
Even while keeping in mind the various problems that face family life today, it is important to remember and emphasize the strengths of the traditional Japanese family. Without any need of encouragement, invitation or cajoling, Japanese still take part in funerals or weddings as a normal requirement. Such is the power of tradition that cannot be ignored. The Church must make use of this. The Church often falls short in this, presenting a high threshold for entry and lacking hospitality and practical kindness.
In response to a question about Humanae Vitae and Church teaching on sex and family life, the Japanese bishops state:
1. Contemporary Catholics are either indifferent to or unaware of the teaching of the Church.
2. Most Catholics in Japan have not heard of Humanae vitae. If they have, they probably do not make it an important part of their lives. Social and cultural values as well as financial considerations are more important.
3. While there may be some mention of the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control in pre-marital instructions, most priests do not emphasize it. A Catholic married to a non-Christian might find the teaching impossible to follow.
4. There is a big gap between the Vatican and reality. Condom use is recommended in sex education classes in schools.
On the topic of annulments, the bishops state that the simplification of the Church’s process is “not only needed, it is essential,” and point out that the current process is predicated on the marriage of two Catholics, whereas most Catholics in Japan marry non-Catholics.
The bishops of Japan do not go as far as those of Germany, however, who also published the results of their survey of Catholics and used that as an opportunity to call for a re-evaluation of the Church’s ban on the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics. In Japan, on the other hand, “Most people in such situations are apparently indifferent. Some may cut their ties to the Church rather than face judgmental attitudes,” the bishops state.
The bishops’ report concludes:
It is necessary to supplement the pastoral care of people facing difficulties in their family life with a vision of the Church’s teachings about marriage and the family. Further, it is necessary to go beyond merely saying to men and women who do not follow Church norms that they are separated from the community and actively provide them with opportunities to encounter the Christian community. At present, it is difficult to claim that in our parishes the necessary attitudes are common, or that the understanding of marriage itself has not been watered down even among Catholics.
The questions and topics of this survey have been developed with the mindset of Christian countries in which the entire family is Christian. For example, religiously mixed marriages seem to be considered a problem. However, in Japan, the overwhelming majority of marriages involve mixed religions. In this context, we must ask what a Christian household and family mean. …
While it is important to continue to stress the importance of the family and life, the Church must also present a healing, supporting and encouraging face to those who cannot fulfill the ideal rather than being judgmental and critical.