Fifty years of Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) and its contribution deserved to be celebrated. The event held in Bangkok over a span of 18 days last October was graced by a large number of Church leaders, representatives of the people of God and a host of experts.
This momentous occasion provided an opportunity to envision the future of FABC’s service and renew its commitment to its mission in these critical times. Like the previous ones, the assembly in Bangkok exuded an atmosphere of friendship, bonhomie, and pastoral and cultural exchange. The much-awaited final document was officially released on March 15.
Reading through it, I found it challenging to identify a clear vision that holds together the entire document, lending it strength and consistency. The absence of a unified vision is palpable in the whole document. There is an attempt to give some semblance of cohesion by resorting to the biblical narrative of the visit of the three Magi and referencing various moments of their journey. While analogies and metaphors can be helpful to a certain extent, relying solely on them may risk appearing superficial and merely attempting to fill gaps in the document.
One would expect that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, there would be an effort to recall and reassess the significant steps FABC had taken in the past, its vision, orientation, and build upon the achievements made. Ironically, it fails to delve into the path FABC has travelled over the past five decades. Without such a link, the present document of the FABC appears to lack roots and becomes isolated from its own history. In contrast, other continental episcopal conferences like CELAM (Episcopal Conference of Latin America) have shown progression from Medellin to Puebla and Aparecida, reaffirming insights gained in previous assemblies and attempting to move forward.
The document starts well by adopting the method of seeing and discerning, and there can be no doubt about the lofty intentions behind this exercise. However, the description of the Asian situation across different areas of life lacks sufficient focus on a structural analysis of the Asian condition. While the document acknowledges the importance of promoting inclusivity, diversity, and the like, it falls short in offering substantive strategies to address the root causes, which could have paved the way for bold steps and resolutions. Moreover, there is no real co-relation between the description of the Asian situation and the remedies suggested, making it appear to be floating over Asia rather than rooted in Asia.
The failure to effectively tackle burning political issues in the continent is strikingly apparent. In this matter and numerous other critical and intriguing topics, the bishops maintain a troubling silence, refraining from adopting a clear stand or position. The document focuses its attention on nine areas, such as women, youth, family, and digital technology, yet the absence of the political situation from this list is a clear confirmation of their reluctance to confront the issue head-on. It exposes the establishment's tendency to play it safe and avoid bold steps. Further, the minority situation of Christians and the issue of conversion present a significant concern for the Asian local Churches as they carry political implications. Yet, we hear very little about it in the document.
What is most disconcerting is the absence of self-examination and diagnosis of the Church's own situation, let alone confession of its failures. The analysis – rather the thin description – stops at the condition of Asian societies. A more candid acknowledgement of the shortcomings of the Church and its betrayal of trust in such cases as clerical sexual abuse and abuse of Church power and property would have made the Bangkok Assembly more credible.
As for the tone, the FABC document tends to sermonize rather than provide guiding principles and orientations, even less concrete action plans. The style is monotonous, tedious, and unexciting with loose and hanging sentences all through. In short, the woeful absence of a theological vision, specific direction, targets, and measurable indicators undermines the effectiveness of the document as a blueprint for change.
Similar to the influential impact of Latin American CELAM on the liberation issue, FABC has made a distinct and noteworthy contribution through its theology of religions and dialogue. Moreover, this contribution has extended beyond the confines of the continent. Considering this, one would anticipate that the document would strengthen and expand upon this specific contribution from Asia. However, regrettably, the text falls short in terms of depth and fresh insights, leading to a sense of disappointment.
There is hardly any mention or acknowledgement of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Islam and their unique contributions, which one would expect especially speaking on nature and ecological issues. Here is a fertile area of inter-religious cooperation. One needs to go also into the intricate relationship with neighbouring religious traditions considering the growing complexity of religious fundamentalism and its political implications.
As for dynamics, we could observe in other continental episcopal conferences the diversity of opinions, conflict of perspective and struggle – the agonistic aspect -- to come to a consensus and shared vision. Strangely, the Bangkok document does not reveal that there has been plain and bold speaking, confrontation of views, and tension contributing to greater creativity. It is enough to think of Vatican II, whose inside story reveals that its documents were what they are because there was a lot of tension, confrontation, turning points, and consensus building. There does not seem to have taken place any such deliberation and thinking together at the FABC conference. It would appear most bishops had no opinion of their own. The result is a rhetorical approach. Quite a significant part of the document is simply exhortative. Even here, it could have been more inspiring and not so bland.
The mission is taking place at the grassroots with a lot of heroism and dedication by many unsung heroes and heroines in the Asian local Churches. We think of Asian martyrs like Fr Stan Lourdusamy. However, there is a lack of connect with the many secular movements and faith-initiated movements and learning from their experiences for a projection of the future path of the FABC. In short, the document overlooks the significance of grassroots movements, local communities, and bottom-up approaches in carrying forward the mission of FABC into the future.
It is a truism that genuine progress often originates at the local level, where individuals and communities face unique challenges but who also possess valuable knowledge and resources. The 50th anniversary was a wonderful opportunity to empower those directly impacted by the issues at hand and those struggling with them.
The pastoral strength of episcopal bodies like CELAM is precisely the connection with those labouring on the rough ground, which could be seen in its extended dialogue with them before, during, and after the assemblies. No wonder its documents reflect the language on the ground and have the "smell of the sheep”. The Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) is another shining example of a bishop's body taking a bold stand amid violent conflicts on issues of justice, human rights, peace and reconciliation and its spirit is embodied in such documents as the “Nairobi Statement” (1982).
In conclusion, adhering to a general guideline, it is disheartening to note the absence of a single striking and memorable statement within the entire document, a clear indication of its lacklustre quality. It is not an overstatement to say that this document, produced on the momentous occasion of the 50th anniversary of FABC, falls short of the lofty expectations set for it, making it quite possibly the weakest assembly document ever produced by this esteemed body. What is really happening to the FABC?