By Jojo Fung, S.J.
Jojo Fung, S.J. is director of both the Skudai Catholic Center, Johore Baru, and of the Orang Asli (Indigenous Peoples), Malaysia. He holds a PhD in Theology from the Catholic Theological Union, Washington D.C. His recent publication, Ripples on the Water, was published by Majodi Publications, Johore, Malaysia. His earlier publication, Shoes-Off: Barefoot We Walk, was published by Longman, Malaysia.
The document of the Eighth Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) entitled The Asian Family Toward A Culture of Life is divided into Introduction (nos. 1-5), Part I: Pastoral Challenges to the Family in Asia (nos. 6-49), Part II: Theological-Pastoral Reflection (nos. 50-115), and Part III: Pastoral Recommendations For Family Ministry (nos. 116-24).
The mood conveyed in the opening paragraph (no. 1) of the introduction of this document is rather upbeat, filled with a sense of hope (a word repeated five times) and trust in God, more so in the work of God’s Spirit. This fundamental openness and trust in God and God’s Spirit is essential if the Asian families are to be formed and guided by the Asian Church towards the Reign of God.
The document is remarkably honest about the downside of Asian values and clear in expressing its positions and views on certain issues and influences. The Asian values of hospitality, the relatively high stability in families, sense of resilience, deep religiosity, the divine and natural closeness to nature and creation, are not without their ugly heads such as graft, corruption, nepotism, political and economic cronyism, fostered oftentimes by an overbearing sense of clannishness (nos. 6-8).
At the same time, it mentions the bishops’ disapproval of patriarchy (no. 6), same-sex unions (no. 10), exploitation of child labor (no.34), contraceptive mentality and rise of pre-marital sex among the young (no. 37), and moral relativism (no. 87). It expresses support for women’s liberation movements (no. 31), youth as vanguard of social and religious transformation (no. 33), protection of the environment (no. 10), and pressure on public authorities to issue guidelines on media based on truth and human dignity (no. 90). Yet it expresses compassion for single parents, families with separated parents and cases of remarriage for one or both partners (no. 9), and even advocates holistic health care for addicts living with HIV/AIDs.
The document uses five different yet refreshing sociological images of the family: (i) a cellular receptor of emerging cultures and initiator of positive and negative influential cultural forces, (ii) point of reference of multiple relationships, (iii) first basic cell and community of society, (iv) first and fundamental structure for human ecology (no. 3), and (v) the way that history passes. Apart from some specific (no. 93) otherwise scanty references (nos. 99, 100), it is vague on how the family (LG,11) as the domestic church (no. 4) is to shape and influence both economic (nos. 12-18) and cultural globalization (nos. 21-26).
A case in point is no. 82 which points out that the task of every family is "to reflect the goodness and justice of God is nowhere more urgent and imperative than in the moral and social sphere of life." In the next breadth, the same document outlines a lofty "theological utopia" explaining that:
globalization could be a principal tool by which the various peoples, races, and cultures of the world are to live together in peace and harmony, that the rich and the poor in this world are to share fairly and equitably the goods of creation and the benefits of development, that the whole world is one harmonious family under God where there is no room for war and divisive conflict, prejudice, discrimination, exclusion, oppression, isolation and marginalization (ibid.).
But the document does not sufficiently explore or explain how a domestic church actualizes the theological utopia in the moral and social sphere of life in terms of the strategies (the how) by which the four main sociological images achieve such a utopia. Unless the strategies are concretely spelt out, the utopia remains ever illusive.
The document has analytically identified neo-liberalism (nos. 20, 23, 37) as the engine of globalization. But it does not situate the analysis within the post 9/11 scenario of exacerbated global conflict and violence so that neo-liberal globalization is seen as a form of violence against societies and cultures, especially poor Asian families, including women, the young, and children.
Economic globalization has undoubtedly brought about the massive poverty of Asian families (no. 12), more so, the feminization of Asian poverty (no. 18). Unfortunately, the document not only fails to mention but denounce the syndicates (not to mention the economic globalization of cheap Asian labor!) responsible for human trafficking, especially of women and children for commercial sex (no. 30). In its silence, the document has not made a sufficiently clear connection between the victimization of migrants and the commoditization of their labor with the free (but black) market system.
On the other hand, the document has rightly linked cultural globalization to the introduction of western cultures to Asia (no. 21). Globalization extols a secularist, hedonistic, materialistic, techno and bio-genetic mindset (23, 43-45) that erodes Asian values of the sacredness of life and harmony with creation, thus destabilizing Asian family lifestyles. But the document has not sufficiently analyzed how cultural globalization is also responsible for the perpetuation of patriarchy worldwide, even though the document acknowledges globalization’s predominance in Asia (no. 27) whereby medical science is used for pre-natal sex identification and selection (no. 28).
The document proposes a radical paradigm shift in ecclesiology: the "Church begins in the homes, not in the parish" (no. 46). The "family/bottom-up" model of building community and society explains the ecclesiology-sociology nexus wherein the families are perceived as the essential blocks of the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) and Basic Human Communities (BHCs) and the BECS become "a community of families, and the parish truly a community of communities" (no. 100). The BECs in turn build up "a new society, the expression of a civilization of love" (EA, 25) (no. 99) while the BHCs become "the micro-level response to the phenomenon of economic and cultural globalization" wherein the "globalization of charity and solidarity begins" (100). In this shift, the families have become the new focus of integral evangelization. How this shift influences the pastoral policies of the local church in Asia awaits to be seen in the decades to come.
In the section on theological-pastoral reflection, the document has developed a somewhat coherent theology of family life, the culture of integral life, and even a missiology of marriage and family.
The theology of family is regnocentric. The goal of the Asian family is the nurturance of "a culture of integral life" that attains its fullness in the Kingdom. In other words, the family is the fundamental ecclesial and sociological locus for the actualization of a holistic life (no. 52), i.e., "life in itself and its inherent dignity, life as a gift of God" (Gen 2:7; Acts 17:25), and "a sharing of God’s life" (Rom 6:23; Jn 4:10, 14; Rev 21:6).
The document explains a culture of integral life as that which "respects, nurtures, enhances, promotes and serves human life in all its dimensions," from womb to tomb, until its return to God at the end time in the reign of God.
The underlying theology of this culture is trinitarian and covenantal (i) theo-logical—God the "Creator and Giver of all life" who brought forth life out of love (no. 53), creating especially human life in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27) and entering into a definitive covenant (no. 55) with humankind; (ii) Christological—Christ (no. 54) is the pinnacle and heart of creation (Col 1:15-16), the founder (no. 60) of the family of God, the Church and renews the covenant with his blood; (iii) pneumatological (nos. 61-62)—the Spirit who continues the mission of Jesus in fostering communion in the body of Christ and solidarity with all humankind, including the marginalized and oppressed (Ex 22:22-23; Deut 24:17-22; Is 1:17; Jer 22:3; Zech 7:10).
Touching on the theology of conjugal love (no. 69), the document submits that the Pauline instruction of "husbands love your wives" (Eph 5:25) is revolutionary and countercultural in a patriarchal Greco-Roman world. But the semantic meaning of the word "respect" in the phrase "wives to respect your husband" (Eph 5:33) "to look deeply into" so that it becomes "a search for all that constitutes the good of the person who is loved" must apply to both spouses in today’s age when there is a growing awareness of gender sensitivity towards greater equality, besides complementariness and mutuality in spousal relationship.
In the section entitled, "Vocation and Mission: Family, Become What you are!" (nos. 76-102), two key phrases, "They (couples) have embraced the Reign of God by becoming married" and "the experience of God in and through marriage missions them" have added a theological richness and impetus to the sacramental meaning of marriage, suggesting very practical steps for couples to fulfill their mission ad intra (within the family) and ad extra (outside the family). The "doables" for mission ad intra is to bring the Reign about through "mutual loving, caring and serving," "encouraging each other to fulfill their responsibilities in faithful love," and "loving and caring for their children." The mission ad extra enjoins couples to foster "the sense and passion for service" of Church and society, especially bringing about "God’s loving dominion" with the thrust, "fill the earth with the goodness and beauty, justice, and love of God" (no. 80).
The document manifests a renewed commitment, this time by families in Asia, to social transformation (nos. 91-94) and/through interreligious dialogue (nos. 95-98).
The call to engage in "family politics" which is explained as "political intervention in promoting transparency and accountability among public servants, or fostering mediation and reconciliation among conflicting parties" (no. 93) should correlate with "the quest for social justice and peace, integrity in public service, and the integrity of creation" (no. 92). How tenable is such "family politics" depends largely on awareness of families of the Charter of the Rights of Family and the willingness of the ordained and consecrated leadership to render public support for unions, for homebuyers, and family associations through the BECs.
This prophetic role should be directed towards society as well as the whole Church when "its pastors behave as less than shepherds after the heart of God; when equality, co-responsibility, participation, and self-giving generosity no longer animate the Church; when power, selfishness and discrimination threaten its inner structure" so that the "Church is ‘nuptialized,’ i.e., influenced by the experience of married couples" (no. 102).
Families are to engage in interreligious dialogue through the concerted defense of common values such as "the sacredness of life from conception to death, the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of marriage between man and woman, family and marriage, are divinely instituted" (no. 96). Families also show solidarity with the poor, and support for the promotion of social justice, the quest for peace and reconciliation and care for the environment (no. 97). Very interestingly, the document highlights the "dialogue of word, of love and life" in the context of courtship that matures into married life whereby "a bridge of love and reconciliation is built" in terms of inter-faith marriages (no. 98).
The document takes pain to explain that the spirituality of communion and discipleship of the ordinary is foundational to the vocation and mission of the families. Communion comes about through conjugal total self-giving (no. 104) that reflects the communion of the triune God (no. 105). Yet this communion is to be experienced through the ordinariness of married life when "God is made visible and palpable" (no. 107). Such a marital spirituality is reinforced by family prayer (no. 113) and the celebration of the Eucharist (nos. 114, 115).
The emphasis on a multi-prone approach in the last section of the document entitled "Pastoral Recommendations for the Family Ministry" is indeed encouraging. At the level of parishes and diocese, financial investment is crucial (no. 117) in order to reorient all pastoral programs so that families become the focal point wherein they are informed of the Charter of the Rights of Family, given formation on co-responsible marital partnership and the role of male and female sexuality in human and family relationships. Most strategic and perhaps most neglected is women empowerment through the eradication of the evils of patriarchy so that women are liberated from oppressive traditional values and structures (no. 118), including ministry for men so that they are partners against domestic violence and take on a responsible role in family life (no. 122).
What is relatively new in the special programs (no. 119) recommended are the compassionate outreach to divorced/remarried parents, the call to address domestic violence, the marriage of minors, even arranged marriages, and finally, the setting up of venues for families of different faiths to share their God-experiences for mutual enrichment and respect. Under "Social Transformation" (no. 120) what is most lacking and needed is creating awareness of social issues (especially gender and new feminism) that enables families to set up competent multidisciplinary groups who mobilize themselves for social and political advocacy and action on behalf of Gospel values against the secular values via the media and legislations by the civil courts.
At the level of the FABC, the call to create a multi-tasking FABC Desk for Family Life is timely. Its most urgent task is to develop an Asian Theology of Marriage, Family, and Conjugal Union, based on Asian Family Values, and at the same time, promote a multi-religious spirituality of the Reign of God rather than a similar spirituality in a multi-religious Asia (no. 121). Since this is not seriously attempted, sufficient attention and study must be done to learn from the social system of indigenous peoples and their contribution to enrich family life. While monitoring the eroding trends/new civil laws in society is urgent, the Asian Church needs to prophetically denounce the trafficking of women and children, and at the same time, offer pastoral care for same gender oriented (SGO) persons to live as full members of the Church by responding to the universal call to holiness and service (no. 124).
This document, The Asian Family Toward A Culture of Life will be remembered as another historic milestone when the paradigmatic shift actualizes a copernician revolution that "nuptializes" and "familializes" the parish, diocese, and Church local and universal. Like many FABC documents, this document is inspirational and awaits much theological discussion to guide the thinking on the specific strategies and their actual implementation. Ultimately, the Church in Asia will be better off because the Asian families are empowered as Church comprising of a communion of communities of families.