ROME – Just as the world of finance famously has identified the “BRICS” nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as emerging superpowers, I’ve argued that the future of English-speaking Catholicism increasingly is being forged in the “PINS” countries: The Philippines, India, Nigeria and South Korea.
All four are nations where English is a primary language, and together they represent a vast pool of 130 million Catholics. (That includes 80.2 million in the Philippines, 19.7 million in India, 25.5 million in Nigeria, and 5.65 million in South Korea.)
That combined Catholic population is higher than that of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand together, representing the traditional cradles of English-speaking Catholicism. And the trend lines are moving in opposite directions: As the faith struggles in the latter group, it’s exploding in the former.
It’s a good idea for Catholics everywhere, especially those whose primary language is English, to keep an eye on these four places. Here, then a quick sampling of recent Catholic twists and turns.
Since much of this is about challenges, think of it as a round-up of needles facing the PINS.
If the issues seem remote or unfamiliar, remember that American or European preoccupations often strike these folks the same way – and, more and more, they’re going to be setting the Catholic tone, not us.
The country’s Catholic bishops have repeated their alarm over the spread of government-sanctioned gambling in casinos, after a mid-sized Filipino bank became embroiled in a robbery and money-laundering scheme.
Although religious leaders of all sorts have often taken a dim view of gambling, for the bishops of the Philippines the objection is less about Puritanical moralism and more about the risks of making corruption even worse.
“The dramatis personae in this sad story of loot and theft are many, including cyber-criminals, colluding bank executives, probably even government officials and public servants,” said Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, about the scandal surrounding the RCBC bank.
Also of late, both Jesuit-run universities in the Philippines and the country’s Catholic Educational Association have slammed attempts by the son of former strongman Ferdinand Marcos to rehabilitate his father’s regime.
In a March 7 statement, the educational group decried what it described as efforts by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr to “canonize the harrowing horrors of martial rule.”
Catholic universities and schools in the Philippines were on the front lines of the “People Power Revolution” in the 1980s that brought down Marcos.
In an overwhelmingly Catholic country, where shopping malls have chapels and cities have street signs urging caution for Mass-goers, the Church inevitably plays a robust political role, and these two developments confirm there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon.
Catholics in India in recent days have been caught up with the drama of conflicting stories and uncertainty surrounding the fate of Father Thomas Uzhunnalil, an Indian priest serving in Yemen and believed to be in the hands of ISIS forces.
After initial alarms that Uzhunnalil had been crucified by ISIS, local church authorities now say they have good reason to believe he’s still alive and are working to secure his release.
In the meantime, Christians back in India itself are struggling with their own religious liberty concerns, after the government refused to issue entry visas for members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom planning to make a fact-finding mission.
Presumably, the concern was that the commission might shine a spotlight on the way that religious minorities are increasingly feeling under pressure from right-wing, militant Hindu nationalism, which is encouraged by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
One reminder of the challenges in India came in late March when Gornath Chalanseth, one of seven Christians convicted in the 2008 assassination of a Hindu holy man, was granted a three-week bail to assist his sick wife, while the other six remain behind bars.
The charges were widely seen among India’s Christian community as trumped-up, a way of trying to displace blame for anti-Christian violence in Orissa state that left 100 dead.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, recently formally launched a new web site petitioning for the release of the seven Christians.
Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, recently took on Governor Nasir El-Rufai of the country’s northern Kaduna State, which has long been a flash point for Muslim/Christian tensions, over a controversial draft religion law.
In effect, the law would require religious preachers to be licensed and regulated by the state, and would also prohibit the playing of cassette tapes of religious sermons in public places. It’s described as an effort to combat extremism, which is no idle threat in the cradle of Boko Haram, but critics say it’s an overreach that could lead to stifling legitimate religious protest against the government.
“The principle of separation of state and Church/Mosque which springs from the supposed secularity of the Nigerian constitution would be severely battered if this bill is pursued in the way it is,” said Father Evaristus Bassey, the Caritas director.
“The danger in Nigeria is the manipulation of structures and institutions by strong individuals,” Bassey said. “Thus, the fear is that even if the proposed bill contains good aims, the proposed restrictions would play into the hands of officials of state who have a hegemonic mentality and would allow them the freedom to persecute one religion in favor of another.”
The ferment is a reminder that Nigeria will likely face a major headache for some time to come, which is how to give the state the tools it needs to combat deadly religious extremism – without also handing it tools it could use, were it so inclined, the gag mainstream religious leaders trying to give voice to civil society.
Lawsuits charging defamation against a right-wing politician named Jee Man-won are continuing in South Korea, based on claims that he falsified documents that allegedly linked pro-democracy activists with the North Korean regime Pyongyang.
Recently five civic organizations filed a suit, which builds an another legal action brought last August by a group of Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Gwangju charging Jee with distorting the history of South Korea’s pro-democracy movement.
In May 1980, the “Gwangju Uprising” was violently put down by then-President Chun Doo-hwan, and various civic groups long have clamored for compensation for victims and protestors who were thrown in jail or otherwise mistreated.
During the 1970s and 80s, widespread protest movements against South Korea’s authoritarian-style form of government, with backing from the military and police, eventually led the country into a more genuine and stable form of democracy.
The involvement of priests in the suit again Jee is a reminder that the Catholic Church in South Korea was a protagonist in the pro-democracy movement. One of the reasons often cited for the dramatic growth of Catholicism in the country in recent decades is the high social esteem in which the Church is held, because of the role it played in giving voice to the aspirations of a wide cross-section of the country.
The number of Catholics in South Korea rose consistently during the 2000s, and by 2009 had come to represent ten percent of the national population of 52 million. Statistics released by the Korean bishops showed that although the number of baptisms dipped in 2015, overall the Catholic population rose by 1.7 percent to about 5.65 million.