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Is Real Egalitarian and Participatory Church Possible?


Paul Hwang / Chief of the Center for Asia Peace Solidarity

Since early 2005 when the Center for Asian Theology Solidarity (CATS) under the laity-run Woori Theology Institute (WTI) was established, CATS has held international symposiums once or twice a year, focusing on “Laity, Church Renewal and Participatory Church,” by inviting leading Asian theologians and activists.

As it is seen in the title, CATS also aims to build a network among progressive theologies in Asia, especially all kinds of contextual theologies based on people’s experience of God. In October, 2006, we held a public lecture and a roundtable for Korean Catholics by inviting permanent deacon Mario Van Loon from the Philippines. For some 30 years, he has dedicated himself to building Infanta diocese in the country as real egalitarian and participatory Church under the leadership of retired Bishop Julio Labayen. I will deal with the Infanta Catholic community later in this writing.

As many people know, the Second Vatican Council recognized the Church as “the People of God,” which is an important step toward an egalitarian Christian community seen in the time of Jesus and the New Testament, especially in the Acts of Apostles. But we need to look carefully into the council’s ecclesiology because its documents deal with various definitions of the Church. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”(Lumen Gentium), for instance, clearly says that the Church is the People of God but on the other hand, it also sees it as a permanent hierarchical institution. Let me quote some parts from the document, so that our readers understand better its mixed or ambiguous understanding of the Church.

“Therefore, the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.(para. 20, chapter III)

But the quotation doesn’t go well with other parts of the document as follows:

Therefore, the chosen People of God is one: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”; sharing a common dignity as members from their regeneration in Christ, having the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection; possessing in common one salvation, one hope and one undivided charity. There is, therefore, in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus”.(para.32, Chapter IV)

They look different, rather seem to conflict each other. Unlike Lumen Gentium, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) says only one Church which “serves the world.”

Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served (para.3, preface)

As we have seen above, there are various descriptions or definitions of the Church in the documents. Such diverse models of the Church may make Catholic faithfuls confused when they come to choosing a “right” model. I wouldn’t say such various interpretations and models themselves in the documents are a problem but we need here to have a principle or keyword with which we can judge appropriate model of the Church responding properly to the rapidly changing world. It is, I believe, the Church serving people and the world, clearly mentioned in Gaudium et Spes as such. Then, the thing is whether or not we have such kind of Catholic community as Church in Asia and the world. Even if we have such model, it should be an egalitarian and real participatory Church, not a hierarchical institution which dominates over nearly all Catholic Churches in the world in the present age.

In order to be the participatory and egalitarian Church, prudent and sincere pioneers including Catholics have explored a new way of being Church in Latin America and Asian since 1970s. The so-called Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) or Small Christian Communities (SCCs) are the ones. The two kinds of community are different from each other in terms of their practices. Here I would like to limit myself to giving my humble recommendation to the latter, SCCs, which the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) introduced in Asia in early 1990s. It would be better for the FABC-OL (Office of Laity)-led movement to have more interest in changing Church’s “undemocratic structure” to be more egalitarian one, which we will see in two articles on Infanta Christian community in this journal. Or at least I would like FABC-OL to have more concern about changing decision-making processes monopolized by clergies in a parish, a diocese and even in the whole Church levels.

I am hearing a good news from the United States where laypeople have held “lay synods.” Since Canon law doesn’t allow them to have any “synod” themselves, they rather call it “Lay Convocation.” In it, they talk about sharing leadership monopolized by clergy in parish and diocesan levels and the participation of laypeople, especially women in decision-making process on the levels. That is exactly what we, CATS, have sought so far. The lay synod movement was already held in 6 different parts of the United States, and is planning to be held in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and two in Wisconsin. You can see more informations about it in the following website: We send our sincere congratulation and solidarity to them. We strongly believe that the real egalitarian and participatory Church is possible as long as laypeople are awakened and seek to renewal the Church in a very concrete manner through nonviolent ways.

Journal <Theology & Solidarity> Vol.2  2007