Social science research can replace no-longer-effective answers to no-longer-existing problems
The Gospels contain quotes attributed to Jesus that do not always agree with each other.
Sometimes the differences are insignificant, a matter of wording. In other cases, the versions radically differ from one another. In yet other cases, the evidence is strong that a saying is not what scholars call ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, but a later invention or version produced by the Church.
That is not unique to Jesus. I recently read quotes attributed to Albert Einstein. They do not always agree with each other; there are different versions of the same idea. Sometimes the differences are insignificant. In other cases, a saying may not be ipsissima verba.
In any case, three quotes attributed to Einstein, whether actually his words or not, provide useful commentary on the situation of the Church in Asia today.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The Church is in decline in much of the world. The Church of which I am a member, the Catholic Church in Japan, is in many ways a miniature version of that phenomenon.
Less visible was the moral and emotional devastation of people who realized that they had given their hearts, souls and bodies to an ideology that made them both perpetrators and victims of death, destruction and injustice
Congregations are aging and shrinking. The children and grandchildren of white-haired parishioners have nothing to do with the Church except when they come to funerals. Local clergy are so scarce that for the first time in nearly a century foreigners are being appointed as bishops.
The situation 75 years ago was different. At the end of World War II, Japan had nothing. Bombings had destroyed most cities. Food and medicine were scarce. War orphans turned to crime to survive.
Less visible was the moral and emotional devastation of people who realized that they had given their hearts, souls and bodies to an ideology that made them both perpetrators and victims of death, destruction and injustice. The impossible had happened: Japan lost.
An influx of foreign clergy and religious helped rebuild education, health care and social welfare. More importantly, they and the small Japanese Christian community offered what was most needed: hope.
The explosive growth of the Catholic Church in Japan followed, led by youth for whom the Church answered their and society’s needs. Many of those young men and women became clergy and religious.
Now, three-quarters of a century has passed and those young Christians have passed from the graying through the whiting to the dying stage of life. Congregations are shrinking. Seminaries and novitiates contain more dust than aspirants.
What happened? Or, rather, what did not happen?
The simple answer is that the Catholic Church in Japan is trapped in the 1940s. Institutions and activities that answered real needs then continue to exist even though no longer needed. We do the same things over and over, hoping to draw new blood to the geriatric Church.
That insanity is not specifically Japanese. The Catholic Church throughout Asia is insane, propping up institutions and systems that serve no useful or effective function for the Church’s mission in the second millennium.
We rightly look to Scripture, theology, history, and tradition to know the Church. However, we are crippled by the lack of a whole realm of wisdom that the social sciences, especially sociology and psychology, could offer
That brings us to the second quote attributed to Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
After World War II, the problems were obvious. Today once again the needs are obvious to those willing to look: climate change, disease, the wealth gap, authoritarian regimes, anti-intellectualism, refugees, war, societal polarization and more.
However, our commitments to answering long-past needs override a response.
Though the problems are obvious, it is not so clear who we, the People of God called to bring the Good News to confront, overcome and heal the bad news of our time, are.
Who are the Catholics entrusted with the vocation to evangelize the world of the 2020s? We know our hair is whitening, but what is under it? What are our attitudes, our aptitudes, our hopes, our fears? We do not know.
Why do we continue in the Church? What is in the minds and hearts of those who have left or never approached the Church? We do not know.
There is a way to start understanding our situation in Asia: the social sciences. We rightly look to Scripture, theology, history, and tradition to know the Church. However, we are crippled by the lack of a whole realm of wisdom that the social sciences, especially sociology and psychology, could offer.
The Church in Asia needs professional research on every aspect of our life as a community and as individual believers. We cannot rely upon anecdotal “insights” from amateurs with limited experience, unexamined prejudices, and fear that the social sciences may uncover things we would rather not see, things that might challenge our self-understanding or force us to rethink cherished prejudices and projects.
Asian churches must call upon the expertise of social scientists to help us better understand who we are and what we can and must do.
What Einstein said (or may have said) of scientists is true of the Church, too: “For a scientist, altering your doctrines when the facts change is not a sign of weakness.”
We must be strong enough to get the facts.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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