Japanese Catholics, less than one percent of the country’s population, are challenged to try to live the faith in a nonreligious society, the nation’s bishops said.
In their published response to the Vatican survey for the extraordinary synod of bishops on the family this autumn, the bishops said most Japanese Christians end up marrying non-Christians, which affects how many of them receive the sacrament of marriage, attend Mass or baptise their children. This even affects prayer life, they said: “Because homes where the whole family is Catholic are few, rather than praying as a family, it is more common to pray as individuals.”
In the context of marriages of mixed religions, the bishops said, “we must ask what a Christian household and family mean.”
“Generally speaking, the transmission of faith to the next generation is difficult,” the bishops said. “Japanese society does not support expressions of faith commitment, and some young people increasingly perceive the church as a club of the elderly.”
In a 15-page document published on the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan, the bishops said that “Christian family life is being overwhelmed by society’s values.”
Though children may grow up in a Christian household, they said, “the values they acquire are those of society. Made to dance to the tune of a society that emphasises study for the sake of fitting in economically, and desiring to not become social outcasts, young people have no leeway to nurture a vocation. This is the greatest crisis for faith that arises in homes.”
Last October, Pope Francis called for an extraordinary synod on the family to be held from October 5-19. In preparation for the synod, its secretary-general, Cardinal-designate Lorenzo Baldisseri, sent bishops’ conferences a document that included a 39-item questionnaire asking about the promotion and acceptance of Catholic teachings on marriage and the family, and cultural and social challenges to those teachings. It asks about divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, same-sex unions and contraception.
The Japanese bishops said that, because of the short turnaround time needed to answer the survey, they sought responses from the bishops and major superiors of religious men and women. Those responses were sent to lay and clerical experts for comment.
The bishops said most Japanese Catholics had not heard of Church teachings on the family and “are either indifferent to or unaware of the teaching of the church” on responsible parenthood.
Civic education teaches that sex and procreation are separate, the bishops said, and “women desire more options than just motherhood.”
“Most Catholics in Japan have not heard of ‘Humanae Vitae,’” the bishops said, referring to the 1968 papal encyclical on married love and procreation. “If they have, they probably do not make it an important part of their lives. Social and cultural values as well as financial considerations are more important.”
The bishops said “there seems to not be much of a sense of guilt regarding contraception,” and although there are some attempts to teach natural family planning, “few people know about it.”
“For the most part, the Church in Japan is not obsessed with sexual matters,” the bishops said.
Several times throughout the document, the bishops mentioned the challenges of ministering to migrants. Although only about 440,000 Japanese are Catholics, almost a million Catholics live in Japan.
The bishops said priestly formation needed to include learning a second language to provide pastoral care to these migrants.
Like Japanese, almost all Catholic migrants marry non-Christians. In some cases, the bishops said, migrants who have a spouse and family at home start a second family in Japan. In both cases, it is rare for these migrants to seek church marriages, although the parish tries to serve as an oasis for them, “accepting them without judgment and trying to support them to live Christian lives in the midst of everyday challenging realities.”
“They have a strong Catholic identity even though the church may not approve of their situation,” the bishops said.
Because Japan’s civil code allows divorce and Christians are a small minority, it is often difficult for a Catholic member of a divorce to get cooperation from a non-Christian for an annulment, said the bishops, who called a simplified procedure for annulment “not only needed” but “essential.”
They also said many people are calling for simplified procedures to make dealing with divorced and remarried people more pastoral.
“Of course, Rome takes as its starting point the marriage of two Catholics and, therefore, these procedures make sense,” the bishops said. “However, these procedures and principles are not applicable in the case of a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic.”
“Simplification of the legal proceedings will be the salvation of those who are suffering,” the bishops said.