July 17, Bangalore: The Opening of the First Ever Pan Asian Conference of Catholic Theological Ethicists

Later today we open, here at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, a conference with a lot of intentionality, Doing Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Asian Context.

Last night, as a group of us were returning from dinner, we walked into a young Filipina ethicist, Anthonette Mendoza, who flew 12 hours from her university, Louvain, to get here.  Another, Kristin Heyer, one of the leaders of our Planning Committee, had just flown from California to Dallas to Boston to Frankfurt to Bangalore to get here.  As we were returning to the university Guest house where 45 of the 90 guests are staying, we ran into Vimal Tirimanna who had just flown in from Sri Lanka and Bernhard Kieser from Indonesia.

This conference is the brain child of Lúcás Chan, the Jesuit ethicist from Hong Kong who met Shaji George Kochuthara the Indian Carmelite ethicist at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, three years ago.  The two began planning immediately.  They recruited Agnes Brazal from the Philippines, Sharon Bong from Malaysia, and Robert Gascoigne from Australia.  With them they developed a network of consultation and collaboration.

A pioneer in the field of Asian Catholic Theological ethics, Chan, who died of a heart attack on May 19th, had contended from the beginning that the meeting in Asia should engage Cross Cultural and Interreligious Dialogue.   As we start this evening, there are 14 speakers at plenary sessions, 36 at concurrent sessions, along with 2 cardinals and 3 archbishops and bishops joining us in discourse and prayer.

A meeting in Asia brings with it the uniqueness of each country.   For instance, India has 33 participants coming.   Remarkably with only 2.3% of the country as Christian, India with over 140 trained moralists is among the world’s 5 leading countries in the field (with US, Germany, Italy, and Brazil).   Their relations with Hindus and Muslims along with their challenges concerning poverty, medical tourism, and sexual assault will all be discussed.  The Filipinos are the second largest group.  Having been beaten by centennial typhoons, they bring an attentiveness about the environment and the use of resources.

There are also people coming from countries where they are either the singular moralist, like Mary Yuen from Hong Kong or Maurice Nyunt from Myanmar, or among a handful as in Thailand, Taipei, Sri Lanka, or Japan.  Other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Australia have significant representation, but Chan and Kochuthara, notable bridge-builders in the field of ethics, have set up a conference that allows 33 Indians to listen to a lay woman from Japan or Hong Kong while realizing that matters like religious diversity, gross economic inequality and environmental degradation are concerns that unite, rather than alienate.

There are great expectations that this meeting will give Asian theologians a stronger identity, voice and presence in the church, as they promote dialogue across religious and culturally diverse communities.  As you look at the roster of participants, from young new theological ethicists to major leaders in the field, the mix for advancing this agenda is here in Bangalore.

Women, for instance, are very present.  Yet, almost all the women from India are religious, while most other women ethicists here are from the laity.  Regardless of that divide, the experiences of lay women in the Philippines are enormously different from those in contemporary Japan or Malaysia.  Thus the opportunity to be connected through the on-going network of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church, the sponsor of this conference, is very compelling.   We are looking forward to the dialogue, to the sharing, to the being informed.

Finally the campus is so beautiful, so filled with life that it serves as a fitting backdrop for a meeting about an emerging church, made up of very diverse theologians, struggling to get connected through a network mindful of a global church.  When Kochuthara and Chan met 3 years ago, both in their mid forties, they knew then what we know now, that the time to build the network needs to be done as soon as possible.

And so we look forward to today with assurances of hope.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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