Ban Against Missionaries From Becoming Bishops

Anthony Zimmerman
Letter to His Eminence, Franjo Cardinal Seper
Prefect, Sac. Cong. for the Doctrine of the Faith
August 1980
Reproduced with Permission

Your Eminence:

Greetings in the Lord. You will remember that I left a copy of my letter to the Pope with you in which I suggest that the most effective missionary work the Pope might do for Japan would be to lift the ban which now prevents foreign missionaries from becoming Bishops in Japan. I think this is an enormously important problem for the Church in Japan, and wish to explain my opinion to you more precisely, if you don't mind. Since some people speak now of a supposed "right" of natives to control the work of evangelization, I think this problem belongs to your Congregation.

When I visited you on October 25th, with Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, I gave two reasons for the opinion that the majority of the Hierarchy in Japan should be missionaries at the present time, when Catholics constitute only 0.3% of the 117,000,000 people. Reason 1: missionaries in the Hierarchy would, hopefully, strengthen the work of evangelization among the non-Christians. Reason 2: The purity of Catholicism would be protected better if foreign missionaries were now allowed to serve as members of the hierarchy.


"Nemo propheta in patria sua" has subtle meanings also for Japan. Missionary work, evangelization, is a special profession, an art, a trade, a charism. When the Gospel is preached to people of a non-Christian culture, many listeners are more willing to hear the Gospel from a person who is not a member of their culture; and preachers of the Gospel who are not part of the local culture are less inhibited, less conditioned by the non-Christian culture in their preaching, than natives tend to be. For example, I would be terribly inhibited from trying to make converts through aggressive preaching in my own hometown in Westphalia Iowa. Who would listen to me, since the people know my father and mother, brothers and sisters, how human we all are? My relatives would be distressed because preaching could cause divisions, enmities. Better to leave things in peace, better not to "rock the boat. " So in our homeland, our ministry is mostly to our fellow Catholics, and our convert classes are largely people brought in by the Catholic believers who are their friends; and persons who intend to marry a Catholic. Just as Christ was thrown out of His native town of Nazareth, and as Christ had to say "Nemo propheta acceptus est in patria sua" (Lk 4,21), so also a native born person cannot easily become a prophet, a first preacher of the Gospel, among people with whom he is very familiar.

Now, a very special characteristic of the Japanese people is that the whole nation is, in a sense, a village, a closely knit people, Iike the citizens of Nazareth. This is an island population, a very closely knit social family, a society in which everyone is conditioned to conform to the customs and beliefs of the group. To be a good Japanese means to go along with the group, not to try to go your own way. When parents educate their children, and when teachers in school train characters, the stress is on conformity with the group, not on independent decision making, not on following one's own judgment and conscience. The small Christian community in Japan, then, tends to become a little island unto itself, snug and safe within its sub-community, but not minded to preach the Gospel to members outside of this group; preaching to them is a kind of divisive activity, an un-Japanese way of behaving.

Foreign missionaries who live here a long time gradually succumb to the same tendency to some extent; but as a whole, foreigners are less inhibited by the strong compulsion not to disturb group behavior, than are natives.

For the same reason, listeners are not so easily offended when a foreigner preaches the Gospel, as when a native does so. Parents seem to be quite willing to send their children to the foreign missionary to learn a language, to learn a foreign culture, even a foreign religion; but they seem to be less willing to send children to another native to learn a "foreign" religion. New communities are built more easily by foreign missionaries than by native priests.

There may even be more subtle reasons why Japanese parents entrust their children - and themselves - more easily to the religious guidance of a foreign missionary than to a native, at least in many cases. It is the strong desire to be sure that what they learn is genuine, is the true article, not an imitation of the real thing. They fear, to some extent, that the product may be "Japanized" if presented by a native. We see this in other areas: they want foreign baseball players on their professional teams, Americans, because they want the real article. They invite foreign conductors of orchestras to conduct their concerts; they study music and arts abroad, consult foreign texts. So also, if a Japanese wants to learn Catholicism, he wants to be sure - in many cases - that it is universal Catholicism, with the Vatican stamp, one which is valid intrinsically. They are more trustful if a missionary tells it to them - in many cases - then it is a native who knows little about the Church outside of Japan.

Just last night on television, Mr. Kahn predicted that the Japanese people would be the most travelled people in the world in the future. That is, more of them will visit foreign countries in the future Japan.wil1 be the greatest tourist nation of the world. It is another reason why they should wish to have the "genuine" Catholic Church here rather than a Japanized version; consequently why they would tend to trust the foreign preacher over a native in many cases. Namely, they want the same Church in Japan as they meet abroad.

Millions of Japanese know much about the Church abroad, its music, its art, its history, its people. These same millions know practically nothing about the tiny body of Catholics in Japan, who are hidden in a kind of cocoon. And that brings me to reason number 2; namely the tendency to become too isolated from the universal Church if the total hierarchy in Japan remains a monopoly of natives only. And with isolation comes the tendency to change and adapt the doctrine and practices to Japanese style.

Adaptation in Regard to Birth Control

In 1948 the National Diet passed the Eugenic Protection which makes it legal to terminate pregnancies before the fetus is viable, by a licensed gynecologist, for reasons of physical health or. economic hardship. It is the law of the land; if a non-licensed physician does it, it is a crime. But if a duly licensed physician does it, it is an accepted procedure.

The mass media warned the nation about overpopulation, and the patriotic duty to practice birth control. (A mother of four children came to me, with tears, asking whether she had sinned against society by having the four children against instructions.) Surveys indicate that two out of three families experience at least one abortion. Among couples with four children, at least 80% have at least one abortion. And 80% of those trying to practice birth control use the condom.

The Bishops Conference has not brought out a statement against abortion, nor against contraception. Several times they tried, but the Conference did not adopt nor promulgate a joint statement against even abortion. But several years ago, when an attempt to pass such a statement failed again, the Conference adopted a policy that individual Bishops may issue statements against abortion in their own dioceses. Cardinal Satowaki did so, and some of the Bishops - not all - circulated his statement in their own diocese. It was a onetime affair. As a whole, the Bishops remain silent.

The CATHOLIC NEWSPAPER reports papal statements against abortion and contraception; but there are no episcopal statements to back up the Pope in these reports. In the minds of many Catholics, I am sure, this state of affairs means that the Bishops do not apply to Japan the papal prohibition against abortion and contraception. Japan is, for them in a special situation. Laws which are valid elsewhere can become known to the people, but the Bishops - so many think - realize that these laws cannot be applied in Japan. Among them the prohibition against abortion and contraception. And so the Catholics of Japan, who number barely 400,000, are to a large extent swept into the national vice of abortion and contraception, without receiving much guidance. The birth rate of the nation is kept low by these practices, but - surprisingly - the rate of infant baptisms for Catholics is even lower than the national birth rate.

Year Infant Baptisms per 1000 Catholics

National birth rate per 1000 citizens

1975 14.4 17.1
1976 13.8 16.3
1977 12.9 15.5
1978 12.8 14.9
1979 12.1 14.3

Do Catholic families experience abortion? I think that Catholic mothers feel it is a duty imposed on them. A midwife was conducting a survey in one town, largely Catholic, and preliminary indications showed that the young mothers there had many abortions. But a local pastor heard about the survey and prevailed upon her to stop the survey and not to let this become known.

It is my opinion, your Eminence, that part of the Catholic Hierarchy of Japan acts, and even thinks, too much like a "good Japanese should" in regard to abortion and contraception. A good Japanese does not disturb the social order, is willing to abide by the law, is willing to cooperate with a practice which seems necessary for the aims proposed by the nation. The Hierarchy - salva reverentia - is strongly conditioned to this because of its Japanese upbringing. The tiny Catholic community should live at peace in the nation; that is a strong tendency.

But if the Hierarchy were at least half foreign, the Japanese inhibitions would not work so effectively. The pure doctrine of the Church would be preached more openly, without regard for local sensibilities and consequences. For this reason, so long as the Catholic population is such a tiny and negligible minority in Japan, its leaders should be to a large extent missionaries from outside who will be more minded to preach the doctrine in its purity, because inhibitions are not felt so strongly by foreign missionaries.

The change should not be delayed too long. As the above statistics indicate, the Catholic infant baptism rate is lower than the national birth rate. If we add to the infant baptism rate the adult baptism rate (4,744 adult baptisms in 1979) the total is 24 new Catholics per 1000 in the past year. I think that may not be enough to set off the Catholic death rate and loss by attrition, so that the actual tiny body of Catholics in Japan is gradually shrinking in reality. It is time that we get a strong assist from outside. I think that a mixing of the Hierarchy between natives and foreigners would help.

"MADE IN JAPAN" CHRISTIANITY There are many Christians in Japan who call themselves "Mukyokai" Christians, that is, they do not adhere to an organized Christianity. But they may pray, read the bible, etc. And there is some tendency among some Catholics to be Catholics "Japanese style" As a priest leader said to Christians in Nagoya several months ago, the Christians in Japan should not concern themselves about Rome. Rome cannot possibly know Japanese conditions. Japanese Christians must read the bible and learn from there what to do. Doctrine is not so important. They must practice charity as is indicated in the bible. This priest is a leader, working at the Pastoral Center in Tokyo, lecturing to Christians in various parts of Japan. He makes a fine impression on people.

Priests in Japan feel very much frustrated at the lack of progress; they seek a cause. One that is often mentioned is that the Church is still too foreign; it must become more Japanese in style before people will accept it. Whereas Japanese non-Christians may seek a more universal Church, some priests do not.

One of our priests, thinking also in this line, advised fellow Japanese priests not to preach against abortion and contraception, lest our small body of Christians become discouraged.

As Morals Professor of our Major Seminary, I have asked students standing for their final examination before the subdiaconate the trick question about allowing abortion if the intentions of the mother were only good; inevitably I would get the answer - except from a very few - that if the mother had good intentions, he would allow the abortion.

The "Japanization" of the Church is good, of course, but up to a point. It is my opinion that the universality of the Church cannot be preserved easily in Japan if the administration is so totally in the hands of natives only, some of whom are rather recent converts themselves.

"Exclusively Native Rights" to Evangelize

"The natives have the right to evangelize their own; foreign missionaries are guests among the natives, and receive only so much right as the natives delegate to them." That is the burden of the message which retreat masters in a missionary community gave to the confreres.

Is this view in accord with the Gospel that we received from Christ? Or is it an innovation of pseudo-missionaries, pseudo-theologians, pseudo-sociologists of today? I fear that this way of thinking is prevalent now in our missionary Society. Also policies are based on this. It is destroying the missionary spirit in our home seminaries. But that is the "in" doctrine now.

Therefore, only natives should become Bishops; therefore only natives should become Provincials, Superiors. And so, in the case of Japan, a very small group of natives is invested with almost absolute rights in regard to evangelization.

My Superior told me flatly that the natives have the exclusive rights to determine about works of evangelization; a right which is derived, it seems, from the birth pedigree, not from office.

Such a pseudo-Gospel, such a foolish belief, is sanctioned, to a certain extent, I believe, when the Vatican makes it a de jure practice to consecrate only natives as Bishops in Japan. Foreign missionaries become second class priests and missionaries, with derived rights only. Their effectiveness is weakened; and one after another, they are invited to leave the land, or to retire. Foreigners are more of a burden than a help to native Bishops and Superiors. Native Bishops and Superiors do not try hard - if at all - to gain new missionaries for Japan. And so the tiny body of Catholics in Japan begins to shrink, and to be overgrown with the secularist spirit of the land.


I believe that it would be better for Japan if a majority of the Bishops would be foreigners during this present time, when Catholics constitute only 0.3% of the large population. And this should remain the policy in force until 10-15% of Japan is Catholic. Dixi. Humbly yours in Christ,

Copy: Gaspari, Pro-Nuncio

Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, SVD