Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church

Author: Thomas Hong-Soon Han

Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church

Thomas Hong-Soon Han 

Moral challenges and the Church in Asia today

Overview of major moral challenges

The Asian Continent is home to nearly two thirds of the world's population with their different cultures, religions, social structures and political systems. It is a Continent of sheer contrasts.

While there has been enormous economic and technological progress, there still exist situations of extreme poverty and injustice. Most of the developing countries in Asia are evaluated as least democratic in terms of public sector corruption, respect for human and political rights and freedom of speech.1

• Violation of the right to life

One of the more serious moral issues facing Asia today is the violation of the right to life of the unborn child. It has been committed in pursuit of a better material life.

According to one estimate, of approximately 46 million abortions annually performed worldwide, 59 percent, that is, 27 million abortions, are carried out in Asia.

With the advent of prenatal diagnosis to determine the gender of the foetus, abortion has been focused on the female baby, due to a preference for boys over girls that many male-dominated societies have. In fact, sex-selective abortion has become common in some areas, such as East and South Asia, especially China, India and Korea. It is evidenced by rising sex ratios at birth, which means that gender discrimination is increasingly extended before birth. "This is high-tech sexism".2

Victims of gender discrimination both before and after birth, the so-called "missing women", number more than 100 million, according to an estimate based on the benchmark gender ratio of women to men (1.05)3 In China alone they number 50 million, due to its "one child" policy. Thus, abortion, an abominable crime committed against the defenceless human person, is linked with gender discrimination as well.

The Asian people live in countries where abortion is legal if pregnancy endangers a woman's life, and three-fourths of the countries in Asia permit abortions to protect a woman's physical and mental health. Abortion is legal virtually for every plausible reason in China, India, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Cambodia, Mongolia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

However, regardless of the legal status, abortions are performed at any cost. Abortion, "a new Holocaust", continues to be one of the great modern tragedies. Abortion laws that exist in many countries are clearly in conflict with the law of God.

Another form of the violation of the right to life is human embryonic stem-cell research, which is condemned as killing the embryo that has to be regarded as a human person entitled to all the rights of any human being. When a South Korean scientist named Dr. Hwang claimed in May 2005 to have extracted stem cells from cloned human embryos for the first time in the world, he was immediately considered as a national hero. Some observers called this research result a breakthrough, hailing it even as worthy of a Nobel Prize.

But it is clear that this kind of research is equivalent to abortion. Although it turned out later that he had falsified scientific data, not a few people still take the side of Dr. Hwang.

• Violation of religious freedom

Another serious moral issue facing Asia today is that the vast majority of the people in Asia are not allowed the right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom. In fact, in some countries freedom of religion is severely restricted and religious fundamentalism poses many problems for religious minorities, especially for Christians, while in others, Christians are persecuted out-rightly. Many of them are increasingly threatened with their basic security. Not even a day passes that the media do not carry reports of such cases happening in Asia.4

The evidences are shown by ongoing persecution in China and North Korea, as well as persecution in various parts of the Hindu and Islamic states.5 In Pakistan, for example, they constitute a separate electoral college and are subject to the blasphemy law.6 An affront to the Qur'an, Mohammed or Islam, however small, can land any Christian before a court and exposes all Christians to the danger of public vengeance. In Bangladesh, the situation is somewhat similar.

During the first six years of the 21st century, 27 persons (priests, Religious and laity),7 not to mention many more possible "'unknown soldiers' as it were of God's great cause",8 were killed in Asia while engaged in missionary work. Seventeen were killed in India and the rest in Pakistan, Indonesia, Siberia and the Philippines.

• Corruption

A no less serious moral issue facing Asia today is widespread corruption. In many countries corruption is a way of life. For example, "corruption in China has now reached epidemic proportions and few escape the squeeze".9 The situation is somewhat similar in India.10

Corruption, an inevitable consequence of the "structures of sin", has affected different spheres of life, such as political life, the business environment, personal life and family life. Either on the demand or on the supply side, bribery is a fact of public life. While on the supply side a bribe is offered to avoid problems with the Authorities, on the demand side this bribe is tacitly requested or bureaucratic processes deliberately slow to solicit "grease" money.

Anything can be faked, not to mention the top brand products ranging from liquor and medicine to TV sets and computers. The largest market in the world of fake products is in Shanghai, China. Fraudulent diplomas and certificates are sold.11 Counterfeit currencies, sham statistics, often confected by cadres to hide shameful deeds and embarrassing incidents, are not uncommon. Even scientific research results are fabricated, as evidenced in the recent case of Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk in Korea that scandalized the world of science and all people of good will on earth.

In terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index score 12 compiled by Transparency International (TI) for the year 2005 for 159 countries, most Asian countries ranked rather "highly corrupted" with a score ranging between 3.8 and 1.7. For example, China ranked 78th with the score 3.2, India 88th with the score 2.9.13

In the 12 Asian countries surveyed by Gallup International for TI in 2005,14 political parties, parliament/legislature, police, and tax revenue are considered the most corrupt institutions. More than 50 percent of citizens from the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, South Korea and Thailand perceive that corruption affects political life to a larger extent. As political life is closely related with the business environment, more than 50 percent of citizens from the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan feel that business has been adversely affected by corrupted practices.

What has been and is to be done?

In the face of such moral challenges, theological ethicists have made various efforts, first of all, to fight against the "culture of death". They argue that "the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights... and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination".15 For them these efforts represent their desire "to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic 'human ecology'". 16

Emphasis is laid on respect for the dignity of the person, which implies the defence and promotion of human rights. The dignity of the person should be respected in every phase of development from conception until natural death. "The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life".17

All offences against life itself, such as abortion and euthanasia; all offences against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons; all these and the like are certainly criminal: they poison human society; and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator.18

Respect for the dignity of the human person demands the recognition of the religious dimension of the individual, whose relation to God is "a constitutive element of the very 'being' and 'existence' of an individual".19

"Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society, as well as of the personal fulfilment of each individual. It follows that the freedom of individuals and of communities to profess and practise their religion is an essential element for peaceful human coexistence.... The civil and social right to religious freedom, inasmuch as it touches the most intimate sphere of the spirit, is a point of reference for the other fundamental rights and in some way becomes a measure of them".20

Corruption debases and debilitates the human person and society, thereby deteriorating the human ecology. Cause and effect of the corruption is structures of sin, which are characterized by an all-consuming desire for profit and the thirst for power.21 The profusion of fraudulence and chicanery is a millstone around the neck of political modernization.

Corruption also undermines the moral foundation of market economy, which presupposes a basic level of honesty and trustworthiness. Apart from its negative moral aspect, recent empirical evidence attests that corruption lowers economic growth.22 Thus, various forms of corruption contribute to poverty.

In addressing these moral challenges, Catholic theological ethicists have played an important role: announcing Evangelium vitae in their respective local situations while denouncing the injustices and violations of human rights; imparting the Church's social teachings while applying these to their local situations.

They have done so by taking an active part in various organizations, such as the Federation of the Asian Bishops' Conferences, local Bishops' Conferences, various national and diocesan committees including justice and peace committees, various religious congregations and their associations, various lay associations and movements. They have also sought to engage in dialogue and cooperation with the people of other Churches and religions.

Emphasis has been placed on the formation and inspiration of the people, with a view to realizing a social reform.

Social reform in any valuable sense must include reform of institutions as well as the spiritual attitude of the individual. Institution and individual interact with each other. There is urgent need for conversion of the individuals to reform the social structures, which in turn should be reformed to induce them to live a more human life.

Social formation has been given to the seminarians and priests, Religious and laity. Special attention needs to be paid to social formation of the laity. It is their task to animate temporal realities with Christian commitment, by which they show that they are witnesses and agents of the culture of life, justice and peace. There is urgent need for social formation of the lay leaders who are supposed to take part in the decision-making process of the government, business, trade union and other private and public organizations.


• School of the Social Doctrine

A School of the Social Doctrine has been run by the Archdiocese of Seoul, Korea, since 1995. This school offers three levels of courses, each consisting of two-hour sessions per week for 10 weeks.

The first level consists in the study of the Social Encyclicals and Gaudium et Spes; the second level consists in systematic study of the fundamental principles of social doctrine; the third level consists in the practical application to concrete cases in the various fields.

So far about 1,300 Religious and lay faithful participated in the first level, about 600 in the second level; about 300 in the third level.

• Committee for Life

While Dr. Hwang's embryonic stem-cell research result was hailed as a "revolution" in May 2005 and gained massive financial support from the government, the Bishops in Korea publicly criticized it, pointing out that it is definitely anti-life.

Later, the Seoul Archdiocese established the "Committee for Life" in October 2005. The purpose of this committee is to promote adult stem-cell research as the alternative to embryonic stem-cell research and thus spread the Gospel of life. This committee will raise the "Fund for the Mystery of Life" of 10 billion won (about $US 10 million) in order to support research into the use of adult stem cells instead of embryonic stem-cells to treat several serious diseases. All the faithful of the Diocese will join in the contribution with 100 won (about 10 cents) a day to this Fund, which will serve as a kind of matching fund to induce the contribution from non-Catholic sources as well.

To encourage such research, this committee will also award an annual "Mystery of Life Prize" to the one who has achieved brilliant achievements in adult stem-cell research, starting this year. The award will comprise 300 million won (about $US 300,000).

Formation must lead to action, which is needed to reform society.

Examples include: the Church in Korea which has conducted an anti-abortion signature campaign and an anti-death penalty signature campaign in close cooperation with the people of other Churches and religions.

The Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea, in addition to actively joining in these campaigns, has conducted its own campaigns in the society, such as the "mea culpa" campaign, "Buy-Korean" campaign, "act properly" campaign, "beautiful family, beautiful society" campaign, and so forth.

• International solidarity

Since most social matters have a worldwide dimension in this era of globalization, action for social reform requires the participation of all people of good will on the globe. Some matters especially require solidarity of the international community. The above-mentioned organizations have pursued an international alliance as well, either on the Asian level or on the global level.

Hopes for the future

Since Catholics are a tiny minority in Asia, one may legitimately ask: Could we effectively address those moral challenges? Could we realize the social reform?

In reply to this query, there are solid reasons to feel that we may be optimistic. Some may be prejudiced against our ideas in view of their source, but those ideas, if only properly presented, must carry a considerable appeal on the basis of their intrinsic value.

Moreover, many Catholics have given heroic witness to the Gospel even in a life of suffering and in martyrdom. "[T]he Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency" 23 We are profoundly grateful for this example and this gift.

We must join in action organizations, or establish them if necessary, and work together with all people of good will regardless of their religious adherence. The true Christian seeks to be positive, never confining his or her concern to only denounce the world's evils.

The true Christian seeks to be positive and active. Confronted with evils, he or she looks for causes and solutions, and not merely occasions to criticize. If some obstacle is found in the way toward reform, the Christian is not discouraged but explores other ways. He or she expects failures and yet keeps trying, while "[being] constant in trials, joyfully accepted, and to pray with trust to obtain from God the gift of wisdom, thanks to which we succeed in understanding that the true values of life are not to be found in transient riches".24



1 World Audit, World Democracy, Table, October 2005. The World Audit is a London-based non-profit organization. It has looked at 150 States with a population of at least 1 million people and ranked them in its Democracy Table by combining different variables such as public sector corruption, respect for human and political rights and freedom of speech. We find North Korea in the 82nd position, China in the 128th, Vietnam in the 138th, and last (in the list) and least democratic is Myanmar (149th).

2 A. Sen, "Many Faces of Gender Inequality", The Frontline, 27 October 2001.

3 A. Sen, "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing", New York Review of Books, vol. 37, n. 20, 20 December 1990, 61-66.

4 Cf.; and also

5 It is not only Hindus in India who react violently when some of their people are converted. In the mostly animist region of Assam, converts are often ostracized and forbidden to use the village wells or graze their cattle on common grounds. Their own relatives may disown them. It is no surprise that matters sometimes go further. In the 1990s, three new Catholics were martyred in that region alone.

6 The blasphemy law was introduced in Pakistan in 1986 and provides for the death of those who are accused of offending the prophet Mohammed. However, the law is abused in order to eliminate one's enemies or to seize the property of the accused. From 1986 to 2004, more than 4,000 cases of blasphemy were reported. Of these, 560 people were charged, another 30 are awaiting judgment. But meanwhile, dozens of Christians have been killed for defaming Islam. Very often, Islamic extremists try to kill the accused out of religious fanaticism before the person is tried. Threats and killings are also meted out to judges who appear impartial. Cf., 15 May 2006.

7Agenzia Fides. According to this Fides News Service, during the period 2000-05, 162 persons were killed while engaged in missionary work all over the world.

8 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, n. 37.

9 John Naisbitt, Megatrends Asia, London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1997, p. 163.

10 Cf. ibid.

11 According to a report by CNN, in China, Guangdong's Department recently found at least one-sixth of certificates circulating in the province were bogus. Cf. —China: On the brink of a moral crisis?— 14 August 2001. The Administrative Vice-Principal of the Communist Leadership Academy in Hainan Province was suspected of making money by selling 6,000 fraudulent diplomas. Cf. The Epoch Times, 23 June 2004.

12 It relates to the perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by business people and country analysts and ranges between 10 (highly clean) and 0 (highly corrupt).

13 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of Asian Countries 2005:

Country/Rank/2005 CPI score

Singapore 5: 9.4; Hong Kong 15: 8.3; Japan 21: 7.3; Taiwan 32: 5.9; Malaysia 39: 5.1; South Korea 40: 5.0; Thailand 59: 3.8; Laos 77: 3.3; Sri Lanka 78: 3.2; China 78: 3.2; Mongolia 85: 3.0; India 88: 2.9; Vietnam 107: 2.6; Philippines 117: 2.5; Afghanistan 117: 2.5; Cambodia 130: 2.3; Indonesia 137: 2.2; Pakistan 144: 2.1; Myanmar 155: 1.8; Bangladesh 158: 1.7.

Source: Transparency International, 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

14 Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer 2005, which is a worldwide public opinion survey conducted with about 55,000 people in 69 countries in 2005, including 12 Asian countries such as Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

15 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, n. 38.

16 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, n. 38.

17Christifideles Laici, n. 38.

18 Cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, n. 27.

19 Christifideles Laici, n. 39.

20 John Paul II, Message for World Day of Peace, "Religious Freedom: Condition for Peace", 1 January 1988.

21 Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 37.

22 Cf. Paolo Mauro, "The Effects of Corruption on Growth, Investment and Government Expenditure: A Cross-Country Analysis", in Kimberly Ann Elliott, Ed., Corruption and the Global Economy, Washington, D.C., Institute for International Economics, 1997.

23Centesimus Annus, n. 57.

24 Benedict XVI, General Audience, 28 June 2006.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2007, page 7

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