Opinion & Features

What to expect from Pope Francis’s trip to Thailand and Japan


The papal visit to Thailand and Japan will give Pope Francis the chance to address five key themes of his social teaching, and two general questions about his pontificate.

The five key themes are human trafficking, nuclear weapons, sustainable energy, solidarity between generations and immigration. The two general questions are missionary activity and the Pope’s relations with the United States.

Thailand is one of the world centres for sex slavery and human trafficking. The issue has become quite prominent in the Holy See’s international diplomacy in recent years, and in Thailand Pope Francis will be able to draw attention to what is an international scourge.

Human trafficking has become a diplomatic priority in part because it allows the Holy See to cooperate with governments which otherwise it would be at odds with; for example, during the pro-abortion Obama administration, human trafficking was an area of joint cooperation.

Trafficking is also related to the issue of migrants and refugees in dangerous situations, an issue very close to the pope’s heart. Many of those who suffer or die on the Mediterranean or on a trek northward from Central America toward the US are victims of traffickers, albeit for the purposes of immigration rather than sexual slavery.

The nuclear question will be central in Japan, both in terms of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Pope Francis has made his view clear that the use of nuclear weapons is immoral, which is unremarkable in that indiscriminate mass killing violates traditional Catholic Just War principles. He has also pronounced that total elimination of nuclear weapons, even those held for deterrence purposes, is a “moral imperative”. Given the Holy Father’s frequent condemnation of the manufacture of conventional armaments, it follows that he may regard nuclear armaments as something immoral in themselves. Whether he states it that frankly in Japan will be worth watching.

Nuclear energy is a more complicated issue. After the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Japanese bishops called for the elimination of nuclear energy. However, nuclear power is “clean” energy, at least in terms of carbon emissions. For example, France, home of the Paris climate accord highly prized by Pope Francis, heavily relies on nuclear energy. Replacing nuclear energy with wind or solar or hydroelectric power is not feasible; the alternative would be greater use of fossil fuels. What might the Holy Father say about nuclear energy in light of his priority in fighting climate change?

Japan is the world’s leading demographic disaster, with China following closely behind. Japan has had too few children for several generations and has the world’s highest proportion of elderly citizens. So few are the young that the elderly are increasingly neglected. There is an entire industry dedicated to “lonely deaths” – crews that arrive to deal with the putrefying corpses of those who have died alone in their apartments and languished there for weeks or months, because no one has missed them at all.

There is perhaps no place on earth where a favoured theme of Pope Francis, solidarity between the generations, is less practiced than in Japan, as a lack of generativity had meant that there are simply too few in the younger generations to look after, or even pay attention to, the elderly. The older generation, for its part, has cared so little for future generations that it did not bother to have them. What will the Holy Father say about that?

Japan, for all practical purposes, does not have immigration. It’s not alone in that – the Gulf states allow foreign workers, but not immigration. Pope Francis did not emphasise his passion for welcoming immigrants when he was in the United Arab Emirates. Will he do so in Japan, which needs immigrants but does not want them in order to protect the homogeneity of Japanese language and culture?

Two other key issues will arise in Japan. How will Pope Francis speak about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when he visits both places? Questioning the necessity or morality of that decision is still a very delicate issue in the US. Given the view at senior levels of the Vatican that Americans have a problem with Francis, and the reciprocal view that the Pope has a problem with Americans, the treatment of those Second World War questions could be a point of sharp conflict.

Finally, Pope Francis famously desired to be a missionary in Japan as young man. In the aftermath of the Amazon synod, which downplayed the missionary imperative in favour of an encounter between cultures, what will the Holy Father say in Japan? How will he treat the fierce and heroic loyalty of Japan’s “hidden Christians” in the face of centuries of persecution renowned for its cruelty?

Those hidden Christians preserved their faith by tenaciously holding to the traditions taught to them by the missionaries – priestly celibacy especially prized among them. The logic of the Amazon synod – that the Church must modify her message where the mission is difficult – does not comport with Japanese Catholic history.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca