A problem of semantics

During the last sessions of the Genesis course that I followed in the Anglican Church in Hong Kong (a course undertaken by people that want to be baptized as an Anglican), I finally told my groupmates that I was born and raised as a Catholic, and still feel most at home in the Catholic Church. The discussion that followed was on the Virgin Mary, and whether being a Catholic means worshipping Mary instead of Christ.

Last Sunday, I went to interview two men in their late 20s in one of the offices attached to the Catholic church they are attending every Sunday. Amongst other things, we got to talk about Mary, and the men made me realize that the question “Do Catholics worship Mary instead of Christ?” is not a question of ignorance or lack of knowledge (as I assumed earlier), but a problem of semantics.

In the West, ‘Christianity’ is a term that encompasses all Christian denominations: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism. In China, however, there is a clear distinction between ‘Christianity’ and ‘Catholicism’. Catholicism is not a form of Christianity – it is an entirely different religion. The religion we in the West define as ‘Christianity’ is in the Chinese language divided into ‘Catholicism’ (tiānzhǔ jiào, 天主教,literally: ‘religion of the Lord of Heaven’) and ‘Christianity’ (jīdū jiào, 基督教, literally: ‘religion of Jesus Christ’).

Theologically, a distinction between Christianity and Catholicism as two different religions is uncorrect: both belief in the same God, the same Christ, and the same Holy Spirit.
Practically, the distinction leads to interesting consequences, as can be seen here in Hong Kong. One of these consequences is the incorrect impression that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary instead of Christ. Christianity is the religion that worships Christ (as is obvious from its name), and the religion that makes no use of religious statues or saints. Catholicism is a completely different religion, one that does have a lot of religious symbols, statues and saints, and one that does not belief in Christ but in the Lord of Heaven (=God). Therefore: Catholics do not worship Christ, but the many different statues they house in their churches. Since the Virgin Mary is very well presented in Hong Kong (in my opinion, more than in any other region I have visited before), it is only natural that people belief Catholics worship her instead of Christ.

Hence, a problem of semantics, which leads to an issue that is theologically incorrect, but practically very interesting to examine deeper.


One thought on “A problem of semantics

  1. Talking of semantics (1): Who am I?

    Can a religion believe in … let’s say God? That’s what you are implying.
    Of course I know what you mean: “people who regard themselves as part of that religion believe in e.g. God”. And then again: do they? Do we?
    According to my grandmother I’m a Catholic, because I was baptized as a baby. Am I a Catholic?
    I did not grow up, attending church or reading the bible; yet my parents tried to pass on a message of love and understanding, inspired by humanism. Am I a humanist?
    For a long time I have been attracted and inspired by Jesus and his teachings. I try to follow him, yet I find it hard to say I’m a ‘believer’. Could I be a christian?

    It’s hard to tell. I would say: in the end, only God knows.
    But that could be frustrating for a (religious) anthropologist, I suppose ;-).

    Talking of semantics (2): Christianity and Christendom

    Last week I my wife (:-)) and I discussed this distinction. For the philosopher Kierkegaard Christendom is sort of the ‘cultural’ phenomenon, whether Christianity is the practice of following Christ in daily life. According to Wikipedia Christendom refers to ‘the Christian World’, whereas Christianity is the religion with all its diversity… No easy answers here either.

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