An Interview with Raphaël Vongsuravatana

by Gordon Nary


Gordon: Your maternal grandfather was killed by the Germans in World War Two. You, therefore, did not have the chance to know him. He was a surgeon with a degree in theology. What was his impact on your faith?


Raphaël: He was also the father of seventeen children and was very devoted to traditional family values. He passed this sense of devotion to me, along with the importance of commitment. He was shot at the wheel of his military ambulance while bringing aid to Resistance fighters.


Gordon: Your paternal grandfather was a Thai manufacturer, but he was also the president of a Buddhist association. Your father, Consul of Thailand, was also a Buddhist before converting to Catholicism. What effect did this heritage have on your faith?


Raphaël: I have always been passionate about interfaith dialogue and questions of truth. When you have non-Christian ancestors, you cannot help but think about the questions of Salvation and Truth in a particular way.


Gordon: What led you to study theology at the Catholic Institute of Paris?


Raphaël: As you have emphasized in asking about my grandparents, while I come from a very traditional Catholic background on my mother’s side, there is a “converted” aspect of my faith on my father’s side. From that, I had a desire to understand my faith by approaching it through reason. Besides, as you have already mentioned, my grandfather received a degree in theology at a time when very few laypeople did so.


Gordon: Your book Un jésuite à la cour de Siam (A Jesuit at the Siamese Court) received a prize from the Royal Navy Academy of France (along with the August Pavie Prize from the French Overseas Territories Academy of Sciences in 1993). What inspired you to write it?


Raphaël: In fact, the book was based on academic work and was published with the help of my research director at the time, Dr. Jean Meyer, a specialist in maritime history at the Sorbonne who was also interested in religious topics. I have always been fascinated by the cultural integration of Christianity in the seventeenth century. With Father Guy Tachard, SJ, the subject of this work, we see the first confrontation between Theravada Buddhism and Catholicism.


Gordon: Have you continued your research?


Raphaël: I have turned towards China, the nineteenth century, and topics of a more anthropological nature. My current research topic is the institution of marriage in the Far East in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am particularly interested in the transition from polygamy to monogamy. Did it come about naturally, or was it part of colonial heritage? Examining the way in which the Chinese civilization was confronted with modernity during this time can be rich in lessons for a Catholic theologian. This is also true for the twenty-first century and the digital revolution.


Gordon: For twenty years, you were the CEO of a Grand Cru in Saint-Emilion. What did you take from that experience?


Raphaël: It was truly a fascinating experience. I saw the huge discrepancy in what is said about great wines and the image sold to consumers compared to reality. I also saw climate change at work. The wines I made in 2015 were nothing compared to the wines I was producing in the early 1990s. I am a huge fan of Bordeaux wines, but I am convinced that their distinctive character and superiority is being threatened by climate change in the immediate future. This has largely been kept from the public to preserve their well-established image.


Gordon: You also served as president of UDOGEC 33 (the department’s union for the management Catholic teaching organizations) from 2012 to 2015. What did you gain from that experience?


Raphaël: During that time, I was also a “lay with ecclesial responsibilities” for a large Bordeaux parish. I have learned a lot of things as a lay volunteer in the Church or its institutions. I was able to observe how difficult it is for laypeople to truly have responsibilities in the Church. There is a great disparity between Pope Francis’s call to the “God’s people” and the reality of church functioning.


Gordon: What are some of the current challenges in France to Catholic education?


Raphaël: The situation in France is very particular because, since 1958, Catholic education has been largely subsidized by the State through a partnership agreement. One of the current struggles for Catholic education is in preserving its independence and distinctiveness. I have to say, it is doing so with much difficulty. However, for me, the main challenge is creating social diversity in the institutions. Unfortunately, we must note that the system of equalization of the school fees meant to make Catholic education more affordable is completely obsolete today.


Gordon: Approximately what percentage of France is Roman Catholic?


Raphaël: Today, over half the population defines themselves as Roman Catholic. However, Catholics who still attend mass occasionally make up 15% of the population and regular churchgoers tend to represent just 2%. France was once called “the oldest daughter of the Church.” So the decline in religious practice raises numerous questions.


Gordon: What are the primary challenges faced by the Catholic hierarchy in France?


Raphaël: They are numerous. If you’re asking about the challenges specific to France, I would say the lack of legitimacy the Catholic voice has in public debate. Since the French Revolution in the eighteenth century and above all the law of separation between Church and State in 1905, the French have been extremely attached to secularism. French Catholics have not been able to find ways to express themselves in this secularized society. There are no longer any great Catholic intellectuals in France. What’s worse, whenever Catholics express their opinions, they immediately provoke rejection. That is why I believe that before we do anything else, we must find a “new language.” There have been lots of faux-pas, including the treatment of delicate topics like the sexual abuse scandals. Certain episcopates, like those in Germany, treated this challenge in a more direct manner by taking the initiative to order an investigation. In France, there is currently talk of an eventual parliamentary investigation because the local episcopate has not handled the matter efficiently.


Gordon: What about the challenges Catholicism faces outside France?


Raphaël: In my next book, I address two questions concerning the Universal Church and the magisterium.


The first is the question of the rejection of liberalism, especially from an economic standpoint. In my opinion, this rejection has been too systematic and had led to several impasses. We have not yet fully understood the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall, now thirty years ago. We cannot take part in the constant critique of an economic system that, although imperfect, has greatly diminished high poverty around the world in the last twenty years. We must reconcile the Church and the economy—the latter is not a swear word! We must reconcile the Church’s social doctrine of an ideal utopia with reality.


The second is women’s place in society (and not in the church). I am the father of five children, three of whom are girls. I often question what I can tell them about their future in the society of the twenty-first century and their legitimate dreams for equality and professional lives related to their degrees. Here again, it is a question of reconciling the beauty of Christian anthropology and a contemporary world, especially in secularized countries like France that are far from such an anthropological view.


The issue is not to cloister ourselves with talk that is far removed from practice. Young people can see through this kind of thing very quickly, and millennials won’t even put up with it. The issue is to reach young people with words they can understand in the world of smartphones, artificial intelligence, and predictive algorithms, already so different from that of the twentieth century.


The ecology which is much put forward especially in the last encyclicals is not the ultimate solution to answer those questions. Of course, there are many convergences between Catholicism and ecology considered as the need to defend our planet. However, we should not be naive. Recently the French Press Agency relay a document showing that the most efficient solution to reduce one’s carbon footprint was to have fewer children in a new Malthusianism approach. This emphasizes that Catholicism and ecology can converge but also diverge.


Gordon: Thank you for a beautiful and insightful interview.


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