Japan’s rare Catholic PM Taro Aso meets Pope Benedict

July 7, 2009

aso-popeJapanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, a member of Japan’s tiny Roman Catholic minority, had a chance toenjoy some time away from political trouble at home when he met with Pope Benedict on Tuesday.

As his first stop during a trip to attend July 8-10 summit of G8 leaders in Italy, Aso went to the Vatican, gave the pope a Sony digital video camera and discussed the global economic crisis with him.

(Photo: Prime Minister Aso presents video camera to Pope Benedict, 7 July 2009/Danilo Schiavella)

His visit was timely in that respect — Benedict published an encyclical on economic and social issues today, calling for a bold reform of the world economic order to overcome the financial crisis and redirect the focus of business to the welfare of all people.

aso-pope-officeAso, the first Japanese prime minister to meet a pope in 10 years, told Benedict that Japan wanted to cooperate with the Vatican, according to his aides. According to the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano, the two men had a cordial discussion that “touched on current international issues such as the economic crisis and the commitment of Japan and the Holy See to Africa. On the bilateral level, the good relations between Japan and the Holy See were noted.”

(Photo: Aso and Benedict in the papal private library, 7 July 2009/Osservatore Romano)

For the unpopular prime minister, who looks set to lose a general election due by October, meeting Pope Benedict was probably a personal highlight of his trip, even though voters would not care much.

Aso is having a tough time at home with his support falling on doubts about his leadership abilities and the main opposition party has a good shot at ending more than a half-century of almost unbroken rule by Aso’s business-friendly Liberal Democratic Party.

Pope Benedict told Aso that he was happy to meet a Japanese prime minister who is Catholic and to know that Japan’s society is open to various religions.

aso-orAso himself has little difficulty with mixing and matching various faiths. As we’ve mentioned here in an earlier post, he regularly pays respect and offers gifts to Shinto shrines, such as Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead. Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto is polytheistic and combining that with Christian monotherism may sound like a contradiction, but it is something many Japanese Catholics take in their stride.

Whether visits to Yasukuni shrine overstep the boundaries of Catholic doctrine is a difficult question, but Aso and the pope did not touch the issue at the 25-minute meeting, according to a statements released after the talk.

(Image: Aso meeting at bottom of front page of L’Osservatore Romano edition of 8 July 2009)

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