For most Thais, Pope Francis’ recent visit on 20–23 November 2019 probably passed unnoticed as little more than a footnote in the kingdom’s history. The second papal trip to the majority Buddhist country, after John Paul II’s visit in 1984, has already become a faded memory as Bangkok’s luxury malls ready themselves to stage yet another sparkling Christmas. All around Siam Square and Ratchaprasong district, giant department stores dazzle with colourful Christmas decorations that flank Hindu shrines, spirit houses, Thai flags and gold-framed portraits of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Bangkok’s Christmas fever has become so intense that 852 Thai schoolchildren broke the Guinness World Record for the largest human Christmas tree as part of a publicity stunt arranged by one of the capital’s largest shopping malls in 2013.
The relationship between Christmas—in its hyper-materialistic, non-confessional shape—and Bangkok’s enchanted capitalism is not insignificant. On one level, it symbolically encapsulates the history of Christianity in Thailand as a scarcely acknowledged force for the spread of Western modernity.
Perhaps less intuitively, Christianity has also operated as a force supporting the consolidation of royalist Thai ethno-nationalism. While the number of Thai converts to Christianity has been minimal for centuries (Christians number less than 1% of the national population), Catholic missionaries’ “secular” influence has been far more significant, though commonly unnoticed. Christianity in general, and Catholicism specifically, have been critical to the establishment of many of Thailand’s most prestigious schools, universities, and state-of-the-art medical facilities.
The presence of Catholic missionaries in Thailand can be traced back to the 16th century, when the first Portuguese Dominicans of the “Christ’s caravels” arrived in Ayutthaya, then the Siamese kingdom’s capital. Ensuing exchanges between missionaries and the Thai monarchy in the fields of science, art, printing techniques, architecture, medicine, and education are widely documented. Western medicine was introduced to the kingdom by early European missionaries during the 17th century. Fr Tommaso Valguarnera, a fine architect and the Society of Jesus’s first Superior in Siam, contributed to the construction of Ayutthaya, Lop Buri and Bangkok’s royal fortresses. French missionaries sent to Bangkok by Louis XVI, the last “divine right” king of France, founded a modern astronomy centre in honour of the monarchy. The list of such joint initiatives between Christian emissaries and the Thai monarchy could actually extend much further.
Thai-Christian relations in the field of education deserve a special mention. During the colonial era, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and King Vajiravudh (Rama IV) looked at modern education as a fundamental tool for nation-building under the flags of “civilisation” and “Thainess”. They identified schools run by Catholic missionaries as a model for the establishment of the Thai school system. But while missionaries’ knowledge of scientific subjects and western etiquette was highly valued, their confessional proclivities had to be neutralised in order for all schools in the country to convey Thai ethno-nationalism, including the promotion of (central) Thai language and Buddhism. The Educational Acts of 1902 and 1918 intervened, mandating the standardised adoption of the same state-approved curriculum in all schools. As a result, in state and private Catholic schools alike, schoolchildren are taught the fundamentals of “Thainess”: nation, Buddhism and monarchy.
Missionaries eventually accepted the reframing of their schools as a vector for “Thainess”. They believed that a “genuflected church”, deferential to the Thai state’s “Lord”—the Buddhist king—was required to preserve a positive relationship with the monarchy, which granted the Vatican’s emissaries safety and protection. Indeed, Thailand has only become an adverse territory for Catholics when Thai royal power has been in crisis, especially between the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932 and the military-piloted rise of King Bhumibol (Rama IX).
Catholic missionaries have historically contributed to the channelling of Western modernity, science, and education into the kingdom. But Christianity has in turn been domesticated, and harnessed to the service of the monarchy’s assimilationist ethno-national project.
The “Thaification” of Catholicism became officially sanctioned after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) with the founding of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand. The Second Vatican Council recommended missionary politics follow a model where the Gospels “accommodate” local “culture”. These recommendations, however, did not distinguish “hegemonic cultures” from “subaltern cultures”. As a result, the “inculturation” of Christianity became the vehicle of dominant cultural cosmologies and aristocratic ways of life in several Asian contexts. In the case of Thailand, this elitist “inculturation” of Christianity resulted in a “royalist Buddhification” of the local Catholic Church and its secular—but extremely remunerative—instantiations (schools and hospitals).
Images depicting the king are displayed on all Catholic buildings (churches, hospitals, schools, and universities) alongside traditional Christian icons. Catholic liturgy includes prayers in praise of the king, who is publicly portrayed in Thailand as the embodiment of the Buddhist Dharma. Retracing Buddhist monk–layman interactions, Catholic laity relate to priests—often called phra, the same word used to designate Buddhist monks—as superior beings. But more than any other institutions, Catholic private schools highlight the close relationship between Christianity, “Thainess”, wealth and privilege that binds the Catholic–Buddhist–Monarchical configuration.
During ethnographic exploration of Bangkok’s scholastic environment in 2010–16, I was struck by the prominent position of Catholic schools in the private education market and the maintenance of related social stratification. Notable alumni of Catholic private schools include figures like the late King Bhumibol and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Institutes such as the Assumption College, founded in Bangkok by the Gabrielite Brothers, count among its alumni four prime ministers, fifteen privy counsellors, and some of Thailand’s richest citizens—even though all of these alumni are Buddhist, like 99% of the students enrolled in the country’s Catholic schools. One representative of students’ parents at a prestigious Catholic school told me: “We are Buddhist. But this is not a problem. Christian religion is not taught here. In Catholic schools the teaching is identical to that in state schools. It also involves Buddhism as this is Thailand’s religion, but the quality of teachers and the school infrastructures are a lot better than in state schools!”
The close historical link between the Vatican and the Thai monarchy has led to Catholicism being locally reconfigured according to elite royalist Buddhist culture. The “Thaification” of the Gospels has produced quite a unique Asian re-configuration of Catholic faith and practice which sees Jesus, the Thai nation and its Buddhist king brought together in an awkward, but sacred patchwork.
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This model of Catholicism is strikingly at odds with the “Church for the poor” that is envisioned by Pope Francis, and (mostly invisibly) enacted by several Christian aid agencies in Thailand’s many “spaces of exception”, particularly refugee camps, urban slums, and maritime sites of migrant work and human trafficking. Despite these humanitarian actors’ efforts and the current Pope’s deep concern over economic inequality and environmental injustice, it is likely that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is scarcely aware of the Thai context. The contours of the Pope’s visit in the Buddhist kingdom have been drawn up by the Thai Catholic clergy, traditionally more in tune with Thailand’s royalist-military establishment than these grassroots humanitarian concerns.
While giving a speech to his Thai “colleagues” in Nakhon Pathom’s Sam Phran district, Pope Francis urged a further “inculturation” of the Gospel which would allow it to have a “Thai face and flesh”. “This should spur us to find ways to confess the faith ‘in dialect’, like a mother who sings lullabies to her child,” he added. Pope Francis probably doesn’t fully appreciate that Catholicism in Thailand has actually succeeded in embracing Thailand’s hegemonic culture of “Thainess”, and that the local Thai church has been speaking the Buddhist king’s fatherly language for centuries.