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Catholics in Independent Indonesia: 1945-2010

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The last in a trilogy on ‘Catholics in Indonesia’ spanning about two hundred years, Steenbrink’s project had developed more than a decade ago with the publication of Catholics in Indonesia, 1808-1900: A Documented History Volume 1 in 2003, followed by a second volume four years later. While the first two volumes intertwine the history of colonialism with the coming of the Roman Catholic Church to lands that will later become modern Indonesia, the third volume now puts the spotlight on the position of Catholics as a minority, both demographically and politically. In so doing, the book makes a valuable contribution to religious history in Indonesia, where Islam had largely commanded most academic attention. Steenbrink positions his history not simply as an account of the establishment of Catholic institutions in Indonesia, but as lived experience among faithful adherents. By balancing ecclesiastical concerns with the political and the sociological, Catholics in Independent Indonesia thus sheds light on the wider religious landscape and the position of minorities in a state with the world’s biggest Muslim population.
It is impossible for one short review to do justice to the wealth of information in this meticulously researched volume. I will instead sketch the main arguments in this book in the way that Steenbrink organized it. He divides this volume into two parts, each with seven or eight chapters. The first part examines the patterns of establishing formal and informal Catholic institutions at a national level from 1945. A key orientating question for this part asks us to identify what is the most important stimulus in the overall picture of Catholic development in independent Indonesia (p.79). Steenbrink does not provide an explicit answer and instead invites his readers to consider whether decisions within the Catholic Church centered in Rome or those taken by the Indonesian state and society are more crucial in shaping Catholic life in Indonesia. Each chapter in this part of the book deals with a specific agent or institution of religious life: ecclesiastical structure of the church (Ch. 2), the clergy, religious orders and diocesan priests (Ch.3), historical roles of nuns and lay brothers (Ch. 4), Catholic schools and political leaders (Ch 5), social activist leaders and groups (Ch. 6), and Indonesian Catholic artists, leaders and theologians (Ch. 7). These chapters provide detailed tables and lists about the various orders, groups, schools and leaders that emerged in various parts of Indonesia. While each chapter is internally chronological, the book itself moves thematically rather than chronologically. This enables the reader to discern patterns in the development of Catholic life.

The Global-Local Interface of a World Religion
One such pattern is the transfer of leadership in Catholic institutions, church, schools and leaders from Dutch missionary orders to Indonesian religious leaders, a process labelled as Indonesiasi. While this speaks to a broad trend towards localization of the religion after 1945, the overall picture is altogether more nuanced because Steenbrink consistently shows us that the local cannot escape the global. Three global phenomena continually shaped the local practices of the religion: decolonization, the Cold War and capitalist globalization. The decolonization process and the Roman Catholic Church’s stated neutrality in the conflict – though not always practiced on the ground – divided local Catholics and led to a reluctant embrace of the Pancasila as a means of protecting their freedom to practice their religion. Later, Cold War dynamics determined how the Catholic church in Indonesia positioned itself against communism even as Catholic groups shaped varying responses to the peculiarly local nature of violent reprisals against the communists in 1965/1966. The eradication of the communists was followed by a spike in Catholic conversions, as atheistic or traditionally spiritual Indonesians sought to protect themselves against charges of being Communist by allying with a world religion. However, this alliance with the New Order state did not bear much fruit for Catholics politically as only one nationalist and one Islamic party besides the state-sanctioned party GOLKAR was allowed political space. Instead, with the temporary demise of Sukarno era Partai Katholik (Catholic Party), Catholic leaders sought room for themselves by collaborating with the state, personified by the most prominent Catholic leader in Suharto’s government: Minister for Defense in the 1980s, Benny Moerdani. Yet, Steenbrink’s book is less interested in celebrated individuals like Moerdani. Rather, he draws our attention to less well-known Catholic groups and individuals who allied with the people against the state. For example, Catholic-dominated Pancasila Unions championed peasant interests in the 1950s, starting a trend of foundations, centers and cooperatives for the rural population that continued to the present (p.150). Catholic human rights activists such as Mangunwijaya spoke up – albeit tentatively – for communist political detainees on Buru Island, while the Catholic church was uniquely positioned to help channel international development aid to villages. 
Religious practices are fashioned by global movements but also local conditions. Steenbrink illustrates this by showing how local shrines in Java, Sumatra, Flores, Timor, Moluccas and Kalimantan became more popular in the wake of Indonesia’s independence (p.390). Moreover, there was a persistent pressure to relax ideas about monogamous marriage and chastity especially in remote areas where family-centered tribal social structures makes celibacy among the clergy a difficult ideal to aspire too. However, this does not imply that Catholics in Indonesia are rendered unorthodox or marginalized. Developments in the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Charismatic movement do spill into the spiritual worship of believers in Indonesia. By consistently drawing out the patterns of interaction between global trends, the Roman Catholic Church and local Catholics manifested in acts of worship, Steenbrink’s implicit answer to the question of whether ‘global’ or ‘local’ matters more, is that both are equally important. More than that, he demonstrates that the position of Catholics in Indonesia attests to the necessary diversity of a world religion. Each development in Catholic life – be they the formation of a political party, the establishment of a school or an honoring of a shrine – acts at this global-local interface.

Internal Diversity
The second part of the book takes a deeper look at this variation in Catholic life across the archipelago through a series of regional case studies in Flores (ch.8), Timor and Sumba (ch.9), Papua (ch.10), Moluccas (ch.11), Sulawesi (ch.12), Kalimantan (ch.13), Sumatra (ch.13), Java and Bali (ch.14). These comprehensive studies highlight that minorities in such a sprawling nation as Indonesia have differing positions in their local communities. The first four cases – Flores, Timor and Sumba, Papua and Moluccas – are areas where Christians are a local majority, despite being a national minority. In each of these areas, the practice of Catholicism faced a strong challenge from an undercurrent of spiritual traditions (adat), resulting in unorthodox practices and beliefs. Steenbrink focuses on the development of formal, institutional Catholic institutions and their political representations although he acknowledged and presented some examples of combinations of adat and Catholicism. In Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Sumatra, Java and Bali, Catholics comprise of a small minority embedded in a much larger Muslim society. Here, Steenbrink draws our attention to a phenomenon first articulated by Wertheim in 1973: placed in juxtaposition with a vibrant Catholic minority, Indonesian Muslims appeared as a “majority with an inferiority complex” (p.26,274,472). In such areas, particularly in Java, Indonesian Muslims sometimes struggle with being left behind a relatively more successful Catholic minority.
While not the main subject of analysis, Steenbrink also observes moments of friction between Catholics specifically (and Christians, more broadly) with the majority Muslim population.  Through these cases, a reader can observe a pattern of friction between the Muslim-dominated independent Indonesia and minority populations when that majority position is perceived as a threat, for example through state-sponsored transmigration in the second half of the 20th century.  Steenbrink duly analyses the most publicized cases of such conflicts – arguably in Ambon, Papua and East Timor, prior to the 1999 referendum – as well as brings up less well-covered small scale clashes in Sulawesi and Kalimantan. The advantage to handling this issue in terms of the discrete cases is that it emphasizes the nuances and local conditions influencing such conflicts. For example, Kalimantan’s mix of Dayaks, largely Chinese Catholics and Muslims is a peculiarly local one and such racial dynamics have shaped conflicts there in a way that is very different from a relatively homogenous Papua. Nonetheless, the disadvantage of this approach is that it misses opportunities for meaningful comparisons that can shed light on the broader questions. How Indonesia as a whole struggles with the minorities in her outer provinces? Where can we locate Catholics in the overall religious history of Indonesia. What is the role of geography in the practice of Catholicism? Is there a gendered dimension to Catholic life that cuts across this internal diversity?  The picture depicted by Steenbrink is one of diversity in unity, provoking further questions about how one could best assess Catholicism in independent Indonesia as a whole.
On the whole, the book is a very valuable contribution; it pushes the reader towards further inquiry while providing a solid and formidable place to start. Steenbrink includes translations of many primary source documents as an appendix to the end of his volume, perhaps extending an invitation to readers to continue investigating this little known topic. I hope the challenging task to further his work will be taken up soon.

Reviewed by Faizah Zakaria, Yale University (

Zakaria, F. 2016. A review of Steenbrink, K. 2015. Catholics in Independent Indonesia: 1945 – 2010, posted online on 3 June 2016:

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