It is to the French writer Andre Malraux that we owe the prescient remark, “The 21st century will either be religious, or it will not be at all” (as recorded in his book, Anti-Memoirs). Meanwhile, The Pew Forum informs us that 5.8 billion of the world’s 6.9 billion people continue to claim some religious affiliation.
After the atheistic ideologies of fascism and communism burnt themselves out, people began looking forward with great hope to the return of benign religion as a public force. Alas, the reality has been sorely disappointing. What we see in the world today is the spread of a harsh and violent patriarchal religion, not a merciful and compassionate one.
In Roman Catholicism, sadly, the violence has been internal, directed against its most vulnerable members — adolescents and women. And it is a particularly degrading kind of sexual violence, compounded with deceit.
There is a rising groundswell of anger and disgust at the role the Church hierarchy has played in dealing with the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in Europe, the United States, Australia and Latin America.
Lest we in India smugly cry “aha, but not here!” as reports of local clergy sexually assaulting nuns have grabbed headlines in this country, showing how sex crimes are indeed a global problem for the Church.
The core of the issue, however, is not so much sex as clericalism — the sense of entitlement, the lack of accountability, and the arrogance of power. It is the smug awareness that “whatever I do, no one can touch me.” It is this attitude seemingly held by the clergy and the upper echelons of power, as though they belong to a superior caste, which lies at the heart of this sickness.
It doesn’t take much to see how a corrupt system of governance can weaken and even destroy the very fabric of the Church. How can loyal Church members step forward in this time of crisis to best serve the Church?
One solution would be for bishops to share power and leadership with lay people. From this point forward, lay Catholics should be welcomed, not as an ad-hoc response to the current crisis but as a fundamental structural support for a fully synodal Church. Bishops must encourage the laity and support their initiatives so that they can assume their rightful place in the Church, as defined by the precepts laid out in Vatican II. Guaranteeing lay participation with equal authority to that of the church hierarchy must be a part of the restructuring plan.
In other words, we need to see an end to the monarchical structure of the Catholic Church. In so many countries, bishops have shown themselves unable to evaluate their own performance credibly. This is the sad consequence of belonging to the so-called “John Paul II hierarchy,” where bishops were selected and promoted solely on the basis of their full obedience to the Pope, rather than based on their personal integrity.
As the eminent church historian Massimo Faggioli put it, “Our best path is to reclaim from the institutional Church those ecclesial spaces that belong to the people of God, and not to the hierarchy.”
“If the Church leadership doesn’t clean up the sex abuse mess, civil authority will. But the civil authority can only deal with the Church’s crimes; it cannot restore the integrity of the Church. Only the faithful can do that,” Faggioli continued.
This is why various organizations working for Church reform have demanded both laymen and laywomen form part of the assembly Pope Francis has convened in February for the heads of bishops’ conferences to address the abuse of minors. No longer can bishops be the sole deciders of Church policy. This special assembly will lose all credibility if it does not include the laity as equal partners in their follow-up planning.
But will this come about?
This is the real challenge Pope Francis faces — for himself, first of all. It is his credibility that is at stake. The pastor who wanted his clergy to “smell of the sheep” must ensure there are no wolves in sheep’s clothing within his ranks. It may well be his last chance.
Fr Myron J. Pereira, SJ, Mumbai