Are Church leaders listening to the wake-up calls?
Promoting docile 'yes men' has brought us a feeble leadership
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former Vatican Secretary of State and right hand of Pope Benedict XVI, has been implicated in a multi-million dollar fraud and embezzlement case. He is also in hot water for his new apartment, infinitely more luxurious than the pope's own lodgings. This somehow typifies and also casts a depressing shadow on the way the Church government has been run over the past few decades.
The degree of ‘moral turpitude’ at the highest levels astounds the imagination. Are cardinals and bishops no better than crude politicians after all?
For a long time, for centuries in fact, the Catholic Church was one of the few institutions where a young man, with no family connections and little money, could rise to eminence on the basis of intelligence, shrewdness and ambition alone.
If in addition, he was servile enough to authority and avoided scandals, especially sexual ones, he could go far.
As a tried and tested formula, it worked for centuries, and still does.
As proof, just look at the popes, the bishops and the senior clergy who have "made it”. All of them belong to an institution called the Church to which they have given their lives, from which they draw certain benefits, and whose stability and public image they are sworn to uphold.
But the world has changed, and changed drastically. In an earlier religious culture, priests and bishops were respected and their words carried weight.
Not any more, in the secularized culture in which we live. This is a culture sworn to freedom, especially freedom of information.
The whole purpose of Vatican II was to bring the Church up to date (aggiornamento), as Pope John XXIII wished. But this reform was bitterly resisted by members of the ruling Roman Curia, who did their best to sabotage what the Council decreed.
For example, an important change the Council wanted was collegiality, whereby structures of governance would be put in place so that bishops could take their rightful place along with the pope in matters of doctrine and pastoral care.
This sadly has not taken place at all, and today most bishops are little more than “branch managers”, taking their cues from “head office” in Rome.
Looking at India, there was a time when the leaders of the Catholic hierarchy were seen and respected as community leaders.
That time seems to be over. The only Christian leader invited for the swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an Orthodox bishop from Kerala, a friend of his.
Has the Catholic Church hierarchy lost its clout?
Disturbing as this is, it is not surprising. Under John Paul II, any senior priest who showed any independence of thought and action was summarily passed over for promotion in favor of those who were compliant and docile.
As a result, we have a timid hierarchy, shy of taking a public stand and eager to show its obsequiousness to the government.
Nor have outspoken laymen or women been encouraged either in India. So it may be worth our while to introspect a little and see where most of India’s clergy and hierarchy come from.
By and large they come from ‘village and small town India,’ where opting for the priesthood is still a safe passage for upward mobility. Usually, bishops are chosen not for their pastoral abilities, but because they are trained in canon law or theology (most have been seminary professors, not parish priests).
No surprise then that the two key qualities of a public leader – and a bishop is this, if he is anything at all – communication skills and management abilities, are often glaringly absent.
With regard to communication skills: like all authoritarian and non-democratic institutions, the Catholic Church loves secrecy. It hates the media, accusing it of meddlesome curiosity.
To justify secrecy, it argues that the Church ‘should not wash its dirty linen in public’. A fallacious argument at best, because as a result the dirty clothes do not get washed at all.
Two examples make this clear: the pedophile scandals in the West and the financial scams of the Vatican. Notice that what made the sexual crimes of the offending priests worse was the elaborate cover-ups from their bishops, which involved lies, evasion and subterfuge.
When it comes to management, in most cases, traditional organizations rest on authority through command. Information-based organizations rest on responsibility.
In today’s world, information is a resource built into every operation, which can only function if each unit is accountable. And this applies to the Church too.
Ask yourself, when was the last time your parish priest or your bishop showed himself accountable for the functioning of the unit (parish, diocese) committed to his charge? Not just financially accountable, but responsible for the planning and execution of projects undertaken?
Two serious issues that face the Christian minority in India today are how it treats its Dalit and tribal communities; and what its inter-faith relationships are.
Both issues are related to the question of ‘inclusivity’, or how to form a more egalitarian and integrated society. It is our sad experience that the more indigenous the Christian community is, the more rooted in the local culture, the more caste exclusive it tends to become. Leadership is serious wanting here.
Inter-faith relations are growing increasingly important in India today, where we still see ourselves as a threatened minority.
These relations mean more than just celebrating religious feasts together. They also relate to the way in which we see inter-faith marriages; engage in inter-community projects for common welfare; and are able to discuss our respective religious traditions in public and without apprehension, in order to expand our ‘democratic space’.
Today the rapid changes in Indian society are reflected in the Catholic community. The recent election was a decisive rejection of a corrupt and feudal government.
May this serve as a wake-up call for Church leaders as well.
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