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Are the lamps going out over the Church?

Catholicism is under increasing threat in a fast changing world

  • Allwyn Fernandes, Mumbai
  • India
  • March 1, 2013
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The Church now has no pope and Italy has no government. There is a vacuum in both. There is also a deeper vacuum at the heart of Europe itself, a concern about its own identity and survival. The term “white man’s burden” applies no more.

I watched the pope fly away into the sunset of his papacy. Two hours earlier, I had read Hans Kung in the New York Times: “If the next conclave were to elect a pope who goes down the same old road, the Church will never experience a new spring, but fall into a new Ice Age and run the danger of shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect.”

And the thought that came to my mind was “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’’ It was uttered 99 years ago by British statesman,] Edward Grey, on the eve of World War One. I asked myself if it would be right to say “The lamps are going out over the Catholic Church and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” 

I was young when Pope John XXIII was elected pope. Suddenly, the little green Sunday missal that I used to carry to Sunday Mass with my mother, with its Latin text and an English translation was no longer relevant. In those days the priest came into the sanctuary wearing a biretta and mumbled with his back to the people. The Gregorian chants were nice, but that was all there was to it.

Will the cardinals going into the conclave and still living in medieval times (till now at least), have the courage to confront each other and tell at least those not morally fit to be there, “Too long have you sat here for any good you are doing. In the name of God, go!”  History tells us that is what Winston Churchill told Neville Chamberlain on the eve of World War Two. And Chamberlain went.

The cardinals, especially those from the global South, had better rediscover their consciences and pluck up courage to tell their rich patrons from the North the same, because the world around them is crumbling. They had better wake up to it – and fast.

Last week, the British prime minister was in India “as a supplicant, not a benefactor,” said one newspaper headline.  That’s why he went to Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab, the scene of a massacre of hundreds of Indians by British soldiers 100 ago. Those were the days when the sun never set on the British Empire.

The week before, the French president was also in India – for the same reason.  They are all making pilgrimages to Asia these days, even to Myanmar, the new pit-stop for businessmen and politicians from the North. They are desperate for the new markets developing in Asia for the products that their own countries have rejected.  Their economic salvation now depends on Asia.

Are the cardinals from Asia awake to that reality?

Since the pope’s resignation there have been several major developments. The British government’s credit rating has been downgraded and the Eurozone is in crisis. There is no light yet at the end of the tunnel. Rather, Italy is the latest to face a crisis. France is next in line.

The US system of democracy is facing its own crisis with fat cat Republicans unwilling to work with a president who wants to increase their taxes, so are willing to risk a fiscal cliff for it. The Chinese system of “Communist Party democracy” is also shaky. The Indian system has been found to be rotten to the core and even the first family is untouched.  And in the Church, it is no longer rebellious laymen and women facing the men in pink and crimson fancy dress – rather, bishops are standing up to cardinals and priests against bishops. This was unthinkable a few weeks ago.

The world is changing dramatically as “disruptive innovation” shakes up every institution, causing decrepit and huge old organizations to crumble. Smaller, nimble-footed, flatter, decentralized start-ups are taking their place.

Someone had better give the cardinals in Rome an update on the world today before they start voting. Else, we will see an outdated and decayed Church imploding and, as Kung says, in danger of “shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect.”

God be with us and may s/he work overtime in the Sistine Chapel in the weeks ahead.  

Allwyn Fernandes is a media trainer and consultant based in Mumbai. He was also the former senior editor of a leading English language daily. 

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