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Lessons from the world's last dictators

It's time to abandon authoritarianism

  • Michael Kelly SJ, Bangkok
  • International
  • March 4, 2013
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It’s frequently observed that the only three remaining absolute monarchies/dictatorships left in the world are Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the Vatican.

But the parallels that are of more powerful significance are those between the Vatican, Vietnam and China, both in terms of their governance and the current state of their political lives.

All are centralized, one-party states with all power resting with a few people. All are now in turmoil amid allegations of corruption and restive movements calling for extensive change.

Throughout the Catholic world, calls for an accountable leadership and transparent processes of law and governance are matched by the evidence of disenchantment and disengagement of clergy and the faithful in many parts. 

Hopes are high that the next pope will do what was laid out at the Second Vatican Council for the creation of a participatory form of governance, at diocesan, national and regional levels. What has been blocked by all popes and the Roman Curia since Vatican II now appears the Church’s only administrative salvation.

Ironically, these calls are for nothing more than the implementation in the Church of what was the centerpiece of a century of papal attacks on Communism – that its centralized, authoritarian submission of all individuals and groups to the state was a violation of basic human rights and, as history has demonstrated abundantly, it just doesn’t work. 

Perhaps the only unique element in the battery of Catholic moral maxims is what is called the Principle of Subsidiarity. Pope Pius XI expressed the ancient principle in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno this way: “It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

In other words, don’t operate at a national level if you can do the job better locally; and don’t make decisions at a regional level if you can do the job better nationally; and certainly don’t globalize (do it in Rome) if you can deliver a better result regionally. What operating according to this principle means is an administration that provides something long lost in the Catholic Church: a listening ear. 

The problems of the Church have their uncanny parallel in China and Vietnam. Both are countries at the end of the revolutionary cycle, started by the great figures that gave birth to their contemporary condition – Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. It’s a tell-tale sign of exhaustion when current leaders invoke the maxims of leaders who formed their thought and action to meet challenges created in the 19th century.

In China, a leadership that is two and three generations from the shaping influences on their present condition – the Long March of the 1930s and the wild and erratic leadership of the Great Helmsman of the People, Chairman Mao – are now invoking his name as vindication of their centralized, authoritarian rule. 

Why? Because it’s being challenged everywhere in China. As revealed by the investigative research of the New York Times and Bloomberg late last year, the new leadership is anything but new – they’re all in or connected to one another through the four dominant families that have ruled China for the last 20 years. 

And they’re corrupt, pocketing huge wealth that only adds to the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in the country and placing it overseas for easy access and use. There have been literally billions of US dollars skimmed from investors and would-be investors seeking swift ways to quick profits in Chinese enterprises.

You don’t have to be an expert in Chinese dynastic change to hear echoes of the end of an era here. Throughout Chinese history, the break-up of a dynasty has begun with the corruption of the elite, followed by conflicts and division between rival factions, a period of civil war and then the collapse of the dynasty and its replacement by the next group of “clean” rulers.

The same is on in Vietnam. Loud protestations this past week by the Vietnamese premier that Vietnam’s “one-party rule is here to stay” is in response to those in the country sick and tired of the corruption and duplicity of the ruling elite. 

Current Politburo members in Hanoi are spreading it around that the premier is corrupt and, in response, he is saying “No, it’s not me. It’s them.” Dissent is already underway and campaigns, mostly over the internet, are on to introduce the rule of law, prosecution of the corrupt, participation in decision making for those whom the decisions affect and respect for everyone’s right to say what they think.

In the Church, the style of operation may be different. But the issues are the same – centralized, authoritarian rule with power to make decisions vested in a few hands, no venues for the real voice of the People of God to be heard, a gathering into Rome over the last 30 years of powers that had been delegated regionally and nationally. Examples are many: 

  • The recent imposition from Rome of a new translation of the Missal that replaced one that had the full participation of the national Churches in the English-speaking world, all done in the name of some mysterious and as yet unidentified “more sacral” approach;
  • The absence of any encouragement from the Vatican, regionally or nationally, for diocesan synods that include lay people;
  • The neutralization of the international Synod of Bishops as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Vatican Curia;
  • The undermining of national bishops’ conferences as anything more than repeater stations for the Vatican;
  • The cancelling out of regional bishops conferences in Asia, Latin America and the United States as entities for directing thought and action in their vicinity in place of direction from the Vatican.

These are all the undoing of a Subsidiarity that was fostered in Vatican II.

The major structural difference that addresses this situation favored in Catholicism, in contrast to Communism, is this: The Catholic Church actually has a way out of the mess and into inclusion and participation, one that provides a way to address issues as they occur in the life of the Church – the principle of Subsidiarity. 

It remains to be seen whether or not the Vatican will operate by this Catholic principle.

Michael Kelly SJ is the executive director of the Union of Catholic Asian News

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