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Will the Indian Church ever speak truth to power?

To speak out in public, the Church should first encourage speaking up within

Will the Indian Church ever speak truth to power?

Indian Catholics pray during the Good Friday service at a church in East Delhi on April 14, 2019. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits at a critical time in church history: disobedience to the pope’s authority was widespread in 16th century Europe. This is why Ignatius was adamant that the distinguishing mark of his company would be obedience.

He placed his order at the service of popes so that Jesuits would go wherever sent on a mission. In fact, in the 1930s, Pope Pius XI would wryly remark: “You have to be a pope to appreciate the value of the Jesuits.”

And largely because of the overwhelming influence of the Jesuits in the training of both clergy and laity in the post-Tridentine Church (1563-1965), obedience became the hallmark of Catholics everywhere. 

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To tell the truth, though, often obedience was indistinguishable from conformity.

I have sometimes said that Catholics are not Protestants. Catholics rarely protest, dissent, disagree or challenge publicly. If they do, they are often called to order by their own ecclesiastical superiors. The watchwords are “Be prudent, be cautious.”

After all, the Protestant Reformation took place because of the public dissent of certain Christian scholars — men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Erasmus. They questioned church authorities over the interpretation of Scripture and the corruption of certain church practices. In other words, they protested.

Because of rampant misgovernance, millions of our countrymen are dying of Covid-19 and other comorbidities

Because of this, Protestants were called "heretics" and penalized for erroneous belief. But the obedience of Catholics on the other hand, was frequently “blind” — that is, based on ignorance, unthinking loyalty to authority, and often superstitious.

We tend to forget that as a complement to his insistence on obedience, Ignatius of Loyola also valued “discernment” or an openness to the Spirit for guidance in difficult and confusing situations.

Ignatius was convinced that genuine obedience and discernment would never contradict each other. The Spirit would always indicate accurately when to obey and when to dissent.

Ah, but is anyone listening? The question takes on an urgency of its own in the India of today. Because of rampant misgovernance, millions of our countrymen are dying of Covid-19 and other comorbidities, and ignorance, fear and a feeling of helplessness regarding the pandemic are widespread.

But even prior to the coronavirus, ordinary Indians reeled under multiple disasters, all brought about by a megalomaniac leader obsessed with delusions of his own.

So the question is asked: Why doesn’t the Church speak out? Shouldn’t the Church speak truth to power, as Jesus did? Isn’t the Church concerned with the day-to-day oppression of its people, not just with their religious duties?

The quick answer is that the Church is afraid of violent persecution and imprisonment, of the confiscation of her properties, of the suspension of her rights.

What happened earlier in Nazi Germany and communist Russia — and even now in China — may happen in India too. Be prudent, be cautious, don’t provoke.

But quick answers are seldom complete answers. To answer the question more completely, one must clarify: which church are we speaking of? The Catholic Church in India is not one homogeneous entity but is split between various local groups, which do not always see eye to eye. Sometimes it’s a matter of regional priorities, sometimes it’s a matter of caste allegiance.

If this is true of the Catholic Church, how much more so is it with the numerous Orthodox and Protestant churches, not to mention the Pentecostal groups, many of whom do not even speak to each other.

For this too is India. While we proudly proclaim our diversity and pluralism, we quietly ignore how indifferent and antagonistic we are to the fate of Christians “not like us.”

So suspicious was this pontiff of outspoken and courageous clerics that those chosen for office were usually sycophants and yes men

There is another deeper reason, pertinent particularly to the Catholic leadership. It is the baneful legacy of a previous pope who appointed only timid and obeisant men to high office in the Church. 

So suspicious was this pontiff of outspoken and courageous clerics that those chosen for office were usually sycophants and yes men. The results are there for all to see.

The New Testament has a word for bold speech. It is parrhesia, the ability to speak truth to power — as did Peter and John, uneducated disciples, when they faced the Sanhedrin (Acts 4.13). It is a quality not learned in rhetoric class but comes from being gifted by the Spirit (Mk. 13.11).

But in the end, one cannot speak courageously in a public forum unless this is encouraged in the Church itself. So far, the Church has discouraged honest opinion, especially when these views make one uncomfortable. It prefers conformity instead. The recent pedophile crisis illustrates this abundantly.

The Church, as most know it, is a monarchy or, at best, an oligarchy (Greek: oligos, the few). The rule of the privileged few is the rule of the clergy, from the lowly parish priest to a cardinal in Rome. The laity, especially women, are only there to serve silently.

In recent years, however, the sterling example of Pope Francis has courageously sought to change the image and reality of the Church. One way in which Francis has done this is to encourage public opinion, even disagreement, in the Church.

But Pope Francis is no fool. “The Church,” he says, “is not a parliament.” Parliaments allow for public expression, but they are also swayed by party whips, lobbies and majoritarian numbers.

A culture of inclusion and participation takes different shapes. It is far from a uniform and regimented society

The Church does what no parliament would ever dare do — it is prayerfully open to the Spirit. This in fact is the practice of discernment.  Another word for this is synodality.

With synodality, we walk together (Greek: synodos) as a pilgrim people, each at his own pace, each from her own background. Each one has her own experience of God, and this is prayerfully shared with one’s wayfarers, which is why synodality is intimately bound up with interfaith dialogue. 

A culture of inclusion and participation takes different shapes. It is far from a uniform and regimented society.

A modern writer has argued that those who believe in democracy today have three values: human rights, that each human being, no matter how inferior, no matter how deviant, has an intrinsic respect and dignity; communicative dissent, that every person has the right to disagree non-violently and peacefully; and egalitarianism, that equality of opportunity and treatment before law is as vital for our contemporaries as liberty was to our ancestors.

The way forward for the Church then is to walk with others, especially with those who do not share the same faith, the same culture, the same opportunities; and to learn from these others the value of communicative dissent — first for itself and then publicly to proclaim truth to power.

Will the Church ever speak out? With synodality, with dialogue, in time it will.

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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