The Demons Within

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It’s time the Catholic Church stopped sweeping scandals under the carpet

Frederick Noronha

Illustration: Samia Singh

I’M ALMOST beginning to feel sorry for the Pope, a man whose conservative politics otherwise leaves one with much to fear. After the rise of communalism afflicting Hinduism (via Hindutva), and the misuse of Islam’s name for random acts of terrorism, the Catholic Church is badly caught in a series of damaging sex scandals that threaten to rip the very plank on which the faith is based.

On the one hand are the lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and scandals involving both Catholic priests and members of religious orders whose task was to teach children or care for the sick. Cover-ups, turning a blind eye and persistently lax action against those guilty are charges the Catholic hierarchy — not just those directly guilty — has to answer. More importantly, this raises the wider issue of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church, and if it is sustainable in the 21st century.

Apostle Paul was most practical when he outlined the reasons for celibacy: “He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided.”

So there’s a price to be paid for remaining the western world’s oldest and largest institution, for minimising the leakages of institutional wealth, and for playing a prominent role in the politics and history of western civilisation.

At this point, the Catholic Church is itself on test. It will be watched closely on how it protects what it perceives as its “own” interests, versus the interests of those who have been harmed. It will be closely watched on what checks and balances it sets in place to avoid such recurrences, rather than sweep concerns under the carpet as it has been doing. It will be on test over how it balances the devotion of its numerous faithful versus the quest for wider justice and fairplay, when the time is for practice rather than preaching.

The ideolgical clash emerging from this issue is not to be missed either. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a process for progressive change of sorts within the Church, is blamed by ultra-conservative Roman Catholics for having led to the climate where priests abuse children. But the Church — like any human-administered institution — needs more change, more accountability and more honesty. Not less. Pope Benedict, and his predecessor, are ill-matched in a Church which has seen its centre of gravity shift from the former colonial powers of the North to the struggling world of the South.

Once, the Church was closely linked with the colonial contingents of Spain and Portugal; today, the largest Catholic populations are in Brazil, Mexico and Philippines. Even tiny Goa sends out its priests as missionaries to the West and Latin America, while nuns from Kerala can be found in Germany.

The Church needs more change, more accountability and more honesty. Not less

A Congo has more Catholics than a Poland, an Argentina and Colombia more than a Spain or a France. But given the northern domination of the hierarchy — from the very areas now hit by scandal — one would never guess. Inability to boldly face up to the sex abuse cases reflect a wider attempt to keep the lid down tight on change, at a time when all religions need to keep pace with the modern world.

Some questions have been asked about the media’s role in highlighting the “Catholic” aspect of sex abuse. One defensive position argues that there are equal or greater levels of child sex abuse in other religious groups, or in the US public school system. Regardless, crises like these are a reminder that change is a law of life. The faster the better.

The world’s largest Christian church, and its billion members, doesn’t need to continue in the image and likeness of an Empire. It needs to reshape itself into an institution which serves and, while doing so, doesn’t exploit — ideologically, economically, politically and specially sexually.

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