Monday, August 3, 2015


A good article about what ails the world. But Christian ideology offers no solutions.

Valerian Rodrigues
In the short span of two years of his papacy, Pope Francis has attempted to reform the archaic institutional layout of the Catholic Church that he heads, has striven to promote inter-religious dialogue, and has taken a stand on a set of key social concerns. What is likely to be the impact of these initiatives, and how will they affect the different constituencies they are addressed to?

Among the social issues addressed by him, these could be considered significant: the treatment meted out to gay and lesbian members of the Church, the role that money and profit-seeking have come to play in human relations, growing income inequalities in societies, environmental degradation and climate change, urban growth and the marginalisation it begets in its wake, the approach of the developed world to the refugee problem, the rise of youth unemployment, poverty and exclusion, ideological ghettoes and corruption in public life. The relationships among LGBTQ groups had no place within the Catholic Church, and, socially, they suffered much ostracism. While the Church has not come forward to formally accord sanction to such relations, the Pope has called for respecting, on grounds of human dignity, the choice that persons belonging to these groups make.

Subjection and dignity

The near collapse of all human urges to consumer culture, he feels, tends to undermine all human values. The economic system in place has eroded economic opportunities to the poor and their life chances. The Pope has tended to link environmental degradation with migration, new modes of slavery, human trafficking and shanty urban growth. As a result, millions of people have been forced to leave their hearth and home for crowded inhuman peri-urban growth. The uncurtailed growth of cities is leading to shanty towns and slums on their peripheries. Conspicuous consumption has led to the depletion of fossil fuels and resulting in adverse climate change. He has denounced the measly treatment extended by the developed world to refugees fleeing their land due to natural and human tragedies. It is not uncommon that boats that transport such asylum seekers are being pushed back into the sea, and all such exodus being subjected to intense surveillance.

The Pope feels that some of the ideological frames advanced in certain parts of the world in the name of freedom beget new modes of subjection. Corruption in public life is a widespread malaise particularly in the non-European world that denies people what is rightly their due. Rampant youth unemployment is a mode of humiliation heaped on them, and the kind of labour that a large number of people are being subjected to make their lives meaningless. On the other hand, there is a massive concentration of wealth in a few hands and conspicuous consumption which the Pope has described as “immoral”. There is one intimate link across all these issues. They are an affront to human dignity. According to him, “putting bread on the table, putting a roof over the heads of one’s children, giving them health and education, these are essential for human dignity”. But he also sees these concerns as being deeply bound with man’s relation to nature, and merely to the here and now.

Significance of religion

The Pope has felt that faith is an integral element of human striving expressed through several religious persuasions. This emphasis on the larger significance of religion in human life has drawn much support personally to this Pope from diverse religious denominations. In Lumen Fidei , his first encyclical, he speaks of the loss of meaning and purpose that a person suffers from in a consumer society. There is not much to strive for after beyond the humdrum of day-to-day life.

Given the role that religions play as bridgeheads to the beyond, paying insult to a religion is a way of humiliating the followers of that religion. One does not have the right to offend and ridicule the faith of others in the name of freedom of religion. Along with Muslim religious leaders he has condemned the satirical depiction of the prophet in the Charlie Hebdo case. At the same time he has denounced the killing of people in the name of religion, and called upon other religious leaders to condemn the same. He has argued that Islam is a religion of peace, compatible with a respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence, and has declared as unacceptable, attempts to isolate Muslims by suspecting them for inciting terror and violence. At the same time he has felt that religious belief should not be abused in the cause of violence and war. In his public appearances, inter-religious dialogue has been a recurrent theme.

In January 2015, when he spoke at the Inter-religious and Ecumenical Gathering at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo, he argued for “full and forthright presentation” of the convictions of different faiths. While there will necessarily be a variety of religious convictions, honest and transparent expression of the same would bring out what unites and divides the believers. He feels that there are adequate resources in each religion in favour of peace and coexistence. While defending religious freedom, he has denounced fanaticism and religious fundamentalism.

Reforms as challenge

It is over the institutional reforms within the Church that he faces some of his biggest challenges. The labyrinthine corridors of Church offices and Papal bureaucracy are replete with vested interests of all kind, and such has been the case for long. The monarchical design of papal administration has little built-in transparency and accountability. Patronage and clientelism are widespread under the sacral canopy. There have been recurrent financial scandals at the Vatican. Recruits from Italy have dominated offices and positions that govern the Church worldwide. The vow of celibacy that binds the Catholic clergy has led to much abuse including child abuse. The Pope has taken some initiatives on this front, by bringing in new personnel, by convening the College of Cardinals as a body to oversee and elicit accountability, and by taking a few measures to strengthen the synod system. But the institutional leviathan side of the Church is little geared yet to imbibe the exhortation of the Pope two years ago at the conclave that elected him: “The Church is sick and it is closed on itself. It needs to go to the peripheries and risk everything for the shunned and marginalized.”

Behind the initiatives

How does one explain these initiatives? Where is the motivation and justification for these initiatives drawn from? The Pope is not a votary of the liberation theology as it is understood generally. While he has admitted even before he became the Pope, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, that many Marxists display exemplary commitment, he has publicly said that Marxist ideology is wrong. He has not favoured the socialist upsurge in Latin American countries in recent years while condemning authoritarianism and dictatorships. In fact he feels that Marxists have stolen the flag of Christianity, the poor.

Some of the initiatives of the Pope can be explained from his own personal experiences — the situation the Church confronts in Argentina where he was a church functionary for decades, and particularly the legacy of the Society of Jesus of which he is a member. He has the reputation of opposing dictatorial rule resolutely in his own country. Even as a Cardinal, he is supposed to have opted for public transport, lived in a small apartment, and cooked his own food. As Pope, he opted to stay at a guesthouse, ‘Domus Sanctae Marthae’, at the Vatican, than at the Apostolic Palace. The anointed ring that he wears is made of silver rather than gold.

These symbolic options can be explained through certain resources available in Christian teaching, i.e., option for the poor, as exemplified in such exhortations as the Sermon on the Mount, which appealed to Mahatma Gandhi immensely. When, as Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio assumed the name of Francis, such partisanship is reflected. Francis of Assisi, a 12th century saint, is known to have dedicated himself to the poor, the sick and the afflicted.

A place for the Church

But the wider context which calls for these initiatives is not less noteworthy. More and more people have deserted the Church in recent decades. In fact, today, church attendance in Europe is at its lowest ebb. There have been new and rival churches on the rise such as the Pentecostals. Very few people look up to a Catholic priest as an exemplar. At the most his role is confined to certain rituals. The intellectual role that the Church once played as well as the academic discipline of theology is increasingly dominated by lay scholars. The Catholic churches generally possess abundant resources in land, buildings and antiques as part of their inheritance. In fact one of the first steps that Pope Francis took after assuming papacy was to sell the shares of banks held by the Vatican and make it a mere account holder.

However, there is a much more serious reason for this initiative. While the developed world can still offer avenues for scientific, literary and humanistic pursuits, and has room for entrepreneurship, questions are being raised increasingly whether it is all there worth striving for. The kind of consumer citizenship that the market promotes leaves little room to pursue dreams and objectives other than commodities. Human concerns come to be narrowly circumscribed. Competitive politics generally revolves around the mundane and the here and now. In this context, there are many who feel that there is a dimension of the human to seek the beyond that has been wholly set aside by the existing state of affairs. Seeking the beyond could also be linking oneself with the other, particularly the deprived other. Pope Francis seeks to insert the Church into this new-found ethical and religious craving. He also probably feels that religious persuasions and particularly the Church should play this role. But can they?

The social issues the Pope has raised are already a part of public reason worldwide. Whether policymakers are going to take the concerns expressed by the Pope seriously or not depends on several factors. Being persuaded by his concern may not be a significant factor in this regard.

The Church enjoys little moral status in many societies today where it was once the dominant voice. There are other voices in society which can claim to play this role, and rightly so. The papal bureaucracy, with its 800-year history, is little prepared to loosen its grip over significant issues, short of a radical overall. Church interests have been caught with capital, power and order for far too long, and there is already a conservative backslide against many of the initiatives of the Pope. Therefore, will he just end up being “the voice crying in the wilderness”?

(Valerian Rodrigues is ICSSR National Fellow at Mangalore University and formerly Professor of Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

The Pope has argued that Islam is a religion of peace, compatible with a respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence, and declared as unacceptable, attempts to isolate Muslims suspecting them for terror and violence.

Pope Francis is seeking to find a place for the Church in a materialistic and market-oriented world where there is a new-found ethical and religious craving

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