THE ANTISOCIAL CHURCH, by John Mackrell
For the individual to live as if there were no society indicates poor mental health. For the institutional Church disregard for civil society is a proud way of life. Those concerned to right injustice are sadly resigned to the muteness of the institutional Church. Why does our hierarchy, unlike Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury and many of his bishops, accept na international corporative economic system, which systematically exploits the poor and vulnerable for the benefit of the rich and powerful?
The simple answer is that since at least the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the institutional Church has tended to look to secular rulers for support in an often hostile world. The Church as a pillar of the establishment has almost inevitably given precedence to its maintenance, over its spiritual mission to the poor and defenceless.
The latter’s protection has usually fallen by default to the many religious orders and individuals, who have continued heroically to live the life of the early Church. Today this Split between the Church establishment and those working with the poor and defenceless is more nuanced. The division is most striking in Latin America, where the Church’s hierarchy often looks successfully to some of the world’s bloodiest tyrants to protect its property and status in society. Meanwhile the ‘other’ Church sharing life in the slums tends the spiritual and physical needs of the poorest of the poor. The two sides met in the person of the El Salvador Archbishop Romero, who openly defended the poor against bloody state repression. When the authorities murdered him in cold blood as he was saying mass, the civilised world registered shock, while Rome was as little embarrassed as when a mitre is blown off in a procession.
The Church, as befits a worldwide organisation, is a skilful player in international affairs. Fine principles are promulgated to the world at large, with no intention of putting them into effect for fear of causing offence to the powerful. The Church’s ability in this way ‘to have its cake and eat it’ is a masterpiece of diplomacy. The invasion of Iraq provides an outstanding example. John Paul II had strongly condemned the proposed attack on Iraq. Yet among the three million protesters in the demonstrations of 2003, there was no official Catholic presence, in case it might embarrass the British government.
In an irreverent cartoon the Pope, who had just given the non-Catholic Tony Blair Holy Communion, greeted him with a ‘Pax Vobiscum’. ‘You must be joking’, replied the cheeky premier, as he prepared the invasion. The Roman Curia, were their members readers of Renew, might be pained to learn that some Catholic clerics, despite the prohibition to engage in politics, prompted by their consciences joined the demonstration against the war. Fr. Columba Ryan, whom I was honoured to count among my friends, informed me that there were Catholic bishops present, though heavily disguised in shabby lay attire, for fear of falling foul of their ecclesiastical superiors. Fr. Columba himself naturally donned his Dominican habit, as befitted the close disciple of Yves Congar, prophet of Vatican II and likewise a truly holy rebel. The bishops in their shabby lay attire honoured us all by their presence. Yet, had they marched in full canonicals in front of the television cameras, they might have stilled Blair’s vengeful hand, just as the Archbishop of Munich in similar dress halted Nazi euthanasia in his city.
A conservative establishment permanently at war with its ‘holy rebels’ is a view of the Church, which has sprung from the failure of Vatican II. Nonetheless, the pessimism of the moment is at variance with the Church’s recent history. Leo XIII in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum of 1891 initiated a rapprochement between the Church and the modern world, which the Vatican Council of 1962-65 in happier circumstances might well have consolidated. That reformist current, so adeptly weakened by the Roman Curia and successive popes, excluding Pope John Paul I, still flourishes among the ‘rebels’ and will surely reassert itself when the papacy awakes from its deep slumbers.
Although Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, appeared in 1891, the opening paragraphs are directly relevant to 2011. Under the heading, ‘The Condition of the Working Classes’ reference is made to ‘the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses…the momentous gravity of the situation, fills every mind with painful apprehension…’so that ‘all agree…some remedy must be found’.
As the threats to the poor in 1891 and 2011 are so strikingly similar, why has the Church moved from active concern to profound silence? The main reason appears to be a gradual waning of Rerum Novarum’s impetus. It is true that Pius XI forty years later in his aptly entitled Quadragesimo Anno of 1931 extolled Rerum Novarum, as the summit of papal achievement in upholding workers’ rights. Yet He added little new, while the tone of the encyclical almost carried assurance that Rerum Novarum’s summit would never be surpassed. During the period before Vatican II the inspiration of Leo XIII’s great encyclical appeared to be exhausted, bar flickering briefly into life with the Worker Priest Movement in France during and after the Second World War.
It was at the Second Vatican Council that an attempt was made to push Leo XIII’s achievement one vital step further. Leo XIII with his intervention on behalf of the workers had effectively brought the Church into the modern world. John XXIII went further by trying to initiate a dialogue between Church and modern society. Realising that a dialogue was scarcely feasible between the Church’s ‘monarch’ and all the interested parties in the modern world, the principle of ‘collegiality’, or collective decision making, was introduced to increase the speakers on behalf of the Church in order to match their counterparts in secular society.
The most damaging blow struck by the Roman Curia in their counter-revolution was to empty collegiality of meaning, so that the Church could resume its comfortable sleep.
Has Goliath ever met a punier David than the Occupation Movement outside St Pauls? On the one hand the masters of global finance, answerable to no one but themselves. On the other a motley crew who plead in many different voices that the rights of a just society should take precedence over money making. To label this ‘debate’ surreal is to employ too weak a term. The Occupation Movement argues a case, while global finance in need of no justification, just resorts to brute force. Secondly, the Occupation Movement is really directing its words not to global finance, but to the British public, which is barely aware that a problem exists. The unreality of the situation is heightened by the Occupation Movement’s failure to relay its ideas effectively.
Without a newspaper and little publicity, the Movement is mainly talking to itself. All praise, therefore to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican bishops who have given their valuable support to the Occupation Movement! Future historians are likely to be astounded by the passivity of the British people in colluding with their political and economic masters in the loss of both their civilised values and the liberty used in their defence. The Occupation Movement is often ridiculed for being divided about their objectives and how to attain them.
Yet such criticisms miss the links which unite the occupiers. Members of the Movement are agreed that its starting-point should be a discussion in which all views are considered on what constitutes a just society. That should form the irreducible basis for everything else. The driving force would no longer be compliance with market forces, which are outside the people’s control. The people should have the right to choose a society, which is fair to all and reject one shaped by impersonal economic forces. Such views only seem strange and unreasonable because of the circumstances in which they are advocated. It would have been far better had social justice formed society’s basis from the very start. It is an added disadvantage that a debate about the fundamental ends of society should need to take place outside Parliament. A current government without a mandate, sovereignty snatched by Downing Street from Parliament, where the majority of MPs are unrepresentative of their constituents, often pursue their own interests rather than the public good, and are ultimately in the pocket of global finance disqualifies Parliament as a forum for public debate.
The apathy of the Catholic hierarchy threatens to harm both society and the Church. When the Church opts out of the current struggle for freedom and democracy, it is in effect using the weight of its members to bolster injustice. How the Church can be an influence for good in a world, where it has no part, is a question best left to the hierarchy. Until good sense prevails in that quarter, others must surely follow their consciences. That is no idle challenge. The City of London is seeking an injunction to remove the Occupation from the front of St Pauls. A religious alliance of Christians, Buddhists and others are volunteering to form a protective ring around the Occupation. Democrats headed by John McDonnell M.P. intend to form a second protective ring around the Christians and their allies. In these circumstances we may confidently expect the Catholic hierarchy to be at their most invisible.
1 Anne Freemantle, The Papal Encyclicals in Their Historical Context, 1963, pp. 166-67
From: Renew. The quarterly magazine of Catholics for a Changing Church, n. 161, march 2012, pp. 1-3
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