“Ciao,questo e` Papa Francesco” (Hello, this is Pope Francis calling).
“Aap jis number ko call kar rahe hain,vah kaphi samay se network coverage se bahar hai” (The number you are calling has been out of the network area for some time)!
Pope Francis was desperately trying to get through to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Secretariat; without success. He asked one of his Indian aides why that was so. The aide replied that it was because the number was part of the BSNL network. The Pope was curious to know what the acronym stood for. The aide mischievously replied, “Bhai sahab nahin lagta” (Brother it doesn’t work), a meme on the Government owned telecom network.
Jokes apart, is Pope Francis actually getting through to India? Is his message coming across? The indices are to the contrary. Has any bishop in India written a pastoral letter on papal documents like Vos Estis Lux Mundi (promulgated on 7/5/19), regarding clerical sexual abuse; Fratelli Tutti (3/10/20) on universal brotherhood and the environment; the Motu Proprio (30/4/21) on changes to the juridical procedures for the trial of prelates; or Pascite gregem Dei (1/6/21) on revision of Canon Law on penal provisions for various offences by church personnel?
What about Francis’ visit to the Dicastery of the Congregation of the Clergy in May 2015? Referring to priests fathering children he had said that it was an automatic reason for dispensation; as such a person “must fulfil his natural obligations as a father towards his child. It is not enough to give money to financially support the child. It needs to be educated, formed and accompanied by his or her parents”. This categorical statement was conveyed to Abp Filipe Neri Ferrao, the CCBI (Latin Rite) President in a letter dt 24/10/2019, signed by the then Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Beniamino Stella.
Has any parish priest ever delivered a sermon on any of these promulgations? There is a plethora of YouTube channels and online programmes in these pandemic times. They are full of pious platitudes, but there is no enlightenment on contemporary church teachings, especially in the Francis era. Perhaps these worthies presume that the laity is like dumb sheep (cattle class) that are best left to wallow in their own ignorance.
How many of us here in India are aware of the pot being stirred across the Atlantic, from Germany to the USA? Are we aware that Pope Francis is trying to make the church less Roman, and more catholic (universal)? He had the Amazonian Synod in 2019 that unfortunately turned out to be a damp squib; perhaps because the conservatives in North America prevailed over the liberals from South America. Despite that, last year Francis appointed Cardinal Fridolin Besungu OFM Cap of the Democratic Republic of Congo to his small inner circle of advisors. Other members are Cardinal Oswald Gracias from India, Luis Tagle from the Philippines and Reinhard Marx from Germany. This month he was chosen South Korean Bp Lazarus You Heung-sik to head the Congregation of the Clergy till now headed by Italian Cardinal Stella. Notice that none of these are Romans (Italians), and just one is a European.
Writing in La Croix International on 18/6/21 veteran Vaticanista, Robert Mickens, predicts that the “Church Implosion is right on schedule”. He says that Francis’ push for synodality (walking together) has further opened the doors for a process that will allow for the “deconstruction of a long out dated and anachronistic church structure”. Notice his choice of words. An explosion is from an external force, while an implosion is from within. Deconstruction again is very different from destruction.
Mickens says that in its existing structure the Catholic Church is the “last monarchy in the West ... an anachronism ... This outdated model no longer incarnates the lived experience of the believers who live in participative and representative democracies”. So there is a mismatch between the “rulers” and the “subjects”.
He adds that “Most important decisions are made almost exclusively by a celibate male clergy, and whose bishops are held to little or no accountability, is unsustainable in a world where patriarchal and monarchical societies are ceding rights and duties to those who are not part of the nobility, the clergy or one specific gender”. Readers may recall my oft repeated statement that “Celibate old males in boardrooms should not decide what young couples do in their bedrooms”.
To keep this old boy’s club together, Mickens says that for priestly vocations the emphasis has been on celibacy and docility. This has “resulted in lowered standards of intellectual, psychological and personal acumen” and by default “a shallower pool of talent for bishops”. Most lay persons would agree with this assessment that can have and already has had, damaging consequences for the future health and vitality of the church.
Lest he sound alarmist Mickens clarifies that he is not talking of the demise of the Catholic Church. “God is not dead and the Holy Spirit will never leave Christ’s faithful” he asserts. Rather it is “about the crumbling of the present governing and organizational structure, which mirrors certain features of the Roman Empire”.
He goes on to say “Francis is effectively laying the foundation for the deconstruction of the current model ... His goal is to make the structures and mentality of the Church more reflective of the Gospel and the person of Jesus ... He is creating a large and indispensable forum for all voices to be heard through the classic, but too often forgotten, process of discernment” (a Jesuit forte). In many ways he is echoing the call of Jeremiah. “I have put my words in your mouth. Look, today I have set you over the nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10). And again, “Prophets and priests roam the country at their wits end”(Jer 14:17).
Now back to Germany and the USA. Earlier this month Cardinal Marx of Munich and Freising submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, assuming responsibility for his inability to curtail clerical sex abuse. Ironically, he was in the forefront of Francis’ campaign against this huge blot on the church. Many hailed Marx for his humility and pragmatism. Others said that he was abandoning a sinking ship.
I was one of those who did not expect Francis to accept Marx’s resignation. Firstly, he was not responsible for what others had done. It was a situation that he had inherited and fought against. Secondly, as a close confidante of Francis, it would have been seen as an act of surrender to the lobby that oppose Francis’ reform agenda. Germany, like Australia, was one of the few countries that had adopted the synodal path, as the way forward. Of this Marx had earlier said “The church is at a dead end. Change is possible only if we take the synodal path”. The German Synod has 230 members, including lay representatives from the Central Committee of German Catholics. Topics for the Synod include power structures and participation in the Church, sexuality and partnerships, priestly existence today (notice the choice of words) and women’s ministries and offices in the Church.
There was too much at stake for Francis to accept Marx’s resignation. To the contrary he responded by saying that the whole church is in crisis because of abuse. It cannot have a “head in the sand” (ostrich like) policy. He reminded Marx of St Peter’s first interaction with Jesus. Sensing his own inadequacy he had blurted out “Depart from me a sinner”. Jesus’ response was “Feed my sheep”, the same command he gave to Peter at the Ascension. Peter is my favourite biblical character. He is so human and yet so forthright, ideal for Christian discipleship!
It is for this reason that Mickens, again writing in La Croix, says that “Marx is one of the most energetic and forceful proponents of ecclesial reform through synodality, a process of wide ranging consultation of the church members that Francis is trying to make constitutive of Catholicism”.
Now to the other end of the spectrum, across the Atlantic, in the USA. The roots go back to the time that Abp Vigano was the Nuncio. He had then levelled serious allegations against Pope Francis that were subsequently disproved. He had the backing of several American bishops, the conservative lobby that were against Francis’ reformist agenda. Many of us in India, whose only experience of the USA is through Hollywood movies, think of American society as liberal. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 proved quite the contrary, that the majority of Americans were illiberal, intolerant, racist and even mysonigistic. As with the BJP in India, Trump appealed to those same sentiments for his re-election campaign in 2020. This was compounded by the fact that his opponent, Joe Biden, was a practicing devout Catholic. The problem arose because the Democratic Party, to which Biden belonged, was pro-abortion. Trump then prevailed upon the pro-life lobby among the American hierarchy to support him on this one point agenda.
It is in this context that we must see the attempt this month by the American bishops’ conference to pass a motion to deny Holy Communion to Biden. This threatened to cause a schism in the Catholic Church in the USA. The charge against Biden was led by the President of the bishops’ conference, Abp Jose Gomez of Los Angeles; whom Francis had repeatedly passed over in his selection of cardinals.
This denial of communion is actually heretical, based on the Jansenist heresy. Its name is derived from Bishop Cornelius Jansen of Ypres in the seventeenth century. He believed that the “church constituted only of saints”. So Communion was a reward for being good. This dangerous teaching was condemned by Popes Pius VI, Urban VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VIII.
It is also contrary to the ecclesiology of Vatican II. The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church describes itself as an “initial budding forth” (LG 5), not something in full bloom. It again describes itself as a “pilgrim” (LG 8) not something that has reached its destination. It clearly admits that the “Church embraces sinners sin her bosom” (Ibid).
So who is in error – Abp Gomez or Pope Francis? The answer is obvious. That is why Francis had to intervene, warning the American bishops that they were in serious error. It was left to the Papal Nuncio, Abp Christophe Pierre to tell them that “Holy Communion is not merely a thing to be received, but Christ himself, a person to be encountered”. Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Christopher White commented that church “unity should be based on encounter and dialogue, not merely on doctrinal or juridical unity.”
Where do the bishops of India stand? Have they answered Papa Francesco’s phone call? Have they heeded his call for a synodal, participative, transparent and accountable church? Or are they, with their medieval European Coats of Arms and honorifics like Eminence/Excellency still stuck in the Middle Ages; or worse still, the Dark Ages of Church History?
Till recently the Indian hierarchy and even the Nunciature were notorious for their ominous silences. However, in the very recent past I have had a few members of the hierarchy responding to my articles and correspondence. So all is not lost. As the poet Alexander Pope said “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. He was an eighteenth century English poet, not a pope!
Maybe the CBCI will pick up the receiver the next time they hear “Ciao, questo e` Papa Francesco”. Perhaps they could begin by changing their telecom service provider!!
- The writer has expressed these thoughts in greater detail in his latest book The Jerusalem Code.