Kanpur: It is with a heavy heart that I am writing this piece.
God chose St Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century, saying to him, “Go and repair my church”. Those were the Dark Ages of the Catholic Church, where power, corruption and hedonism were rampant; right up to the highest echelons, the popes themselves.
When the present pope, a Jesuit, took the name of Francis, my favourite saint, in 2013, I was exuberant. His subsequent actions on several fronts confirmed my hope for a purging and renewal of the Catholic Church. However, from this August 26, Pope Francis has been subjected to a vicious attack by one Archbishop Vigano, a former Nuncio to the USA. Those who follow Christian web portals may be aware of the developments, or possibly be wondering who is right or wrong? For those not in the know, let me shed some light on what is transpiring.
For years church personnel, priests and bishops, have been accused of grave sexual misconduct including paedophilia. The most rampant cases were in the USA, Chile, Ireland and Australia. In comparison, we Indians are as innocent as doves!
What accentuated the malaise was a concerted cover up of these abuses by the concerned bishops themselves. They were either buying the silence of the victims through confidentiality agreements a la Trump, by paying damages from church (community) funds, or by subverting the victims through threats.
Here in India the recent cases that have come to light are the charges against the Catholic bishops of Jalandhar in Punjab and Kadapa in Andhra. I wrote an Open Letter to the Papal Nuncio in India as also the Secretary General of the CBCI, hoping for some action. So far their silence has been deafening.
However, as I said, what is happening in India pales into insignificance before other countries. Very recently, over 30 bishops of Chile submitted their resignations to the Pope, accepting responsibility in the cover up operations. In Australia at least one bishop has been found guilty of complicity and abetment of sexual crimes by a civil court.
The latest scandal is a Grand Jury in the USA indicting over 300 priests, including Cardinal McCarrick, for sexual predations, even of minor seminarians. This resulted in Pope Francis removing the cardinal from his post. On his recent trip to Ireland too, Pope Francis had to publicly apologise for the many cases of clerical sexual abuse there.
What has now assumed dangerous proportions is the 11-page letter of Archbishop Vigano, accusing Pope Francis himself of shielding McCarrick, even though he allegedly knew of his sex crimes from the time he became Pope in 2013. I am in no position to comment on the culpability of Pope Francis in this matter; more so since he has come out strongly against all forms of clerical abuse, and even clericalism per se. He has been advocating zero tolerance of any form of clerical sex abuse.
However, within the Catholic Church, there is an ultra-conservative lobby, that is rich in both resources and media contacts; that opposes the reforms of Vatican II, and more recently what they call the “mercy over morals” approach of Francis. This lobby would have us revert to the Latin Mass. It mistakes everything Roman or European for Christian. Not unlike the Evangelical churches, it sees Satan’s diabolical designs in anything and everything that is not in consonance with their thinking. Abp Vigano belongs to this ultra-conservative lobby.
His letter, translated into several languages, was prepared in collusion with senior Italian journalists, and made public on August 26, when Francis was on the return flight from Ireland, accompanied by a battery of media people, and so susceptible to attack.
This “disclosure” has been described as a “bombshell” by its protagonists who are now baying for Francis’ resignation. Secular journals in America and Europe are delighted with this sensational cannon fodder. Added to that, Vigano, the accuser, has apparently switched off his cell phone and gone into hiding, alleging a threat to his life. I find this a cowardly act. If he has the guts to level serious allegations against Francis, then he should also have the guts to stand up and give hard evidence, not conjecture, in support of his allegations. His going into hiding, highlighted by the conservative media, comes across as a well planned ploy to garner sympathy.
When Dan Brown’s infamous “Da Vinci Code” was published about 20 years ago it was also described as a “bombshell” that would destroy Christianity, by striking at its very roots. It is important to here note that his is a work of fiction. Hence it has no scholarly references to bolster his claims. When the movie was to be released in India many hyper-sensitive Christians came out strongly against its release. It was subsequently done with a small one-line disclaimer at the beginning, that it was a work of fiction. At the time my article “Who’s Afraid of da Vinci” was published in the Hindustan Times, besides Christian journals.
Brown wrote several other novels based on palace intrigues of the Vatican, in a further attempt to defame the papacy. We do know that the Freemasons and the Knights Templar have always had this on their agenda. They seem to follow the logic that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. So there can be strange bedfellows in Vatican intrigue, just as we see in Indian politics.
This was most evident when V.P. Singh became Prime Minister with the support of the ultra-right BJP and the ultra-left Marxists. Unfortunately for those who read novelists like Brown, masquerading as historians, they could find his writings disconcerting. This is not because of his pseudo scholarship, but because of the widespread ignorance of those euphemistically referred to as the “faithful”.
So I will not be surprised if both anti-papacy and anti-reform forces have joined hands to defame Francis. The anti-papists agenda has been known for centuries, but the anti-reformists change colour like a chameleon. Some could want the return of retired Pope Benedict. They want the Tridentine Mass with the celebrant mumbling away at the altar, with his back to the “faithful”. They are incensed by Francis’ “merciful” approach to homosexuals and divorced remarried Catholics.
The word “mercy” may sound nice in Latin or Italian, but it has a distinctly condescending tone in English. I would rather use words like “non-judgmental, empathetic, humane or compassionate” to describe Pope Francis’ frame of mind.
Having said all this, the Vatican cannot be given a clean chit for its acts of omission, more than commission. It is often alleged that the Catholic Church arrives huffing and puffing on the scene to do too little too late. It took 400 years to apologise for its actions against Galileo, and years to reconcile the Big Bang theory of evolution with that of creation in the Bible. From our experience of how the Indian hierarchy responds (or doesn’t) this allegation sticks.
The Congress Party introduced the RTI Act to tackle corruption. It was its own downfall; because its opponents used it to the hilt (ably assisted by pliant bureaucrats) to publicly wash all the dirty linen. We need transparency in the church’s functioning, regardless.
However, in the Church it must be emphasised that the hierarchy and the community (faithful) are not protagonists. We are members of one body, and we cannot cut our nose to spite our own face. But we must also accept that if the body has a viral infection, it affects all, laity included.
As a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter, the most highly respected Catholic journal in America states, “The Catholic community has arrived at a point in its history so seared with raw reality that we are all left with nothing to lean against or hide behind”. If the accumulated pus is not purged there is the danger of a limb getting gangrenous necessitating amputation.
Hence the Catholic Church, be it the Vatican, Pope Francis or the CBCI, must humbly acknowledge the just demands and critiques of those of its members who, like me, love the Church; but strongly disagree with much of its orthopraxis, as distinct from its orthodoxy. One needs to hear recall that though St Francis of Assisi is romantically alluded to as the “Il Poverello”, he was no pushover. He himself never became a priest, and often challenged the cardinals and even the popes of his time.
Hence I make a special appeal to the Franciscans, Jesuits and enlightened lay leadership to please speak up for the good of the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that we love. Pope Francis should not now dither in his response to the crisis situation, lest we too be constrained to ask “Quo Vadis Pope Francis”? Whither goest thou?
(The writer is the National President Emeritus of the All India Catholic Union)