Spirituality without the Churches

Canterbury © PP

          No institution is immune to scandal. The Catholic Church has had its share throughout its history.

Since the Holy See is also a secular State, its policy could for example be seriously questioned with the ambiguous attitude, not yet perfectly clarified by historians, of Pope Pius XII regarding the Jewish question. Some of its representatives, even reaching the higher echelons, went astray, such as priests and bishops blessing combatants – generally opposed to the Republicans – during the Spanish Civil War. 

Closer to us, many vagaries  have been unveiled, whether intricate real estate or banking scandals. But the findings of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) – established at the initiative of the Church itself -, which have just been published, give a new and unparalleled dimension to the accusations that the Catholic Church and its representatives may be subjected to on a recurring basis. The extent and seriousness of the faults committed are such that the report refers to “systemic” errors. This is a real earthquake that could carry off everything in its wake. The Church of France – and probably even beyond – is threatened in its very existence.

It is not a question of going back into detail on the conclusions of the Sauvé Report, which has already been extensively commented on. What we need to remember is the shock wave, the magnitude of the tremor, and there is not even a Richter scale to measure it because we are dealing here with an institution deemed sacred. It is sometimes necessary to go to the international media to find the strongest statements of the President of the Commission about “the appalling reality”, in the words of Pope Francis. While it can be learned in the French press that the Church has shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference towards the victims”, it is necessary to look in foreign publications to read the developments relating to an organized omerta (see “actions were taken really about protecting the institution and maintaining the failing priests in the priesthood”) and the mention of François Ozon’s film Grâce à Dieu (NB: in reference to the public statements of the Cardinal of Lyon, who resigned in 2019 according to which the crimes of which Father Preynat was accused had been prescribed “thanks to God”.

While the report deals with a past period, the essential question now concerns the present and the future of a Church which is undermined in its legitimacy. Responding to questions from the media, the Bishop of Versailles explained the phenomenon in question by a misguided and limitless use of the considerable power of clerics over souls and therefore human beings (“the laying of hands on others”). The issue of power is indeed central and twofold: it is a question of reconsidering both the hierarchies within the Church and the power vested in the clerics which too often surpasses the spiritual realm.

The Catholic Church is undoubtedly today at a similar tome in its existence to that of the Protestant Reformation. Some parallels of situation can even be identified with 16th century Germany, even though as always analogies are imperfect. At the time it was a question of dealing with the dysfunctions of the Roman Church (see the debauched “curetons”; the Popes behaving as sovereigns, such as Leo X, a sumptuous patron, son of Lawrence the Magnificent) in a climate of profound economic and social disorder (see the Peasants’ War of 1525). We should speak here of Thomas Münzer, one of the religious leaders of the Peasants’ War and one of the great protagonists of the Reformation, as well as of Martin Luther who finally sided with the powerful (“Dear lords, stab, smite, slay whoever can…”) and put an end to revolutionary Protestantism. The essential inspiration of the Reformation movement is that we must go back to the origins of Christianity, that is, to the practice of the Scriptures (see “the true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel”, the Wittenberg’s theses). For Luther, author of these theses posted on the eve of the Feast of All Saints 1517, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject t none”, which is the affirmation of free interpretation (sola fide), if not of free will.

The gangrene revealed within the Church of France – but we could also speak of Germany, the United States, Australia – cannot be settled by reforms such as the marriage of priests or the more important role of women within the Church. The Bishop of Versailles rightly recalled that there was no causal link between celibacy – which is nothing to be ashamed of and can be endured as chosen – and pedophilia, which is a crime in the criminal sense of the term. It is not a question of burdening the guilty as men; some will be prosecuted by the courts when the deeds are not prescribed; for all, forgiveness and remission of sins must be granted; but all, for whom “God was no longer the parishioner”, must disappear as representatives of a system. 

The Catholic Church is fortunate to have Pope Francis in these turbulent times. He is the first Jesuit pope in history and membership in this order is quite significant. The Jesuits, who today constitute the main male religious order, are both at the heart of the Church’s system, as they were founded to be entirely devoted to the Pope and also marginal to him because of their “secular” behaviour. and their openness to the vast world. Pope Francis embodies this duality and we can even say that he governs the Church from the outside. He has given tangible signals of this: he never occupied the Archiepiscopal Palace of Buenos Aires and does not live in the papal apartments. He is even sometimes accused of being more in the world than a Pope in the sense of an authority exercising power over the Curia and the Church.

The apparent paradox for a “Jesuit” Pope, while the order took the lead of the Counter-Reformation after the Council of Trent- in practice a Catholic reform -, is to preside over a radical transformation of the Church, only to see it perish. The pattern that could emerge would then be somewhere between the present organization and that of the Evangelical Churches, since a supreme spiritual authority would dominate all religious communities whose intermediary powers would have disappeared. The counterweight to the exercise of such power without sharing lies precisely in the motto of the Jesuits: “Ad majorem Dei gloriam”.

The perverse effects of a religion organized as a power are not limited to the Catholic Church. The risk is always twofold: that inherent in the relations of power outside the Church; the organization of an internal chain of executive authority to the detriment of spirituality. This may be, for example, the problem of Orthodoxy and Stalin understood all the benefits he could derive from the collaboration of the Orthodox Church during the Second World War; today, in Russia the church is a pillar of the state with its Patriarchate. In contrast, the Muslim religion has no supreme dignitary, the main reference among the Sunnis being the Rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

For the Catholic Church today it is a question of saving itself through spirituality. This can flourish in magical places but it also exists outside the Churches, movements, even sects which are also one of the dangers of the breakdown of the structure. The metaphysical beauty of the Arabian Peninsula escapes Whahhabism, even if it is not unrelated to this movement; the masses celebrated in Syria in the Aramaic language, both in Saydnaya and in Maaloula, convey by definition the message of the origins;  It does not matter that Hagia Sophia is a mosque because it is also the most sumptuous of basilicas, provided that its Byzantine mosaics are preserved.


Holy Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, Istanbul © PP

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