By Mark McConaghy
At a time of acute crisis in the life of the Catholic Church, what are five things that it could do to make itself into a revitalized, socially progressive, and powerfully empathetic institution for the 21st century?
1. A Comparative Perspective
In the mid 18th century, the power of the Manchu Qing Dynasty must have looked well-nigh impossible to stop. From 1755 to 1792 the dynasty, under the leadership of the Qianlong Emperor, fought an almost non-stop series of wars. These conflicts, most of which were won successfully by the Qing, nearly doubled the area of the already vast empire and brought under Qing control a whole plethora of non-Chinese peoples, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Krygyz, Evenks, and Mongols. The fact that the People’s Republic of China can produce claims of sovereignty over places as far flung as Xinjiang and Tibet stems by and large from the wars of imperial conquest fought during the 18th century by the Qing.
And so it was that, by the end of the 18th century, the dynasty must have seemed absolutely awesome in its power and endurance. It possessed a flourishing imperial network that extended from Central Asia to India, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the South Asian seas. It also possessed a stability in central leadership that saw the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors rule for a collective total of 135 years. That such a vast empire found its origins in the rebellious activity of a collection of Manchu horsemen from the Northeastern plains north of the Great Wall has to be one of the most startling political trajectories in recorded history.
And yet, little more than 100 years later, the Qing dynasty would be no more. All of that vast wealth and ferocious military power, celebrated in so many palace memorials, state sponsored anthologies, and dynastic art works…all of it, by 1911, gone. Destroyed. Consigned to the dustbin of history as the last of the great imperial dynasties of China. Awesome in its own day, but utterly unable to adjust to the modern world: trapped in its regressive conceptions of tribute, rule, and cosmological polity. By 1900 the complexities of modernization lay on China’s doorstep, and revolutionaries such as Sun Yatsen could no longer abide by a dynasty that seemed unable to develop modern networks of transportation and communication, refused to give women the opportunity to be educated, and most of all seemed utterly incapable of protecting the country’s own sovereignty in a world of rapacious imperialist nation states.
To look out at the Forbidden City in Beijing today is to see the architectural ruins of a lost world, one that the Chinese people simply could not abide by any longer in the 20th century. That was a new time with new values, defined by a belief in democracy, universal education, the freedom of the individual, and the right of the people to check state power. An authoritarian monarchy that had no ability to address domestic suffering and international imperialist threat could no longer be supported. Revolution was at hand, and the birth pangs of such a process took the better part of the 20th century to work themselves out. Indeed, the dilemmas of modernity are still with China today, as they are with every nation in complex ways.
2. All Empires Fall
I often think back to the Qing dynasty, and the awesome beauty of the Forbidden City, when I read news about the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, I truly appreciate the architectural majesty of Catholicism’s own Forbidden Palace: the Vatican City. I spent a wonderful two weeks in Rome as part of a trip I took designed for personal reflection before I started graduate school. I had never been to Europe before and the incredible urban space presented by the center of Rome- with its unending narrow alleyways which flow, almost miraculously, into massive cobblestone squares- had an incredible influence on me. For the firs time in my life I was awoken to how beautiful urban public space can be, and I spent day after day simply walking the winding, sun-hued streets, sensing the rhythms and breaks of the city coursing over my body, enthralled to be in such an urban web. With its immaculately clear light, its burn-glow sunsets, and its soaring cathedrals, Rome truly is the eternal city: a sense of spiritual calm, pensive and melodic, pervades the urban core.
And to stand in the center of St. Peter’s Square is eerily similar to standing in the center of its counterpart in Beijing: both possess the majesty and awe of imperial grandeur, figured in the awesomeness of their public squares and the quiet solemnity of their intimate courtyards.
The Qing, of course, is long since dead, and yet the Vatican and its Catholic empire of dioceses, churches, bishops, priests, and believers still stretches across the world, counting over a billion people. When critics of nationalism want to think of transnational identities that could break the hold the nation state has on us, the global religious communities of Catholicism and Islam undoubtedly come up in discussion. Regardless if one is an 18 year old Catholic convert in Taiwan or a 90 year old nun in South Africa, you could ostensibly meet on any street in any part of the world and feel an instant kinship: for beyond whatever national affiliation you may have, you share an even higher authority you submit to. That subservience to God is, ostensibly, the basis for some solidarity that exceeds national identification.
And indeed, standing in St. Peter’s Square, with the massive marble and stone cathedral looming high over head, the circular columns enwrapping you in a long, aching embrace, one has the impression that nothing could topple this holy, venerated Church. Just like the Manchu dynasty at the start of the 19th century, the Church seems awesome, mighty, and absolutely eternal.
And yet, like the Manchus before them, the Catholic Empire is facing a massive crisis of institutional legitimacy. People who believe that the Catholic Church will always be around, that something as persistent as the 2000 year old institution could never topple over, would do well to remember the Qing case. Due to internal corruption, lethargy, famine, civil wars, and most importantly an utter inability to interface with the modern world, the Qing dynasty not only lost the loyalty of its subjects, but it sent the entire structure of imperial government into disrepute. When the dynasty was overthrown in 1911, it was replaced not by another imperial ruler but by a Republican system with a modern constitution. This was a rejection of not just a specific ruler, but of an entire form of rule- autocratic monarchy- the only one that China had known for over 2000 years.
What must have appeared as utterly impossible 100 years earlier- that not only the Qing would lose power, but that China would no longer be ruled by the son of heaven at all- seemed absolutely necessary in 1911.
The lesson? All empires, all institutional forms are open to radical change, even outright elimination, if they cannot meet the needs of their subjects.
What can the Catholic Church do to avoid consigning itself to irrelevancy in the 21st century? Let me say this at the outset: I’m not here to blindly critique the church in a one-sided, vitriolic manner. I think Catholic charities and institutions do much great work on the ground in their local communities. We need more examples of selflessness in our hyper-individualized, pathologically consumerist society. Catholic teachings on social justice and human empathy could not be closer to my own feelings. I cannot abide by human immiseration in any form. It is a crime that we have let it go on in our society for so long. As we always say at this blog: the absolute bare minimum for a socially just society is material security for all from the cradle to the grave.
No dead bodies.
So my issue with the Catholic church is not in its charitable work, and even less so with catholics themselves. Nor are my reservations vested in any deeply rooted theological conviction: I’m not a Catholic myself, nor do I believe in God.
The reason I take issue with the Catholic Church is because of the incredible potential the Church itself has: with over a billion followers, with institutional extensions literally across the world, the church has a massive platform with which to sway the hearts and minds of global citizens. It is truly a transnational identity and institution, and if it could somehow morph itself into an effective counterweight against so much of the institutional violence we see in the world, it will have done a service to humanity.
And yet if it continues along its path of institutional conservatism, of myopic avoidance of the liberal expectations of the vast majority of polities on earth, and its routine discrimination against social groups it finds beneath it, then the slide towards irrelevancy will only increase.
If the Vatican thinks itself as permanent and stable, as fixed in its marble-walled majesty, I would only encourage the leaders of the Church to take a lesson from Chinese history: if the Chinese can get rid of the governmental, legal, and spiritual system its people had known for more than 2000 years, than such a revolutionary change can happen to the Vatican as well.
Nothing is so sacred as to be beyond history. If the church cannot reform itself, it will perish, and we will all wonder, after the fact, how it could have remained for so long in a world whose values and desires it no longer understood. Indeed, I think it’s a fair question to ask if in 100 years from now there will even be something like the Catholic Church still around. That is how quickly the world is changing, with the ground beneath our feet sliding constantly all around us.
3. The List
So, without further delay, the 5 things I want to see from the next pope, in no particular order:
1) An End to Discrimination by the Church of the LGBT community
Jesus’ message, at heart, was about universal love. The church has disgraced that message by turning its back on the LGBT community and treating them as deformed and diseased members of the human family. Imagine what an expression of human inclusion it would be if the next pope openly welcomed gays into the church by claiming that they can be married before the eyes of god? Gays and lesbians have been fighting for a basic amount of human respect and juridical recognition from their societies for hundreds of years. If Jesus were to return to earth tomorrow, one of the first communities he would embrace would be the LGBT one, which has seen so much discrimination, hatred, and shame-inducing stigma hurled at it.
2) Women Should be Allowed to be Priests
Why can a woman not shepherd her flock? Why can a woman not be close enough to god to provide spiritual guidance, understanding, and sacramental service to others? To discriminate against women in such an institutional fashion is an appalling rehearsal of patriarchal norms that are resolutely feudal in nature. They have no place in a progressive, globalized, interconnected society of the 21st century. Simply put, people should be judged on professional performance, social behavior, and political attitude, not on the gender we associate with their physical bodies.
3) Priests Should be Allowed to Marry if They So Choose!
Imagine a parishioner comes to you with a problem: he is having marital doubts, feeling an ever increasing emotional distance from his wife. He is beginning to resent his kids too, who seem to provide an ever constant drain on his savings without providing any kind of affection in return. To make matters worse, he has met someone at the office who he truly clicks with, and the potential for a family breaking affair is on the rise. He comes to you with his problem, seeking solace and guidance.
What could a priest who had been celibate his entire life, who had never known the intimate bonds of a committed, monogamous, romantic relationship, who had never experience the sacrificial duty of parenthood, and who had long stopped indulging in his physically imbedded sexual urges say to this parishioner? What practical advice could he provide, other than empty words devoid of real, concrete experience?
Marriage, if priests so chose to enter one, has the potential to make them better spiritual leaders, with a greater sense of the fine-grained complexity of domestic life. With absolutely no biblical basis for the ban on marriage amongst priests, it seems to be sheer institutional masochism that enables this tradition to continue.
4) True Repentance Needs to be Shown in the Face of the Sexual Abuse Scandal- and That Means Institutional Accountability
The church is not wrong when it claims that sexual abuse is hardly a problem singular to the Catholic Church: so many publicly-minded institutions in the last 30 years, from elementary schools to public universities to charities, have become institutional covers for sexual predators. And yet recognizing this hardly absolves the church for the blame it must bear in relation to the sexual abuse scandals that have quite rightly shaken Catholics’ faith the world over.
First, if the church is to talk about the morality of god, it must itself be a sacred institution: its standard of moral conduct needs to be higher than any other institution in society. It must simply be impeccable. One cannot claim a moral mandate to absolve subjects of sin, to baptize children into a holy communion, or to pray for the souls of the dead in purgatory if one does not have the purity of heart to do so. To talk about charity, sacrifice, and justice is meaningless if you do not yourself embody those ideals through force of moral example. This is the great gift that Confucian philosophy and Chinese cultural history has taught us.
Now, the Church, like all socially constructed institutions, is made up of fallible humans, and it has erred deeply in its obstruction of justice regarding abuse cases, an institutional pattern we have seen from Boston to Dublin to Sydney. The church is a global organization and must take responsibility for the actions of every priest under its umbrella.
First, it must rid itself of any priest, bishop, or institutional member who had anything to do with covering up sexual abuse- and that means the defrocking of some of the bishops who are right now voting in the papal conclave. Of course, if one took that rule far enough, you may need to defrock a huge swath of institutional leadership.
And yet, the purging needs to occur- how could a believer ever accept confessional repentance from a priest who had enabled, through his willful obfuscations, the rape of a child? How can there be any talk of justice or moral right after that reality is admitted? The old guard of the church, the one whose first thought was to cover up all scandal lest it stain the irreproachable facade of their treasured institution, must be held accountable. For their neglect of basic human decency towards the victims of abuse has destroyed the moral leadership necessary to shepherd their flocks.
And this means, of course, opening the church up to all forms of criminal investigation, to be launched in every jurisdiction and in every country, and cooperating fully, without reservation, and without legal obfuscation with all civic authorities. The church may be crippled via civil litigation, but if that is the case than so be it. There is a price for all kinds of sin, even of the institutional variety. The church will emerge impoverished, perhaps, but morally stronger.
5) The Church Must Finally Take an Unwavering Position on the Injustice of Modern Capitalism
Once again, it gets down to a simple issue of social justice and human dignity. The Catholic Church cannot preach universal love, it cannot encourage us to work against poverty and homelessness, if it does not take a coherent and firm position on the greatest source of human inequality in our world: the rapacious drive of unchecked, unregulated neo-liberal capitalism.
As I write, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has neared a record high, while workers, tradesmen, unions, public servants, and small business owners wait for the recovery to finally arrive on Main Street. There is a fundamental cleavage in our society between corporate power (and the wealthy employed few attached to it) and the working classes, those of whose who are forced to sell our labor power to subsist. We did not have the financial and cultural capital to get the scant number of high paid corporate positions there are in the world, and have found ourselves having to scrounge for subsistence in public fields such as education, the arts, medicine, social work, and public infrastructure, all of which are wholly dependent on public sector investment for their continued operation. And this is to say nothing of the true working poor, those who scrap by in low and minimum wage jobs, who lack college training and start-up capital, who have seen the path to social mobility permanently barred from them. Indeed, a report released last week by McMaster University has warned us that in our own home province of Ontario, over half the work force exists in this form of precarious employment. That kind of violent division upon our Canadian social body should be a source of shame for every citizens of this country.
The church cannot possibly preach social justice unless it attacks the root causes of injustice in our society, and that begins with the system of economic production and distribution we have attached ourselves to. For such a system produces great wealth, but can only do so in woefully unequal ways, and the violence of class existence has only grown more prevalent in the last two decades, not less.
If the message of the Catholic Church is truly one that is pro-life, then it needs to get serious about what promoting life really means: protecting it from the cradle to the grave, insuring that no system which exposes vast swaths of people to the precariousness of unemployment, institutional disempowerment, and sheer bodily exploitation can continue to exist.
The message of Jesus- one of universal love for all people- is a message of socialism. For if it were not, then it wouldn’t be universal love at all. The church must listen to its very own prophet and embrace the socialist impulses which, though briefly expressed during the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, have been suppressed ever since out of geopolitical and ideological pressure.
4. Final Remarks
There you have it: a socially progressive, loving, wildly accepting, multi-cultural, gender-blended Catholic Church, one that would be an unwavering bulwark against the ravages of austerity and the excesses of capitalism, a calm and moral order in our sea of market recklessness.
That is a path to rejuvenation for this church. It is, ultimately, the secular mission that it must embrace if it is to hold to its divine calling.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he is actively thinking of ways to integrate his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.