God’s own man

Not just the church, Pope is bringing in a civilisational reform for the priestly class

Rajesh Ramachandran

The Western civilisation was always about conquest, colonisation, technology, innovation and, of course, the riches that therefore accrued. The grinding, real poverty of the colonised East went along well with the renunciation of the material world by the naked fakirs, the naga sadhus and the loin cloth-clad preachers of morality. It was almost immoral to be wealthy for an Indian. Well, modernity changed all that, particularly the post-liberalisation era. Slowly, Indians, too, have broken free from the shackles of feudal hierarchies and family legacies and have begun measuring success in terms of wealth. And wealth can only get manifested in possessions: flashy cars, palatial mansions, aircraft, permanent residencies in the first world, in short, the unleashing of the animal spirits.

When individuals form themselves into groups — religious belief being the obvious glue — the sole influence markers for such groups are the cars, mansions and the rest of the worldly wealth offered to their spiritual leader. So, instead of skinny sadhus and hungry monks we now have portly, billionaire babas, who make movies to promote themselves and Fast Moving Consumer Goods gurus who buy islands to show off. Along with this ostentatious worldliness comes packaged the carnal desires that make these priests deadly predators. After money comes rape and then murder to cover up all their earlier crimes. The clergy, of all faiths, seems to be treating sex as some sort of a ritual offering that is expected of the followers and their children. No wonder, every other ordained or self-proclaimed godman is now under a cloud.

Curiously, it is in this context a correctional voice from the West is preaching virtues of austerity, humility, probity and justice. Pope Francis is bringing in a civilisational reform, not just for the Catholic Church, but for the clergy at large across belief systems and without denominational differences. His is a voice of sanity that is correcting the excesses of the West and telling the world that it need not have copied all that was wrong with the corruption and affluence in the Western spiritual world. One of his first deeds after becoming Pope was to give up the papal palace for a humble hostel for visiting senior officials of the church with a common kitchen. Then one day he was presented a beat-up Renault 4 that had done 3 lakh km and he is supposed to have driven it around the Vatican. The message was clear, buy cheap cars. And the question hung in the air, ‘What would have God driven?’ As a cardinal in Argentina, he used to travel by the metro.

But his greatest contribution to the priestly class the world over is in putting an end to the tradition of saving priests caught in sexual crimes using the dictum of Pontifical Secrets. The reports of sexual crimes by the clergy are often buried in bureaucratic cobwebs by bishops citing ancient rules of secrecy. All these years, the attempt was to hide the sins of the clergy within the walls of ashrams, mutts, deras, mosques and churches. Even when cases of child abuse were getting reported from across the continents, they were never acknowledged. ‘The church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them. This has led to a growing sense of uncertainty, distrust and vulnerability among the faithful. As we know, the mentality that would cover things up, far from helping to resolve conflicts, enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationship that today we are called to heal and restore,’ the Pope wrote to the US conference of Catholic bishops on January 1. But, what was said in the context of sex scandals in the US is applicable wherever power is exercised in the name of God, religion and community all over the world. The Pope is to hold a summit on clerical sexual abuse later this month and the hopes are so high that the Vatican is now trying to deflate the hype around the meeting.

But, Pope Francis surpassed himself on Tuesday when he publicly acknowledged the sexual abuse of nuns by priests. On his way back from the UAE to Rome, aboard the papal aircraft, in a news conference he was asked about priests who target nuns. ‘It is not that everyone does it, but there have been priests and bishops who have,’ he told reporters. This public acknowledgement by the head of the world’s largest religious body is probably the biggest blow to notions of patriarchal entitlement. The Pope heads a church where only men can offer Mass and only men become bishops, yet this open admission of abuse of power by men in sacramental clothes goes a long way in reforming the old, bad ways of the men of God.

It is not just ashrams and deras, but the Catholic Church, too, is under the scanner in India. A group of nuns had to take a rape complaint against Jalandhar bishop Franco Mulakkal to the public and sit in protest for two weeks outside the Kerala High Court for the police to arrest the bishop. In fact, Pope Francis’ message is most important for the Kerala Government and the so-called secular ruling formations that dither before acting against rape and murder accused in priestly vestments. Whether it is Haryana or Kerala, journalist Ramchander Chhatrapati or the raped nun, the wheels of justice refuse to roll because politicians believe that the corrupt clergy has some inordinate influence over the voters. The political fiasco in Punjab over the dera absolution only proves how wrong these politicians are. Politicians of Kerala or Punjab may not understand the difference between Francis and Franco, but the people do and there is a hell lot.

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