May 6, 2012       
                          David Timbs    (Melbourne)                                       David's previous articles   


Who’s talking to whom and about what?

One of the greatest miracles of Christianity beyond the fact that it still exists is that it has communicated its message with stunning success throughout history. It has become expert in finding a home in places and cultural environments quite foreign to its own. It has appropriated the languages of the host societies, communicating and expressing its beliefs in foreign signs and symbols. The Word became human in many forms and dwelt among many peoples.

The original genius, inspiration and inventiveness of a Charism and its capacity to remain prophetic have always faced the possibility of becoming complacent and presumptuous. Over the centuries, this has sadly been the Christian experience. With ecclesiastical ascendancy and power, its message has gradually become domesticated and muted. This has always happened when the Church has forgotten that it is a means to an end, the servant not the served. 

The Second Vatican Council, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, sought to reverse this process not only in theology and praxis. The Council reclaimed the authentic biblical imagery of the Church as People of God with its message of Good News to preach to a modern world. The internal culture of the Catholic Church underwent a swift and dramatic transformation and this in turn profoundly affected its relationship with secular society. US Jesuit historian John O’Malley describes the changes of direction,

From commands to invitation, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawal to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust….from fault finding to appreciation, from behaviour modification to appreciation.

Vatican II challenged all Catholics to experience a new Pentecost and a radical transformation of being and call to action. It encouraged a profound adult renewal by reappropriating the baptismal call to engagement, partnership and participation in ecclesial life. The Council also challenged the Catholic laity to take on not only education in the faith but also to become faith educators. All were reminded that preparation and effective communication are vital if the Gospel is to strike root in the world and to realise its mission.

It has however become abundantly clear that during the past thirty five years or so many of the hopes, dreams, inspirations and directions of the Council have been systematically drained of energy. After decades of subsidiarity, co-responsibility, mutual respect and shared leadership an enormous ecclesial regression has taken place. The Church of Vatican II has become the focus of Pope Benedict’s program of the Reform of the Reform. Its bench mark is the past and its template a Church long gone.

The great conversation and dialogue among the People of God have now largely become monologue and directive. The laity has been deprived of their voice and Christ, in them, has become muted, unheeded and sadly even ignored.

Paradoxically, Church leadership has in recent years been actively promoting and encouraging the use of the new technologies of Social Media in the cause of the New Evangelisation. It is precisely the message and the medium of the New Evangelisation itself that have become the first to be scrutinized and demystified. It has become increasingly clear to Catholics that the new message speaks of an alien and ossified Church, a Church of the elite few who find their comfort in recent antiquity; the medium is no longer conversation  but prescriptive monologue.

The problems which have re-emerged in the Church since the early pontificate of JP II are many. They have surfaced in a culture of ingrained paternalism, clericalism and oligarchic  control which was synonymous with the Roman Curia up to John XXIII. The pre-conciliar world has now been recreated with the defence mechanisms of pontifical secrecy, unquestioned autocratic governance and communication firewalls. Typical of that ecclesiastical cosmos is a profound fear that its divinely ordained and validated status will be contaminated by the mere laity. What this secretive and self-interested Curial elite now fears most is to be themselves found defective and corrupt especially by the standards of the secular relativist world. It is now patently obvious that they are, by comparison, no better.

Transparency, candour, the ability to live with and learn from embarrassment and failure are central issues facing Church governance at the very highest levels. Instead of facing the real worlds of secular society and of its own people it has retreated into an aggressive reactiveness towards outsiders and punitive action against its own. Examples are many and varied on both fronts. The hubris and relativism of Vatican leadership in particular is not going unnoticed as the prized unity of the Church fractures in full public view. Andrea Tornielli writes, There are silent ‘schisms’ forming and the press is necessarily and mercilessly talking about it. In doing so they are shattering the image of an ever triumphant Church.

While the Vatican and other levels of Church leadership are inviting all Catholics to become more actively engaged in the communication of the faith to outsiders, the Church has virtually stopped communicating with its own, the insiders. Not only are their faith concerns not listened to by much of the Hierarchy, the very communication and practice of that faith are under a level of scrutiny, control, moderation and manipulation unparalleled in the history of the Church.

The profound institutional lack of trust, nerve and courage are indicative of a weak, introspective and self-interested leadership which sadly invites little confidence or credibility. While the Curial Cardinals in Rome are spruiking up some of the more exotic elements of the New Evangelisation and prepare to launch its flagship, the Year of Faith, who will listen to them if they are not in turn listening to those entrusted to their care and leadership?

In September, 2011, Nelson Mandela commented insightfully, There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.

In the same vein, perhaps the leaders of the Catholic Church might contemplate Mandela’s words and seriously ponder just how they treat their adult sisters and brothers.

David Timbs writes from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.        06/05/12  

If you would like to comment on this article,
please send comment to John W:

Comments will be uploaded within 24 hours

To view the content please install the latest Adobe Flash Player from here:

Get Adobe Flash player

Embed BEST Free Comment Box Widget in your Website- Flexi Comment Box v3.1