MICHAEL FURTADO. Playing Devil’s Advocate for the Catholic Plenary Counci.

Sep 6, 2019

On November 4, 1956, the Soviet regime violently suppressed the Hungarian Uprising. Earlier in that year, at the Twentieth Congress of the USSR Communist Party,Khrushchev had bitterly denounced Stalin, deceased three years prior, for his crimes.

Elsewhere, Communist Parties, especially in France and Italy, remained wholly Stalinist, even after the process of de-Stalinisation was underway everywhere else, describing reports in the global media as “attributed to Khrushchev”, while otherwise ignoring them.

Helene Parmelin, then France’s most prominent journalist and a Communist, attributed the widespread publication of Khrushchev’s denunciatory speech as “the trickery of the American State Department”.

Many, including the French Catholic philosopher, Francois Mauriac, conscious of the shocking crimes of the Soviet state, publicly castigated the French Communist Party when it and several other European Communist Parties dubbed the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Uprising as “counter-revolutionary”.

“We are Communists”, the eminent artist and Communist Party member, Pablo Picasso said, whenever another atrocity was revealed or another internal disagreement between Communists occurred. “There is only one Communist Party and all of us, whether we like it or not, belong to that Party”.

The parallels between the Communist Party of the 1950s and the Catholic Church at this time are striking. Both are absolute systems, both have a God that they promote and worship, both have a mission and both provide their followers with a goal in life.

Both have at various historical junctures been riven with dissent and breakaway movements. While the Marxist-Leninist goals of communism now lie trampled into the dust of historical exigency, a variant of Communism, in the form of ‘the Party’, has continued to survive in China, despite the restructuring of the Chinese economy into a capitalist enterprise on a scale unheard-of in the West.

Shorn of every aspect of capitalism’s endorsement of political liberty, the Chinese Communist Party manages to operate the globe’s largest market economy which, despite its suppression of civil liberties, has offered a way out of poverty for millions of its formerly impoverished citizens, to the extent that it cannot easily be predicted that they would swap their newfound wealth for the pursuit of human rights.

The question then is: can the same be said for institutional Catholicism? Bitterly divided between progressives and conservatives, what are the chances of Catholicism’s Australian elites pulling the rabbit out of the hat within the next few months and instituting a program for reform that wont just restore unity within an already fractured Church, but also appeal to enough of the masses beyond in ways that will restore Catholicism’s reputation for monolithic conformity as well as justice for all.

The chances of such a thing eventuating would indeed be bleak were they to depend on the reimposition of Stalinist values of appropriation, star-chamber decision-making and the exclusion of those questioning the behaviour of clerical elites. Equally, to imagine that one Plenary Council held in one remote and far-flung corner of the Universal Church would cause a ripple effect to reverberate throughout the Church to the extent that it caught on in significant other parts of the world to instate global change is somewhat farfetched.

Progressives already know that those parts of the world in which the Church is strong and growing in numbers are also the most conservative. The Indian Bishops have just excommunicated a nun who dared to accuse her Bishop of sexual assault without giving her a hearing. The same would be the case for any African woman who dared to confront a cleric on a similar charge.

What would this mean for Catholicism? Would it reinstate a breakaway Church as the only option open to progressives? What would that mean for the position of women and other minorities in the developing world and who look to their fellow Catholics in the developed world for support against the dictates of an overwhelmingly conservative male hierarchy?

Even assuming that Australia’s Bishops would take a progressive stand, emanating from the Plenary Council, to the Vatican, what are the chances of progressive change from an organisation which, since time immemorial, has been resistant to it? Indeed, Archbishop Coleridge, who chairs the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, has already stated that it would be pointless to do so.

What likelihood is there of attitudinal change in the religious leadership of the Church, charged with defending practices, such as a clericalism that is manifestly defined in extra-human terms by demanding the compulsory celibacy of an exclusively male priesthood and the conscious and explicit exclusion of women from the ranks of membership of the ordained ministry at a time when Plenary Council consultations call for inclusion?

In the same vein, how could same-sex attracted persons be taught of in the Catechism as ‘disfigured’, given the plethora of evidence that homosexuality is part and parcel of humanity’s diversity?

Given that in recent times Australian Catholics have witnessed the forced resignation of Bishop Morris of Toowoomba, while denying him the right to be interviewed and heard by the investigator into his supposed misdoings – while a Cardinal, backed by the hierarchy lies languishing in jail, still protesting his innocence of the crimes which he has been twice found guilty of committing – what chance is there of a radical change in leadership that is capable of authentically representing and supporting any decisions of the Plenary Council that challenge Church teaching?

At the time that the Hungarian Uprising was spectacularly and brutally crushed by Soviet armed intervention, many libertarians, such as Arthur Koestler, challenged the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party by openly publishing letters of support for the Uprising. The response of the more obdurate Communist parties, such as in France, was: “They may even become obstinate in spite of the facts, but they have no right to impose their point of view on the Party by illicit means.” (L’Humanite, November 12, 1954).

“I’m the one in charge”, Bishop Brennan famously remarked. “Who else on the CCJP has a qualification in social justice?” when, in the face of mounting internal criticism, he terminated the existence of the Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace in 1987.

Now THAT’s the kind of power on rather a grand scale that, in the end, even the Supreme Soviet couldn’t muster. It would be hard to present a less urgent reading of the extent and seriousness of the issues facing the Catholic Church at this historical Australian and global juncture. To invoke the sole assistance of the Holy Spirit in this regard would be to ignore the structural obstacles that must also be addressed at the Plenary Council.


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