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Violence in the Church

Violence in the Church

by Camilo Macisse
Published in The Tablet, 22. November, 2003, pp. 8-9.
Republished on our website with the necessary permision

Fr Camilo Macisse was president of the Union of Superiors General for six years until 2000, and until recently superior general of the Discalced Carmelites. This is an abridged translation of an article published in the 15 November issue of Testimonio, the magazine of the Chilean Conference of Religious.

A Mexican Carmelite priest has close experience of what he calls the ‘violence’ of the Vatican. He pleads for a change in the culture of the Roman Curia

To speak of violence in the Church might seem nonsensical. Violence is the application of physical, moral or psychological force to impose or coerce, and this should be unthinkable in the community of believers founded by Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who came to free us from all slavery and oppression, built his Church on love of God and neighbour, and commanded us to love even our enemies.

But the Church is a pilgrim, a poor and imperfect sign on earth of the Kingdom of God. Violence has been used by the Church both inside its own ranks and outside, to resolve conflicts which inevitably arise between the hierarchy and the grass roots, between the institutional and charismatic dimensions of the Church, between traditional and novel understandings of the faith, theologians and the teaching authority, and Church and society. Violence has not been exercised in exceptional, isolated cases, but has been part of the culture of church authority down the ages, a culture which has fallen well short of the Gospel way of exercising authority (Mt 20: 24-28). These days, the Church no longer employs physical coercion. But the other forms of violence – moral and psychological – continue, in an exercise of power which ignores both legitimate diversity in the Church and the Gospel insistence on dialogue. I have had intimate knowledge of this violence, above all as exercised by a number of Roman departments. It comes in many forms.

One of those forms is centralism, which seeks to concentrate decision-making powers in a church bureaucracy distant from the life of believers in different circumstances. Incapable of accepting pluralism, it is a way of treating believers at all levels, from bishops’ conferences to groups of lay people, as children in need of protection who must be disciplined according to short-sighted criteria.

Since the Second Vatican Council the shift towards decentralisation by enhancing episcopal collegiality – the government of the Church by the college of bishops with and under the pope – has gradually been undermined. Even the bishops’ synods called together every few years are heavily controlled by the Roman Curia, which determines both the process of discussion and the documents which result. In most of these synods there have been bishops who have deplored the violence of this control applied by neo-conservatives steeped in an abstract and anachronistic theology. When some dare to criticise these authorities out of love of the Church and always in communion with it, they are threatened and condemned, accused of practising a parallel teaching authority, a parallel pastoral action, or even of trying to create a parallel Church.

Such centralism results in large part from distrust and fear. How else to account for the delay of three or more years in approving translations of liturgical texts carried out by experts and unanimously approved by local bishops’ conferences?

This same fear of losing control lay behind the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s proposal – first made at the Synod on Consecrated Life – that the Vatican should confirm the election of general superiors elected by their respective congregations. Faced with an overwhelmingly negative response, the CDF wrote to theologians it trusted asking them to support this idea in their articles, so as to create a climate receptive to the idea.

The Curia’s centralism also blocks groups entitled to direct communication with the Pope. The heads of the Union of (Male) Superiors General (USG) and the International Union of (Female) Religious Superiors (UISG) have been trying, without success, to have an audience with John Paul II since 1995. While other, lesser groups, including many individuals outside the faith and the Church have been granted this access, the representatives of more than 1 million consecrated religious, engaged in the most varied pastoral work on the frontiers of evangelism, have been consistently blocked.

Another form of violence is patriarchal authoritarianism which excludes women from participation at all levels of the Church. It is astonishing, for example, that contemplative women religious were never consulted during the preparation of the document on enclosure, Verbi Sponsa. Not one of the 49 associations or federations of Discalced Carmelites – which bring together 755 convents and more than 11,000 nuns – was consulted, and other large contemplative orders were similarly excluded; only the opinion of a small number of traditionalist convents was sought. The resulting legislation, drawn up by men whose knowledge of female religious life is entirely theoretical, demands of women what it does not demand of men, and is an example of the discriminatory violence directed at consecrated contemplative women. As in former times, they are viewed as children incapable of fidelity to their cloistered identity without male supervision.

Other forms of authoritarian violence have become habitual. For example, those who send delations to Rome are guaranteed anonymity, because they are generally people of conservative temperament. When the accused is called to the tribunals of a number of Roman dicasteries, he is not allowed witnesses who can speak on his behalf. Letters are written by accusers who have never first sought dialogue with the accused. When the accused defends himself, and shows that the accusations are false, he never receives a letter absolving him of the calumnies directed against him.

The curial officials who act in this way cloak themselves in a sacred power. They cannot be accused of slander and defamation. They demand blind obedience, and insist that such matters fall under the “exclusive competence of the Holy See”.

Another kind of church violence is a dogmatism which refuses to admit that in a pluralist world it is not possible to continue to assume just one religious, cultural and theological standpoint. Failing to distinguish between what is essential in Christian faith and its relative theological expressions, dogmatism insists on a single theological perspective, that of traditionalism, which starts from philosophical and cultural assumptions which belong to a previous age. The Church often seeks to impose these views without taking into account the pluralism of today’s societies.

Since the Second Vatican Council, violent repression has been unleashed against modern exegesis of Scripture, against new European theological perspectives, against liberation theology, against Asian and African theology, and against indigenous theology. The actions against theologians almost always proceed violently: the CDF first receives accusations from conservative or ultraconservative people or from personal enemies who know that they will enjoy the protection, confidentiality, and unconditional support of its staff. The CDF then hands the texts of the accused over to “experts” who also enjoy anonymity and will at no point need to face the accused, who must then respond to the accusations and attempt to prove their orthodoxy. The “experts” often base their accusations on phrases taken out of context – a few pages are enough to prove the suspicion of unorthodoxy. When the accused has responded by making clear his position, he almost never receives a letter acknowledging that the “expert” is wrong. Nor does the accuser receive a rebuke or canonical penalty for having lied. This violent dogmatism has the effect of stultifying legitimate research and study by exegetes and theologians, many of whom impose self-censorship out of fear.

The tensions and conflicts in the Church cannot be eliminated by centralist or dogmatic violence any more than they can be eliminated by rejecting church authority and the fundamental truths of Catholic faith and morality. Rather, the need is to overcome the neo-conservative model of Christianity which has gained ground in the Church at the beginning of the third millennium, and to move towards the acceptance in practice of the model of the Church recovered by the Second Vatican Council – a Church of communion, a Church defined as the People of God and the sacrament of the Kingdom. In this model there must be room for dialogue and communication, for unity in diversity, and for a climate of liberty which expresses a loving acceptance of others, which in turn fosters communion both inside and outside the Church.

Above all, the Church needs an attitude of dialogue, one which seeks to listen and discern the truth in the light of the Gospel, both within the Church and in conversation with other Christian confessions, other religions, and society in general. This is what the Second Vatican Council calls for in its pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes (92), which speaks of the Church’s mission to shed the light of the Gospel on all humanity as “a sign of that brotherliness which allows honest dialogue and invigorates it”. The pastoral constitution insists that “such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity”. And it quotes St Augustine: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Along with dialogue we need a decentralisation of authority to allow for the challenges and problems both inside and outside the Church to be known directly. This will foster a sense of mutual responsibility and the practice of episcopal collegiality and will give less space to inquisitorial attitudes fed by cowardly accusers who throw stones while hiding their hands, who believe themselves to be in possession of “objective” truth, and who are afraid of direct confrontation. This fear is at bottom a fear of truth and authentic freedom, the truth that will make us free (Jn 8:32).

John Paul II in his 1995 ecumenical encyclical Ut Unum Sint refers to “the whole body of bishops” as “also ‘vicars and ambassadors of Christ’.” He goes on to affirm that “the Bishop of Rome is a member of the ‘college’ and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry”.

These new forms in the structure of services in the Church are not just necessary in the ecumenical field but are also urgently needed within the Catholic Church. The Pope should be assisted in his ministry more directly by the bishops’ conferences than by the Roman Curia, whose decision-making powers have become excessive. This is why leaders in the Church are calling ever more strongly for the Pope’s advisers to be the presidents of the bishops’ conferences. Dialogue with them would give the Pope a clearer idea of the challenges which the Church faces in diverse ecclesial, social and cultural spheres.

This dialogue would serve to counteract the centralism and legalism of the Roman Curia, which is creating tensions and conflicts in an attempt to impose a rigid uniformity in the name of a false idea of unity. This violence must be overcome.

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