Taming growing excesses of the Church in the 21st Century

Tuesday February 7 2012

Photo/AFP   Pope Benedict XVI delivers the Urbi and Orbi message and blessings to faithful after the Easter Holy Mass at St Peter’s square at The Vatican last year.

Photo/AFP Pope Benedict XVI delivers the Urbi and Orbi message and blessings to faithful after the Easter Holy Mass at St Peter’s square at The Vatican last year.  

By MUTHENDE NDUUCU [email protected]

For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have departed from the way, you have caused many to tumble at the law; you have corrupted the covenant of the law.

The words above were spoken thousands of years back by prophet Malachi in the last book of the Old Testament, lamenting about priests’ behaviour towards the law. Now, as then, Malachi’s words ring true if recent controversies around the Church are anything to go by.

For instance, a case is headed to the International Criminal Court in the Hague seeking to “take action and prosecute the Pope for direct and superior responsibility for the crimes against humanity of rape and other sexual violence committed around the world.”

A group calling itself The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which is headed by lawyer Pam Spees, says the Pope and three high-ranking Vatican officials, all Cardinals, are “responsible for rape and other sexual violence, and for the physical torture of victims around the world both through command responsibility and direct cover-up of crimes”.

It all began in 2002 when numerous people, especially in the USA, filed lawsuits against various dioceses over alleged sexual misadventures of priests. Reports indicate that the Catholic church has since then paid over Sh160 billion in settlements.

On his first trip to the USA as a Pope in April 2008, Benedict XVI said his church was “deeply ashamed and will do whatever is possible so that this does not happen in the future”. He added: “It is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that the priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children. The church will do everything possible in screening candidates for the priesthood so that only really sound persons can be admitted.”

The Catholic Church has also been accused of promoting forced adoption of babies from their mothers, particularly in hospitals in Australia. An inquiry going as far back as the 1950’s reveals that mothers were pressured, deceived or threatened to ensure they signed away their rights to their children.

An AFP report quoted one Juliette Clough, an alleged victim, as saying: “My ankles were strapped to the bed, they were in stirrups and I was gassed, I had plenty of gas and they just snatched away the baby. You weren’t allowed to see him or touch him... or hold him... and it was just like a piece of my soul had died, and it’s still dead.” Juliette was 16 when that happened in the 1970s.

These episodes, especially the case at the ICC, have blotted the image of the Church in the world. And recent developments in Kenya have not helped wipe the slate clean.

The ‘M-Pesa Church’, for instance, has been criticised as a scheme by fake pastors to fleece millions of their followers. Some ‘pastors’, it has been reported, are raking in hundreds of thousands of shillings every week by offering prayers per the penny, raising questions about the veracity of their doctrines and dogmas.

Theologian Holger Kersten, writing in Jesus Lived in India, says: “A person appears in a time of darkness, bringing a message full of hope, a message of love and goodness — and what do people do with it? They turn it into documentation, discussion, contention and commercialism! Jesus has been managed, monopolised, codified.”

Holger continues: “Jesus was not concerned with constructing a philosophy that might be based on his life and on his message that might free people from sufferings of earthly existence. He actually lived what he taught. Toleration at all times, care for the welfare and benefit of other (human and animal), giving and sharing, selflessness in helping others to carry the burden of their suffering, a universal and unconditional love for all.” 

Can the Church achieve a “universal and unconditional love for all”? Does its bank accounts hold zero balances in times of need? How much, for instance, does the Catholic Church hold in its vaults?
Auro Manhattan, in The Vatican Billions, gives a “conservative estimate of $500 million (about Sh45 billion) in the USA alone.” When the total investments are calculated, the analysis adds, “then the accumulation of the wealth of the Catholic Church becomes so formidable as to defy any rational assessment.

“It is the biggest financial power, wealth accumulator and property owner in existence. (The Catholic Church) is the greatest possessor of material riches than any other single institution, corporation, bank, giant trust, government or state of the whole globe. The Pope, as the visible ruler of this immense amassment of wealth, is consequently the richest individual of the twentieth century.”

These riches are some of the reasons many questioned the Church’s response to last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa. Commenting on the issue, Pope Benedict XVI said: “We must not be indifferent to the tragedy of the hungry and thirsty; many brothers and sisters in the Horn of African are suffering these days from the dramatic consequences of the famine aggravated by war and the lack of stable institutions. Jesus reminds us to do everything we can to help those who are hungry and thirsty.”

Many view the modern church as a corporate body of 2.1 billion shareholders, both Catholic and protestant. Their shares consist of attendance, tithes and offerings, and they expect a return on their investment both here on earth and in the hereafter. When they religiously attend their ‘General Meetings’ every Sunday yet no dividends are declared at the end of financial year, then there is a great cause to worry.

But the charismatic fellow at the pulpit still pleads with his followers to buy “holy” items like oil and handkerchiefs, and asks them to “plant generous seeds” if they expect miracle cures against all kinds of diseases.

Another very worrying criticism against the global church is its failure to tame animosity. In Kenya, for instance, there have been muted murmurs that some preachers helped fan ethnic fires in 2007-08.

If indeed they did that, they were not alone. Of the Rwanda Genocide of 1994, for instance, Martin Kimani wrote in The Africa Essence magazine’s second issue of 2010 that the Church was greatly compromised.

“Some priests and nuns led the slaughters. Some of these, who have been convicted by Belgian courts and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,  enjoyed refuge in churches in Europe while on the run from prosecutors.”

One of the most traumatic episodes of the church fanning tribal animosity is reported to have happened at a rural village in Rwanda in April 1994. Fr Athanase Selomba, it is alleged, helped lure over 2,000 desperate men, women and children to his church, where they expected to find safety. Later, one of the refugees asked:

“Father, can’t you pray for us?”

Selomba replied: “Is the God of the Tutsis still alive?”

He then ordered a bulldozer to collapse the walls on those inside before urging militias to invade the church and finish off survivors.