By Osmund Agbo
I was not just born into a Roman Catholic household but have also spent my whole life living the faith. Like many in my neck of the woods, Catholicism is more than just a religion, it is a family tradition. Growing up, we were made to believe there were only two groups of Christians, Catholics and the rest, which made our young minds look at non-Catholics more or less as pretenders. And so you could say that at the time, our belief was deeply rooted on a warped religious supremacist doctrine. Coming of age however, we have come to appreciate the church more, but not for the reason of what we were told. One continues to marvel at the Church’s deep foresight to have accurately predicted the incursions of charlatans into Christendom and so was able to put in place guardrails and safeguards to protect her against such, long before now. Today, we have seen the rise of Mega-churches with celebrity pastors who blur the line between personal finance and that of the house of God.
The Catholic Church is one of those institutions that take pride in her ability to maintain some rigid doctrinal order. The believe especially among her most conservative wing is that orthodoxy has served well in keeping the flock together from as far back as the days of St. Peter. The insistence to resist change even when so desirable however, has also turned out to be one of the biggest Achilles heel facing the century-old institution and her almost 1.4 billion faithful. There has also been times and situations that caused me to pause and query the basis of my faith.
Few years ago, I ran into a group of Reverend Sisters posted from Nigeria to a small town in rural America. It was bad enough that they had to face the frigid winter temperature of the Mountain States but in addition was the added stress of having to ration what to buy at the grocery store. I was told that at the beginning of each month, the three sisters were given a paltry sum of three hundred dollars for both food and living expenses. Just so you know these sisters work everyday and earn a decent wage. The problem was that all they made went straight to their congregation who in turn offer them non-livable monthly stipend.
If you think what I just described was one isolated incident, you are in for a shocker. Stories like that abound in the twenty-first century Catholic Church. It’s still the same church where we now have some priests own choice real estate in the elite part of town and cruise around in luxury automobile.
Perhaps the ordeals of Catholic sisters were better captured in an article published in JSTOR, in September 2015 where the authors described them as happy and committed workers of God who are positioned by authority figures of religious life as subjugated and subservient workers and are required to sacrifice everything including self-care. It has since become clear to me that even our good Old Catholic church still struggles with the issue of social justice and that gender equality remains a mirage for many of her congregants.
My generation grew up believing its heresy to ask certain questions that somehow may seem to suggest a challenge to the existing order. Today, we are in the age of smart phones with high-def cameras, being heckled by the generation of me too movement.
For me, I have often wondered why certain Mass has to be said in Latin, a language that many can neither relate to nor even understand. Or better still, why a black Pope is yet to materialize despite the overwhelming number of faithful in Africa where the church is booming compared to Europe and America that are posting a net loss of faithful. And now in America, why is the church brushing aside the issue of racial justice and paying little or no attention to serious issues concerning the weak and oppressed in the society?
Even though the Pope has never hidden the fact that he is no fan of the current occupant of the Oval Office and in more than one occasion had condemned the unconscionable actions of Mr. Trump, a good number of faith leaders in the American church have no qualms rolling out red carpet to a crass, morally repugnant and race-bating misogynist ever to lead the United States. Of course we have followed the argument that the alternative is a vote for abortion and loss of religious freedom and I get that. But is that really the case?
Politicians always like to muddy the water but fact still remains that the distinction between the GOP and the Democratic Party on the issues of abortion and preserving the sanctify of life is not as clear cut as it’s being sold. Most Americans in both parties seem to favor upholding Roe v. Wade, the January 22, 1973 landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States at the center of legality of abortion argument. It’s also a fact that the number of abortion in the US went down significantly during the eight years of the Obama administration. Surprised? Well not really. But that’s only if you remember that Democrats have always pushed for increased access to and funding for family planning.
Another question. Do the American church care about other issues such as safety of Black people and other ethnic minorities in the US, the fate of immigrant children at the southern border or even how America treats her poor and most vulnerable? Are we just going to be one issue voters that cares about one thing and one thing only? Do we now have to, like our Southern Evangelical brothers and sisters, approach religion from a transactional mindset where we are willing to support whoever gives us what we want? The Church’s standard-bearers continue to ignore all the nuances and only see one group as good and the other evil and nothing in between. But this is not entirely new, the American church has always struggled.
Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School was established as an elite academy in Washington, D.C in the early 1800’s. It was touted as a School, free to any young girl who wished to learn, including slaves. But when a historian started digging in the convent’s records a few years ago, there was no evidence that the nuns had taught enslaved children. The record documented a darker side that showed that the Jesuit priests, who founded and ran Georgetown, were among the largest slaveholders in Maryland.
Sister Osiek of Society of the Sacred Heart (another order that owned about 150 enslaved people in Louisiana and Missouri) who led the committee on slavery and reconciliation, in a letter to the descendants of those slaves said “For so long we haven’t acknowledged you, and we’re sorry about that”. It is indeed praiseworthy that some are striving to atone for the Church’s participation in America’s system of human bondage but truth is that the soul-searching has not been universally embraced.
Even with all her challenges (and there are quite a few) the Catholic Church remains by far one of the greatest force for good for generations and across many continents. The Pope remains the most prominent and revered voice of Christianity. The world for sure needs the ubiquitous Catholic charities that have saved thousands of lives in the poorest of the poor countries of the world. This is why we all should be patient with the Church and support the old institution as she faces monumental challenges and passes through difficult times. But first, the church has to be willing to pull herself back from the brink by adapting to a constantly changing world. For any institution that stubbornly refuses to lend itself to change will naturally die.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org