The Catholic church is an ancient monolith and has been in the game of power, wealth, cadre- and institution-building for so long that nothing can change it except its own perceptions of survival. It is an inflexible iron-frame with a cold sense of history that can rebuff its enemies with a bizarre patience. At the same time, it is also a highly malleable—almost amoebic—system that bends to the times with strategies so subtle that they remain invisible for centuries. It is the canniest self-perpetuating bureaucracy of the world. That is how it has withstood the turbulent forces of history ever since Emperor Constantine transformed it into the master of the Roman Empire in AD 313 through the Edict of Milan. One signature made the underdog top dog. The Church has never looked back.
It survived the tempestuous challenge of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Its expertise in conducting immense and long-standing wars is simply mind-boggling. The Crusades are just one example. It emerged unscathed from the second world war thanks to the notorious neutrality it maintained with the two horrendous dictators: Hitler and Mussolini. In fact, few remember today that the papal state of Vatican City was granted to the Church by Mussolini in return for its acceptance of fascist authority.
The point is, the Church is a tough nut to crack. It remains doubtful if it can be reformed even if the Pope were inclined to try. Because, its empire is today flung far across continents, nations, cultures and civilisations, and there are the machinations of countless vested interests at work. The Pope might be able to ensure that the cardinal principles of faith remain uniform and sacrosanct. But even that is not easy. For instance, saints deposed by the Vatican years ago are still venerated in Kerala. The Kerala church finds them useful. As for celibacy, if a priest gives it up, what can the Church do? Next to nothing.
Like all religious hierarchies that have gained influence in the modern world, the Catholic church too, by and large, keeps word and deed apart. By word, I mean the word of Jesus, which is the bedrock of the Church. Perhaps it isn’t possible at all to make the two one if you wish to obtain and retain great power and great wealth. For who can live today the beggarly life that Jesus lived and expect to be taken seriously by presidents and prime ministers?
The Church is as worldly an institution as—a comparison to aid clarity—the United States of America, holding monopoly over an unbeatable brandname: Jesus. The J-brand, sedulously built up over 2,000 years, is so powerful that the blatant aberrations of the Church go unnoticed under its overpowering spiritual glamour. Without its charisma, the Church would collapse like a house of cards. Therefore, the last thing the Church wants is to let people find the real Jesus: a poor, wandering dreamer and revolutionary who just lost out.
But somewhere in the glitzy interior of this behemoth, Jesus’s civilising messages—love and mercy, for example—continue to survive in their many guises. That is how the Church continues to be able to legitimise its materialistic goals. It’s a simple question: if you are poor, can you help others? The answer is, no. You need to be wealthy to be charitable, to build educational institutions, hospitals, orphanages, old people’s homes. Not to mention, the churches, seminaries, convents, pilgrim-centres and so on.
But there comes a point, as with the church in Kerala, when the goal of profit-making overrides all else, as happens with any heartless business empire. And the spiritual message becomes just a gaudy, conspicuous robe to cover the currency bundles. But luck is with the Church. Because the faithful don’t see this as a problem. The more the glitter and the pomp, the better. For them, the church is more status symbol than spiritual center. Without the splendour of the rituals and ceremonies, their weddings and funerals will turn into shabby, boring affairs. The Church for them is a grand event-producer.
The Church can be reformed only from the inside because it is a closed and closely guarded system—and afforded further protection by its minority status under the Indian Constitution. The Church’s most consistent critic in Kerala, Joseph Pulikunnel, calls for all church assets—thought to be worth a few billions—to be transferred to the laity. But his is a utopian dream. For, the laity are no saints. They are, on the other hand, congenital sinners! And they have more use for money than the priests!