THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY F O U N D E D I N 1 8 4 0
BEWARE CULT OF STRONG LEADERS
In a recent poll, more than nine out of 10 Brazilians said they did not feel their elected politicians represented them, and one third favoured the return of a military dictatorship. This stark collapse of confidence in democratic institutions, and the yearning for a strong man to take control, should ring alarm bells. It is reminiscent of what happened in Italy in the 1920s, in Germany at the start of th e 1930s, and in Spain later in the decade. T hey found their strong man – who went on to lead them into a moral and political catastrophe far worse than anything that went before.
All democracies have flaws, which makes them an easy target for populists who rely on emotion and prejudice rather than argument and evidence. The winner of Brazil’s presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro, has an ability he shares with Donald Trump to simplify issues into black and white, ignoring the shades of grey in which reality invariably presents itself.
T he rhetoric of both of them is tinged with violence; they have little patience with the understood conventions on which democracy rests; they demonise those who oppose them, including in the media. They are both, incidentally, reliant on a distinct strain of born-again Eva ngelicalism wedded to a “prosperity G ospel” which holds that material wealth is God’s reward for a steadfast Christian faith. Almost by definition, therefore, the poor are undeserving. A Church “of and for the poor”, as Pope Francis wants the Catholic Church to be, could not be facing a tougher challenge.
The strong leadership the public turned to in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1930s gradually ceased to be regarded as justified as a remedy for past democratic failures – as a necessary evil – and became an end in itself. T heir leaders became idols, beyond criticism. And mainstream opinion began to move in a harsher direction, to tolerate what would have been almost unthinkable at first. Authoritarian leaders can dictate national mood as well as national policy.
The coarsening of public debate in the Un ited States under President Trump is another case in point. He did not ask a madman to go into a synagogue and kill the Jews worshipping there. Nor did he commission the sending of pipe bombs to anti-Trump targe ts such as CNN and former President Obama. But he supplied the mental framework in which these outrages became thinkable. There is every likelihood that Brazil will accelerate down the same path. P resident-elect Bolsonaro is already closer to fascism than President Trump ever was. He has even talked about fomenting a right-wing military coup – led by himself. Human rights do not interest him. Guns do.
But to blame demagogues for demagoguery is to overlook those political leaders whose self-interest and self-absorption had left a large swathe of the population in the US and in Brazil feeling neglecte d and unrepresented. T hat generation of politicians lamentably failed to make liberal democracy work for everyone. Once there is fertile ground for seeds of resentment to take root, an opportunist can step forward, offering easy answers and pointing to scapegoats.
History teaches that such situations may well become a lot darker before there is light again. Brazilians are facing a rough time ahead.
The Synod of Bishops which has just ended could have been retitled the Synod of Bishops and Young People, for though the latter did not vote on the final document, they contributed eagerly to the debates. Their presence, representing young Catholics from all over the world, was a significant precedent but also marked a stage on a journey. The next step must surely be a Synod of Bishops, Clergy and People, for the emerging theory of synodality – a favourite theme of Pope Francis – is about par ticipation by the whole People of God and the sharing of responsibility at all levels.
The days of confining church government only to bishops have to be over. Confidence in bishops acting alone has been severely undermined by their role in the scandal of child abuse by clergy, particularly by covering it up ra ther than straining every episcopal muscle to stamp it out. T he agreed final text of the Synod now goes to the Pope for his response, and the document he issues will range wider than questions of church government. He can be expected to appeal to the world’s young Catholics to rediscover the excitement of the Gospel and fulfil their vocation to spread the Word, whatever their ecclesiastical status.
The C hurch is being reminded by Pope Francis of the insight of the Second Vatican Council, that the fundamental Christian sacrament is not ordination as priest or bishop, but baptism. All the baptised are responsible for the welfare of the household of the faith. So the Church’s missionary and pastoral priorities can no longer be imposed from above, but discerned by consultation with the faithful down to paris h level. Nor can there be discrimination in those processes on the basis of gender, race, age, sexual orientation or any other grounds, for there is no discrimination in baptism itself.
Synodality, the word that describes all this, now has to be taken into the Church’s struc tures at national, diocesan and parish level. That is an immense challenge. Rising to it will be helped by a prophetic statement by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International T heological Commission (Arcic) three months ago, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church – Local, Regional, Universal. So there is no need to reinvent the wheel. But when the Catholic Church looks at the Anglican model of synodality, it may find it too parliamentary and legalistic, with too much attention to the counting of votes, not enough to the creation of consensus. But that type of synod system is not the only one.
So how to proceed? T he last exercise in synodality by the Catholics of England and Wales was the National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool in 1980. That movement of the Spirit was stopped in its tracks when it became clear it did not fit the programme pursued by Pope John Paul II. Since then, bishops and people have drifted apart, w ith loss on both sides. Synodality is the healing remedy for this disconnec tion.
2 | THE TABLET | 3 NOVEMBER 2018