The season of scandals has not ended. First it was bankers, then MPs, then sport celebrities, then wealthy party donors, and now the Catholic Church. Mind you, victims of priests’ abuse have been coming into the open consistently for many years. However, there is something different now. The media seem to have a stronger influence. Technological advances have allowed the media to penetrate deeper into our daily lives. The artificial dichotomy of public and private has fallen victim of cyberspace, where everybody dwells in semi-public and semi-private spaces. Everybody is under scrutiny.
The ‘public’, or perhaps, the ‘audience’, is calling for more accountability. At times, this is mere lust for saucy details, but, at other times, it is a sincere search for honesty and integrity. ‘We, the people’ want our representatives and all authorities to be transparent and accountable. Americans, being culturally more attuned to the democratic game, are attacking the Vatican as if it were just another authority or organisation. As such, it is quite logical for the American media to call for the Pope to resign. At the other end, the Vatican, under Ratzinger’s guide, has backtracked from Vatican II and gone back to the times of pre-Westphalia absolute states. As a result, the ‘Hierarchy’ cannot comprehend the anger and clamour of the secular world. So much that they see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.
Both sides must be bewildered. On the one hand, the Vatican has tried to apply canon law and heal the pain in silence instead of washing the dirty linen in the open. On the other hand, the ‘public’ sees the Church as a powerful institution that has betrayed trust.
Some might say that religion is no longer relevant and that this is the final nail in the coffin. That’s more wishful thinking. Religion is more relevant now than it has ever been in the past fifty years. It is, however, going through dramatic change and adjusting to the twenty-first century.
If the Catholic Church crumbles under the weight of its obsolete legal system, rigid dogmas and hierarchies it will have been the media what did it. By the end of the century, the Catholic Church will not be the same. It remains to be seen whether the Church chooses to open up, as Pope John XXIII did, or cling on to nostalgic dreams of power.
Religious authorities are being transformed by the media, by public demands for transparency and by the need to be relevant in an epoch grounded on individual autonomy. The call for the Pope to ‘stand down’ might be unrealistic but epitomises our times. Catholicism in the US has a democratic liberal flavour and is far less constrained by the diktat of the Hierarchy. Are Catholics in Europe ready to reform the Church and make its message relevant for our times?
The 21st century is sweeping across the world bringing a new era for democracy. It might plunge us into tyrannical populism or deepen our democracy. It is down to us to reform institutions and power bases, including the media, so that we can preserve and extend rights and freedoms instead of crushing them under cynicism or populism.