‘Don’t be afraid of change’ | Joe Inguanez

Not everyone in the Maltese church is happy with the pace of change in the Vatican a year after the election of Pope Francis as Pope. Fr Joe Inguanez, a sociologist and Executive Director of the Church’s research institute DISCERN, attributes resistance to Pope Francis’ message to an ingrained “intellectual mediocrity”

Fr Joe Inguanez
Fr Joe Inguanez

When I meet Fr Joe Inguanez at his office in the Archbishop’s Curia in Floriana, I find him at his desk ruffling some papers with a serene look on his face. He is one of the few intellectuals who not only has something to say about the world around him, but who speaks with the authority of someone who understands and interprets change.

Father Joe Inguanez is thrilled by the way Pope Francis is thinking out of the protocol box to foment change within the Church.

“He has removed the ‘wall’ of protocol which naturally has the effect of categorising people, thus inhibiting direct interaction with the man in the street. Pope Francis removed all this and ‘meets’ with the people without intermediaries.”

But is this not simply a public relations exercise?

Inguanez defends Pope Francis’s authenticity, noting that Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s life has not changed since he was chosen to be the Pope, and that his behaviour has remained consistent.

“When he was appointed Archbishop of Argentina, he refused to live in a palace and chose to live in a small apartment, and he used public transport instead, and low cost airlines. What we are seeing now is not a show. It is an authentic reflection of his biography.”

Mediocrity is at the root of much of the trouble the Church has been encountering for the past fifty years

Inguanez is wary of comparisons with previous popes, but he finds Pope Francis’s defiance of protocol as reminiscent of Pope John XXIII, who revolutionised the church by convening Vatican Council II against the advice of his Churchmen in high places. When John XIII announced the Council, the Cardinals could not believe their ears and their first reaction was a deafening silence.

“When a cardinal told him that it would be impossible to organise Vatican Council II in three years. John XXIII reacted by telling him that it will have to be convened in two years.” Pope John XXIII was a shock to those who elected him to be a ‘caretaker Pope’ by calling the historic Second Vatican Council – the first session opening on 11 October 1962.

“What looked to be a rash decision proved to be providential.” In fact the Pope did not live to see it to completion, dying on 3 June 1963 of stomach cancer, four-and-a-half years after his election.

Inguanez notes that like his predecessor, Francis is also being seen by some in the church as “rash and miscalculating”. But far from being the case, the current Pope’s decisions not only reflect the analysis and the wish expressed by cardinals during the conclave – they are also based on “a life-long reflection”.

Is the Pope raising expectations sky-high, making disappointment inevitable?

Inguanez however sees this as a positive sign.

“Thank God for this! Unfortunately, many the Church’s ills are born as a result of spiritual and intellectual mediocrity. This may be an unfair generalisation on my part; however I am of the opinion that mediocrity is at the root of much of the trouble the Church has been encountering for the past fifty years.” It was this mediocrity, which according to Inguanez has practically “gagged the spirit of Vatican Council II”.

He also accuses some elements in the church for frustrating the reforms decreed by Vatican Council II.

There are even young priests who are still clutching onto an outdated image of the Church. Theirs is a Baroque Church full of pomp and circumstance

“It is a pity that certain clerics, instead of speaking of the development of Vatican Council II as the late Cardinal Martini did, push for a reform of the reform which effectively means a present day counter-reformation within the church.” He sees the same tendencies at work within the Maltese Church. “These people are not in tune with Vatican II, and much less with history.”

Asked about the ramifications of the new papacy on the local church, Inguanez notes that the new papacy has “the most positive effect on the population in general, including skeptics and lapsed Catholics.” But unfortunately “people who should know better” are looking at the way Francis is behaving with great caution, if not outright suspicion.

“It seems that some of us are being quite economic in promoting his lifestyle and his way of doing things. There are even young priests who are still clutching onto an outdated image of the Church. Theirs is a Baroque Church full of pomp and circumstance.”

He thinks that it is “very unfortunate” that some are “misjudging” the new Pope by thinking that he is “making a leap in the dark” through his insistence on living the Gospel without “buts” and “ifs”. “The structural reforms he is making in the Roman Curia and its apparata is not a capricious move. Church structures will not reflect substance and has produced an inverted view of the Gospel, because substance was reflecting structure. That is why the is concomitantly insisting on spiritual and structural reform.”

“What I appreciate about the new Pope is that while he is emphasising, through words and deeds, the core values of the gospel, he is also changing the structures of the Church to make them reflect the Gospel rather than the court of a medieval monarchy.”

Inguanez would also like the Maltese Church to emphasise social issues like immigration.

“On immigration, the Church in Malta is doing a lot when it comes to hands-on assistance and this is in line with Pope Francis’s message. What it should do more is by way of denunciation of the policies which exclude migrants.”

He also insists that the Church’s critique should address both Malta’s actions and the European Union’s.

“We need a critique of what the European Union is doing with regards to these human beings. Individualism has made us very selective where human rights are concerned.”

During his first year, the Pope has shifted the focus of the Church towards a critique of capitalism and a condemnation of the “globalisation of indifference”.

In marked contrast to politicians who boast of their pro-business credentials, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium the Pope referred to “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power”.

The Pope also expressed concern about a culture which cultivated global indifference. According to the Pope, society seems content to believe that poverty is somebody else’s problem. For him, the poor are not only exploited but also excluded. They have become “the outcast, the leftovers”.

Pope Francis also hammers the injustice of growing inequality. He sees this income gap as a “result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace”. He even speaks of the “sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system”.

Inguanez notes that the Church’s critique of capitalism harks back to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. But he notes that this encyclical, which focused on the wickedness of “unbridled capitalism”, had been overtaken by a capitalist mentality, which pervades modern societies. Even John Paul II – who is best remembered as a staunch opponent of communism – was very hard on capitalism. But Pope Francis is going a step forward.

“He is bringing a Latin American perspective to this critique. He is expressing a complete disbelief in the system and is calling for a radical change.”

But rather than proposing an alternative himself, the new Pope is exhorting Christian economist and social scientists to think of an alternative.

“The Pope is not competent to propose an alternative economic system. But he is inviting economists and social scientists to bounce ideas on an economic system with a human face.”

He believes that Malta sorely needs a similar concerted effort from like-minded social scientists and economists.

“Although I have no doubt that we have several economists who think in this way, there is no concerted action on how to fight neo-liberalism. We must fight the false idol going by the name of ‘the market’ or ‘market forces’.”

While noting that in a time of crisis it is important to promote economic growth through investment and consumption, what troubles Inguanez is how this is often turned that ideology of consumerism.

“We live in a society where are considered to be almost worthless unless you consume.”

Rampant individualism is also fuelling the idea that “the burden of those in difficulty should be carried by someone and not by us… it’s part of the ‘Not In My Back Yard’ culture.”

This culture is contributing towards indifference to the fate of immigrants and other marginalised groups.

He concurs with the view that on a global level, the Church is presently filling a vacuum on the left of the political spectrum, even if it has been critical of the social consequences of systems emanating from communism.

“Back in the 1990s, US political scientist Francis Fukiyama optimistically spoke of the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberal capitalism all over the world. But in a very short time history proved him wrong.”

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shockwaves through the Roman Catholic Church with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception.

Francis told the interviewer, a fellow Jesuit: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Adding that the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Inguanez concurs.

Surely the Pope has not reversed any of the Church’s positions on ethical issues but he has surely changed its priorities.

“The Pope is telling us that our religion is not only about ethics but about being. As Christians we believe in a Supreme Being whom we call God. We are created in His own image and the more we imitate the life of God, the more human we become.”

Inguanez notes that Christ “rather than emphasising what we should not do, emphasised what we should do”. This is very much evident in Christ’s two major teachings – namely the Beatitudes and his commandment to love one another the same way as he loved them. Hence, Christ’s teaching implores us to even love our enemies.

But to be true to the gospel, Christians must also accept being “viewed by the world as fools”. 

“This is because some of the things which make us Christians – like loving our enemies and those who persecute us – defy the prevailing common sense which tells us to do the very opposite.”

The same applies to the Church’s teachings on poverty.

“The Church exhorts us to do away with what we can do without. This contrasts with the capitalist mentality, which urges us to hoard not only more than what we really need, but to whatever expense.”

Inguanez’s appeal to the Maltese Church is: don’t be afraid of change.

“In Malta, we need to re-create the conscience of Vatican Council II. The Church still needs updating. Change is a neutral concept and instead of being afraid of it we should turn it into a positive dynamic of our being both at the material and spiritual level… This is what Pope Francis is not simply telling us to do, but is also showing us how to do it by his example.”

More in Interview