Friday, March 18, 2016

Between Scylla and Charybdis: Catholics and their dilemmas

In recent times the Catholic Church across the world has hauled up not merely for the sexual abuse committed by priests against minors, but also the inept, and unjust manner in which the complaints about this abuse was received by diocesanal authorities. All too often, rather than take strict action against such priests, the response of the diocese was to transfer these offenders who merely continue their abuse. In doing so, these dioceses violated not only the integrity and dignity of these individuals, but also compromised the ministry of the Church. Priests are looked up to; they operate as figures of trust. When such figures violate this trust, and their superiors look the other way, it impacts not merely the persons involved, but the Church itself.

Not too long ago, this controversy was expertly opened up to the world through Spotlight, the Oscar winning film directed by Tom McCarthy. The film takes its name from the Boston-based newspaper, The Boston Globe's Spotlight team that investigated the misguided handling of complaints of sexual abuse committed by priests in the diocese of Boston, USA. What is great about the film is the muted manner in which it has focused on the investigative process of the Spotlight team allowing us to absorb the horror that such violations involve, rather than opt for easy sensationalism.

The sexual abuse of minors is not, however, the only crime that plagues the contemporary church. One need only look at the real-estate scandals currently rocking the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman for one example from a list of other moral and legal violations that are too long and upsetting to list here. All manner of unpleasant questions are being raised with regard to the manner in which properties belonging to, or under the care of, the Archdiocese have been sold off to property developers, at the cost of the residents and tenants of these properties. There are some who claim that the Archdiocese has a valid explanation for every case.  And yet, the scandal continues, and grows even, to the extent that some are now asking for the resignation of the Archbishop, largely because of the inept and fumbling manner in which the Archdiocese has mounted, or not, its response to these allegations.

Two sentences from Michael Kirwan SJ’s review of Spotlight in the blog of the British Jesuits help understand the crisis that impacts the Catholic Church today. The first sentence reads “The city of Boston’s strongly-knit but introverted and defensive Catholic culture thus stands indicted.” The second sentence, later in the text read, “Too often the Church’s default position towards secular media, towards secular feminism, has been defensive and oppositional.”

These two sentences captured two radically different positions that may be present within the same institutional framework. The first sentence speaks to how the failure of the Curial hierarchy can be the result of a defensive Church, a defensiveness brought about when the Catholic community in the area is a marginalized one. The second sentence suggests that the problem lies with the culture of the Curia being oppressively patriarchal.

What is often unknown, and not adequately highlighted in Spotlight, is that until recently Catholics, and the Catholic Church, in the United States lived under severe restrictions and social hostility. This kind of hostility is not dissimilar to that faced by non-Hindu groups in India. Universally too, at least from the time of the French Revolution, the Catholic Church has been pushed to the wall and represented as an evil institution. It is this culture of hostility that creates a culture where internal differences are quashed, often with the grudging consent of the victims, so as protect the larger group. In other words, external hostility works to feed authoritarian leadership and suppress democratic dissent within marginalized groups. If, therefore, justice issues within the Catholic Church are not discussed, one has to also lay the blame for it at the feet of the dominant culture.

But this is not to suggest that there is a patriarchal traditional within the Curia that is not sui generis. Any institution that provides leadership invariably succumbs to the assumption that it knows best, and its ways are the best. Patriarchy, in this sense, is not merely about misogyny, but about the way in which power is wielded, excluding the voices, and indeed the concerns, especially of marginalized persons within the group. The tragedy is that when the Curia behaves in this patriarchal manner it betrays the understanding that the Church is not merely a physical institution, but also, more importantly, a mystical one. In failing to appreciate this distinction so much is lost. Indeed, as Kirwan points out the voice of God can also come from outside the church, and the Church needs to listen to it. There is also the loss in terms of those who find this a reason to move away from the Catholic Church into the embrace of agnosticism or other churches.

Resolving the crisis the Church faces lies in finding a path between the two problems Kirwan identifies. And yet, this is an awkward position. How do we go forward? Carrying the question before statal authorities, especially when the state is hostile, or seeking to assert its own power, poses a great risk. One way in which this tension can be resolved was demonstrated by some of the protestors in Goa who have presented their claims to the Apostolic Nuncio. In doing so they have shown great nuance. Taking the issue, not before the state, that could possibly prove hostile, but a superior authority within the Church structure, they have opened up a space for the conflict to be resolved internally. One prays that the authorities within the Archdiocese of Goa will recognize this opportunity and respond appropriately, and create systemic change rather than leaving room for a conflict that we can ill afford.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Fooling the eye, eyeing the fool

The writings of the great Roman savant Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia present to us an interesting episode from the history of art. In this anecdote Pliny recounts a contest between the two great Greek artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Keen to settle which of them was the greatest artist of the time the two agreed on producing an image that was most realistic. For his part Zeuxis painted an image of fruits that is reported to have been so life like that it deceived the birds that came to peck at it. Parrhasius then invited Zeuxis to view the former’s painting that was hidden behind a curtain. Zeuxis attempted to pull back the curtain only to realize that it was in fact the curtains that constituted Parrhasius’ image. While Zeuxis may have possibly felt like a fool, Pliny recounts that Zeuxis is supposed to have been gracious in defeat acknowledging Parrhasius as the winner with the acclamation: “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”

This desire, and the capacity, to fool the eye and imitate reality so completely was not restricted merely to these two great Greeks but has persisted down into our time. In the Baroque period this skill was acclaimed by the French term Trompe-l'œil, which means “to fool the eye”. This skill was put to use not only to imitate objects, but to transcend space through painting architectural and natural details on walls and make it appear as the wall had given way to the scene painted on the wall. Churches in the Baroque period would, for example, use the knowledge of perspective to depict domes where in fact only a flat ceiling existed, or better still, depict the heavenly hosts bursting through the ceiling.

One does not need visits to Europe to encounter trompe-l'œil. The technique is present in two of Charles Correia’s creations in Goa; the Kala Academy, and the Cidade de Goa hotel complex. I imagine that Correia’s design provided hundreds of children, and perhaps adults, hours of delightful fantasy as they contemplated the world on the other side of the walls of his buildings. This was their effect on my own childhood.

More recently I had fun encounters with trompe-l'œil, at the Museu Serralves in the city of Porto, Portugal.  Conceived of in 1989 by the Serralves Foundation as a space to host a collection of contemporary art, the museum building project was commissioned to the internationally renowned Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, and the building completed in 1999. In his brief, Siza was invited to design a museum building that took into consideration the specific characteristics of the physical setting and the need for integration within the surrounding landscape. Siza fulfilled his task with aplomb given that the museum sits discreetly, an obstrusive presence in its natural settings. It is, however, as one moves through the fourteen galleries that constitute this museum that one realizes the extent to which Siza took his brief seriously.

Perhaps playing with the tradition of trompe-l'œil, in these galleries Siza has included huge windows that allow for the outside to enter into the building. Given that the museum sits within a marvelously landscaped garden, all too often the vistas that these windows look out onto are stunning. In addition to gazing on art works that are hung on the walls, one can also look out on to the artfully landscaped outside. However, thanks to the insulation of the building one is bereft of the sounds from the outside, one is never quite sure if one is on the inside looking out, or merely looking at another art work that bends our sense of space. In an era where one is often confronted with video installations that may or may not include sound, my sensation when walking through the galleries was like being confronted with the kind of vistas television companies utlise when selling their gigantic television screens. Whether Siza intended it, or not, the visitor to the Museu Serralves is definitely once again in the playing fields of trompe-l'œil.

But there was another way in which the ghosts of Zeuxis and Parrhasius haunted me at Serralves. Walking away with delight from another gorgeous vista that Siza had opened up, I came upon a wall that seemed to hold a fine metal mesh. To my embarrassment, however, I realized that it was not a mesh at all. Rather, it was lead pencil drawings on a wall, the artist Sol Lewitt’s creation titled Wall Drawing #133 (Arcs from Four Corners). Wall drawing # 133 is in fact a mobile and variable art work, capable of repetition in any part of the world as long as it follows the artist’s instructions.

“The draughtsman in charge of Wall Drawing #133 (Arcs from Four Corners) must draw arcs at five-centimetre intervals, coming from the four corners of the wall. Large or small, horizontal or vertical, rectangular or square, the wall must be used fully and the resulting work varies according to those variables.”

While still in raptures over my encounter, I peeked into the alcove next to Wall Drawing, and found a fire extinguishing assemblage located in the centre of a wall. Given that I was in the section of the Sonnabender Collection devoted to minimalism, I contemplated the assemblage a while longer, until I realised with some blushing awkwardness that it was no art installation, but exactly what it appeared to be, basic life, and property, saving infrastructure in the great museum. Somewhere up above, I could hear the artists chuckle at my predicament in the halls of the immortals.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 13 March 2016)