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Subverting idolatry in churches and banks



Even after three weeks, the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry has come to resemble the earlier Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Fiona Katauskas cartoonWe have seen the same initial resistance to a public enquiry, the same insistence that revelations of sexual or financial abuse reflected a few bad apples and not a bad culture, the same endorsement when the royal commission was called, and the same shaming as the public questioning of hapless senior officials followed damning evidence of abuse and of the failure to address it.

We have also seen evidence of the same incompetent management, whose very incompetence perpetuated abuse, diffused responsibility for it, and deepened the harm done by it. There was the same failure to maintain adequate systems of reporting; the same quiet moving on or transferring officers guilty of financial or sexual abuse; the same unwillingness to find out about the extent of abuse and the same slowness to offer redress.

We have seen evidence, too, of the same reluctance of senior management to know about the abuse; the same priority given to preserving the reputation of financial or church institutions; the same muted complaints of unfairness and of ignoring the contribution to society of the respective institutions; the same assistance in cover-up by regulating officers, whether in government departments, police or ASIC, effectively leaving the institutions a free hand to ignore the abuse.

We have seen the same reluctance to admit to a culture in which abuse, sexual or financial, flourishes; the same public scepticism whether the institutions will ever reform themselves; and perhaps the same lull in conversation and the same inquisitorial gaze when one admits to being either a Catholic priest or a senior bank executive.

No doubt these claimed similarities could be expanded on or questioned in detail. But to observers who share a personal and public-spirited interest in the decent functioning and trustworthiness both of financial institutions and of churches, they surely raise larger questions beyond structures of governance, remuneration, legal penalties and compensation. They invite reflection on why two apparently different forms of institution should behave in such similar ways.

An unsophisticated observer might respond that churches, banks, financial institutions and big corporations — which so far have avoided Royal Commissions — are all in fact religious organisations. Behind the metrics, the microeconomic analyses and the organisational complexity of financial institutions, as well as of churches, lies the worship of a divinity which shapes their ends.


"When the church is made into an idol, the values of its founder are inevitably compromised. This leads to the corruption and consequent loss of a good name."


In the case of financial institutions it is wealth — national, institutional and individual. Adherents of the cult see their ultimate end as the profitability of their institution, which — because wealth is one and undivided — is ipso facto the salvation also of the nation. The sign of individual election is to share in that wealth by promotion, by the high salaries, bonuses and status that go with them.

In Christian preaching, the cult of wealth is called idolatry, defined as the worship of images instead of the living God of Jesus Christ. Idolatry can inspire great dedication and self-sacrifice in its adherents. Its weakness is that the claim of its deity to be the highest value for society, institution and individual must inevitably override such other values as honesty, truthfulness, faithfulness and accountability. The corruption that inevitably ensues reveals the idols to be false gods, not worthy of human worship.

The same unsophisticated observer might also remark the same recurrent idolatry in the Catholic Church. The church of God comes to be worshipped instead of the God of the church. The living God of Jesus Christ is identified with the interests of the church, and self-sacrificing service of the church is identified with protecting the reputation of the church and its ministers. The signs of God's favour are then to be found in the approval of one's superiors and by promotion based on loyalty.

When the church is made into an idol, the values of its founder — transparency to the truth, unconditional love of others and especially the most disregarded, and attentiveness to the voice of God in the messy daily reality of human society and the world — are inevitably compromised. This leads to the corruption and consequent loss of a good name.

The wise and prudent of this world will no doubt accuse the unsophisticated observer of naivety in claiming that Catholics should be more concerned about idolatry than about unbelief, and that financial institutions should be more concerned about greed than about diminished profitability. But the unsophisticated observer may observe that the track record of the wise and prudent of this world is not great in recognising and calling out idols.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, banks, royal commission, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

Quite apart from being an excellent analysis and perspective yet again from Fr Andrew, this is also a very good description of the amazingly rapid and headlong decline and fall of Judeo-Christian civilisation, not because of some outside barbarian influence but because of its own diabolical abandonment of all that it espouses. Old Nick must be celebrating as never before!

john frawley | 01 May 2018  

Brilliant last paragraph! Yesterday, I was talking to a friend I volunteer with and our discussion was centred on the current TV series "The Handmaid's Tale". We were both familiar with Margaret Atwood's book as well, and this was helpful for us to put the TV series in context. For the church, the failures highlighted by the Royal Commission were noteworthy for the absolute abandonment of 'believing' for 'belonging', no matter the price paid. For the bankers and financial institutions, as shocking as the revelations are, no one is that surprised. Very strange.

Pam | 01 May 2018  

At this moment in time does the Church have more credibility than many major worldly Corporations? The answer sadly has to be no, it has less, as it has betrayed its core values (Teachings) before God and mankind, how could one trust, a given trust that has been shown to be so untrustworthy, can trust be restored? We have been taught to serve the Truth, but our teachers did not do the same, many reasons have been given for this scandal (Child abuse cover up) but it comes down to dishonesty and the root of this dishonesty has been revealed by God to the Church in a way that cannot be misunderstood, as it can be seen by all honest hearts, in an IDOL created by the elite within the church. Who in arrogance have breached our most fundamental sacred belief , that God’s Word (Will) is Inviolate, by distorting His Will in creating and serving an IDOL manifest by a Self-serving image of Worldly Goodness. That was presented in a jamboree to the laity before all of mankind, for it to be venerated within God’s house on earth, after such an act compounded with the abuse scandal, how can our leaders (Shepherds) regain moral authority and lead once again? Please consider continuing in the link http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2017/02/child-abuse-scandal-almost-fatally-destroyed-catholic-church/#comment-87574

Kevin Walters | 02 May 2018  

Thanks Andrew for reminding us of our own spiritual selves, and pointing us beyond ourselves to our only hope and salvationt in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Steve Etherington | 02 May 2018  

Thank you Andrew on another excellent well reasoned commentary. Without naming the demon clericalism, you have identified the key problem, which is the selfish vested interests in the institutional church and its long history of denial. The parallel with the financial services industry, as well as with large corporations, is well drawn. Thank goodness, by which I mean Our Lord, that Pope Francis has been outstanding, in his criticisms and by his works, despite the efforts of those who have sought to frustrate him. I believe I speak for many in praying for new appointments of truly pastoral successors to the current hierarchy of the institutional church in Australia.

Michael Kennedy | 02 May 2018  

Fr Andrew Im not sure the analogy between the church and the big banks is a fair one. But since you have drawn the parallel: "Bankers' best guesses about the Vatican's wealth put it at $10 billion to $15 billion. Of this wealth, Italian stockholdings alone run to $1.6 billion, 15% of the value of listed shares on the Italian market. The Vatican has big investments in banking, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction, real estate. Dividends help pay for Vatican expenses and charities such as assisting 1,500,000 children and providing some measure of food and clothing to 7,000,000 needy Italians. Unlike ordinary stockholders, the Vatican pays no taxes on this income. Source Time Magazine Feb 26 1965." But we all know what Jesus said: Matthew 6:24 "You cannot be a slave of two masters; you will hate one and love the other; you will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Banks make no pretence about being religious institutions. Their job is profit for their shareholders. So the higher standards we expect of the church dont necessarily apply to banks. Religion today has become commercialised. Most clergy live far better than their flocks.

francis Armstrong | 02 May 2018  

While some resemblances - in cultural dysfunction, in brazen denials, in the use of the 'few bad apples' defence, in protecting reputation at the cost of the vulnerable - between the Church and the financial institutions are disturbingly similar, those resemblance should not be allowed to mitigate the unique failures, to the point of failure in its Christian mission, of the Church. The mission of financial institutions is to make profits through provision of a service within the proper constraints of societal ethics. The Church's mission is to model the highest standards of ethics in preaching the teachings of Jesus Christ. The financial institutions actually have systems of accountability that have failed, and they are now being held to account. The Church has autocratic leaders with little accountability and a culture of clericalist control which has not changed following the scandal of cover-ups and protection of clerical paedophiles. The scandal of corporate failures should not be allowed to explain the mission failures of the Church. As Andy observes, "when the church is made into an idol, the values of its founder . . . are inevitably compromised" - to put it mildly.

Peter Johnstone | 02 May 2018  

No institution is immune from this pernicious misplacement of core values. Neither are we as individuals immune from such waywardness. As soon as we forget that the Spirit of God dwells in us and cease to live in the consciousness that God is to be found in others we transpose other things to a deity status. As Thomas More is reputed to have stated prior to his execution “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Many years ago I attended a series of lectures by renowned author Gerard Egan. He began by an analysis of how institutions function and in particular of how recognition and promotion is given to those who espouse the institution’s mantras and modus operandi. He then asked what happens when an individual dares to question these? He continued by stating that the church, religious congregations, schools and parishes were all institutions that held these characteristics. How right he was! The coming plenary meeting of the Australian Church needs to be on its guard lest it too falls for this form of institutionalised idolatry.

Ern Azzopardi | 03 May 2018  

Self regulation is an oxymoron. And the struggle to explain the dysfunctionalality of a complex organization ought be profound and forensic. Disciplines like theology and biblical studies are ex professo not about conscious, unconscious and subconscious forces of humans belonging to organizations. Basically ever person born is dependent-they suck or they die. Eventually as the person develops that dependency evolves into inter-dependency. But there are frequent regressions. Wanting someone, something to be a parent is common. When people want something they often regress to childish behaviours. That is why detachment is so important. People give their power to priests, bankers, charlatans, snake oil salesmen and politicians 'cos they want something. Part of what they give is their better judgment or common sense. This is not the leap of faith it is the creep of faith. thus being committed to more than the central message of the leader. Whether the recipient of the undue power is a Zen teacher, priest, bishop, banker, CEO, Mayor it will be power, the more unlimited the more abused, which is common. We are all complicit. That is why courageous, transparent review, reflection, examination and non defensive listening needs to be the go.

Michael D. Breen | 03 May 2018  

As Andrew shows, Idolatry is one New Testament metaphor to call on for understanding the theological significance of the exercise of power of both the church and financial institutions. But surely it is time for us to revisit Paul's writing on the principalities and powers in Ephesians and Colossians. This was popular in the early and mid twentieth centuries during the rise of National Socialism and Communism. Would iyt not be fruitful to revisit that scholarship (and what has been written since) to explain the massive wickedness perpetrated by seemingly respectable people in the 21st century?

Rod Horsfield | 03 May 2018  

Ah John, was the ' Judeo-Christian civilisation' ever any better ? Think, the Spanish conquistadors, the Crusades, the European wars of religion, the East India Company, the robber barons of the US.

Gnger Meggs | 03 May 2018  

Good morning, Ginger. At its peak which I would suggest was reached over approx 100 years from 1850 to 1950, I reckon Judeo-Christian civilisation did espouse ethical and just principles on the whole. While there are always bad people in all societies, J-C society did encompass a morality in its civil law and governance. The erosion of J-C principles by the civil law and politicians since the 1960s has I believe been the major contributor to decline in standards which has tainted all society including our once trusted institutions such as the banks, the Church and sadly the medical and teaching professions - the full house of contributors to J-C civilisation, the time honoured learned professions of Divinity, Law, Medicine and Education. I our decline we have replaced ethics with self interest, the divine with the human and the sacred with the profane. That is why I believe J-C civilisation is worse now than it was during its evolution. At least in reaching the pinnacle we removed a lot of the bad stuff - now we are dismantling the constraints placed on unethical or immoral behaviour using education, the law, medicine and the church, the "learned professions" A disaster of gargantuan proportions for which we are already paying a high fee in this life.

john frawley | 03 May 2018  

Once again our society is in dire need of good prophets to point out where the True God is to be found, and how we are diverging from the Way towards the True God. The prophets don't need to use god-language to do this. They do need to be able to demonstrate in their deeds and words the way that's ultimately good for all of us. What a pity that the Church as a whole is not presently in a good place to be a good prophet, having fallen into the pit ourselves. Yet we still have a chance to be the prophet that's needed. But only if we can repent, turn back, make the oblast ions needed. Let's see how our sunbronzed Aussie Bishops go with that. A bit of leadership in becoming wounded healers?

Joan Seymour | 04 May 2018  

John Frawley, I wonder whether it's a false analogy, and a dangerous one, to speak of the 'evolution' of Judaeo-Christian society? Evolution is all about survival, at whatever cost. The species must survive even though its members look immensely different from their distant forebears. Christianity isn't meant to evolve like this. It's meant to be transformed, and thus transformative. We're still in process, and will be while we cling to the irreducible truth of who we are. Once we allow ourselves to survive at the cost of losing ourself as the Body of Christ, we'll have evolved, but lost all chance of ultimate transformation.

Joan Seymour | 04 May 2018  

I don't know whether you would call it History, or Sociology (or institutional sociology) of the Church, but I'm looking for a thoughtful (not hysterical) analysis of the effect on the Church of its own power (and wealth), or alternatively the way it wields/protects them , over the centuries. Specifically this topic was brought to my mind by reflecting on the long and sometimes fierce institutional resistance to acknowledging the sexual abuse issue, and (to my mind) putting the reputation and influence of the Church (and preserving its assets) on a higher level than the hurt individuals. This seemed to me a long-time conditioned response, rather than an isolated lapse. Does my topic make sense to you ? All I seem to find in my searches are very anti-Catholic blogs, or triumphalist celebrations, or conventional chronological church histories. I’ve certainly read Geoff Robinson's book. But I’m looking for more of a sociological/institutional study of power/wealth and what happens, and has happened historically, in terms of institutional self-preservation (and secrecy), and the way these can take over from whatever the institution’s original goals were, rather than looking for a pastoral remedy for the future. In one sense I could just read a study of major Corporations (“power corrupts...etc”), but I think the Church is sui generis. I would welcome any reading suggestions you might have.

Peter Dwight | 06 May 2018  

Good morning, Joan Seymour. I do agree with you re the nature of species evolution as with Darwin's hypothesis. Perhaps one of the beauties of the English language is the colourful multiplicity of meaning that attaches to a single word - such as evolve. I also completely agree that transformation is a very good word but feel that is what we have abandoned in the modern world and can still access as you suggest provided we change and return to our roots. However, I am dubious that we have the will to do that in our comfort - it all seems too hard! Also love your English usage of the old fashioned descriptive "Body of Christ" for God's people rather than the trendy (meaningless in English terms) "Church".

john frawley | 06 May 2018  

Peter Dwight, you identify the real need in seeking "a thoughtful (not hysterical) analysis of the effect on the Church of its own power (and wealth), or alternatively the way it wields/protects them." Catholics for Renewal has for some years been questioning the impacts of "institutional self-preservation (and secrecy), and the way these can take over from whatever the institution’s original goals were." You can access Catholics for Renewal's thinking and much more including submissions to the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and submissions to Church leaders at: http://www.catholicsforrenewal.org

Peter Johnstone | 06 May 2018  

Peter Dwight, I cannot recommend a good book, but I can recommend a good read, that relates to all those who have covered themselves with the public mantel of Jesus Christ, as it is enlightening. In demonstrating the historical power of Clericalism; a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy: In a given instance, we see the manifestation of corruption, by the elite within the Church, in regards to slavery, by distorting truth of history. Academia has its place but we can never actually know the full truth of history. Yes! we can and should learn from it, but we can never capture the “full story”. Because throughout history there is a constant battle between good and evil and by its very nature, evil will happily play tit for tat (Debate/Research) continually ….. To avoid a conclusion, that is based on Truth (Christian morality). The serving of the Truth takes courage, and should be a prerequisite for a Shepherd, and all of us, as good works and self-image can be feigned and used to lead some astray, but the serving of the Truth cannot, as the 'transforming' action of the Holy Spirit (as in a confrontation with evil), takes place, in the present moment, and often involves carrying one’s own cross. The walking of the ‘Way’, behind our true Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Please consider continuing by reading my posts @7-10-16-18 in the link. kevin your brother In Christ http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2017/08/lazy-hazy-days-with-a-good-book/#comment-90530

Kevin Walters | 07 May 2018  

How sad to even compare the Royal Commission into finances with that concerning the sexual abuse of children. Even sadder to read many "intellectuals" splitting hairs over history and beliefs. Just playing with words. The main aim of the Church should have been to protect Christian Principles and in doing so the children would have been safe. The church was supposed to be answering to a higher power whereas banks are totally materialistic, they have never been disguised as seeking Christ. Financial Institutions are strong when they are wealthy. It has been revealed that the Church was wealthy and strong but not true to its call. At its strongest it was at its worst. It doesn't need to be stronger it needs to be better. The comparisons in the article just minimises again the abominable harm inflicted on tens of thousands of victims here in Australia.

Patricia Hamilton | 08 May 2018  

And good morning to you too John. So, 1850 to 1950, the peak period for Judeo-Christian civilisation? It coincides nicely with Eric Hobsbawm's 'Age of Empire' (1875-1914) and the Muscular Christianity so beloved of Tony Abbott. Coincidentally, I wonder? It was a pretty good period for those of us (Christians) who were on top, but not so good for those of us whose lands were being taken, whose resources were being plundered, and whose languages and beliefs were being suppressed. And those 'the time honoured learned professions' were as much a part of the process as the merchants, the bankers, the engineers, and the gunsmiths.

Ginger Meggs | 08 May 2018  

And to you Ginger! I have to agree with you that no human society has been perfect even at its peak. but if we compare the learned professions of today with those of the period I mentioned they are all unrecognisable in their corruption. I find it hard to believe the depths to which the Churches, the law, medicine and education have plunged over the last fifty years - particularly medicine and the law. I am not familiar with "Age of Empire" although I do recognise England's great contributions, sadly diminished by the seriously flawed and delusional sense of superiority over all that isn't English which seems to have obscured all that was wrong in English society. I reckon our humanity is our greatest affliction and I'm darned If I can understand why God created us the way he did and why he would choose to become one of us !!!! I'm sure the theologians would have an answer of one sort or other.

john frawley | 08 May 2018  

And you too Mr. Hamilton, again attempting to minimize the church's crimes. That cartoon which should end with .."and priests" if you were honest.

Mark Prytz | 15 May 2018  

Perhaps John it is not a matter of understanding 'why God created us the way he did' but rather why we create, and recreate, God the way we do. I'm reading RH Tawney's < Religion and the Rise of Capitalism > (originally published in 1926) at the moment. It seems to me that since the eighteenth century, as the political economy replaced the moral economy, the Christian church has vacated the area of public ethics to focus instead on private morals. A focus on the bedroom rather than the boardroom, as it were. From a complete ban on usury and a frown on buying and selling for profit, the church has gradually given way to an acceptance of most, if not all, of capitalism's dimensions. Maybe this is what you are seeing in when you refer to the 'erosion of J-C civilisation'?

Ginger Meggs | 16 May 2018  

David Brog's "In Defense of Faith" (NY: Encounter Books, 2010) upholds the importance of the Judeo-Christian world-view to society, demonstrating how the direst arocities against humanity have occurred when people have rejected or abandoned the radical "Judeo-Christian idea", viz., the sanctity of human life.

John | 16 May 2018  

How, John, can you claim that the ‘sanctity of human life’ is a peculiarly ‘Judeo-Christian idea’ when the scriptures are riddled with God-sanctioned massacres and the last two millennia have had more than their fair share of Church-sanctioned burnings, drownings, and military offensives?

Ginger Meggs | 16 May 2018  

Ginger Meggs, the fact that the sanctity of life has been abused does not detract from its importance as a civilising value and its genesis in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

John | 18 May 2018  

John, I'm not arguing its importance, I'm questioning 'its genesis in the Judeo-Christian tradition'. If the Old Testament is any guide, it's not in the Judeo part of the tradition and if the behaviour of either the bishops of Rome or of their reformist adversaries is any example, it's not in the Christian part of the tradition. You may well be able to point to individual expressions of the sanctity of life but where is your evidence for a non-violent tradition?

Ginger Meggs | 20 May 2018  

Ginger, do you know of any other tradition that has so constantly upheld the inviolability of the life of the unborn, the foundation of all human rights?

John | 21 May 2018  

1.28 billion Catholics in the world of which 1% make up the Clergy. Just saying. Shortage of Clergy yet people are still being baptised into the Catholic Church, or crossing over from another denomination or religion. Adam was just like Jesus and his relationship with the Father before the fall. Take a look at Adam and Eve as they are banished by an angle with a rod in the expulsion from paradise in Michelangelo's Last Judgment. Adam and Eve share the same facial features. There's gotta be something more, as this illustrates, to Thomas being called a twin when he sees Jesus Alive. It's about the Imitation of Christ, being His Twin, if you like. An image( icon) Adam lost, as he and Eve learnt via human suffering. Until Mary's, "Yes". Mary (our) mother of the Church. She is mother of the, " Institution of the Eucharistic". Not of any other kind.

AO | 21 May 2018  

Ah, my dear John. I suppose it s inevitable that any discussion on ethics and morality comes around to the personal morality of sexuality and reproduction. Nothing I can say will persuade you to change your belief so I won't try. But your posts here seem to me to be examples of the point that I was trying to make to the other John (Frawley) that the Christian church has vacated the area of public ethics to focus instead on private morals.

Ginger Meggs | 22 May 2018  

Thank you, Ginger, but I dispute your claim that the fate of the unborn is simply a matter of personal morality.

John | 23 May 2018