Go and Preach: What does St Dominic have to say about political leadership?

Go and Preach! Thoughts about the Order of the Preachers is the title of a book that has been published by the Dominican community in Malta. The actual title is Mur u Xandar! Ħsibijietdwar l-Ordnital-Predikaturi, penned in Maltese by Joseph Ellul. In 2016, the Order of Preachers marked the 800th anniversary of its existence. The author delves into the history of the Dominican Order and discusses the raison d’être of its existence. Probably, many remember the Order for the Medieval Inquisition and the persecution of the Albigensians, a religious community that was based in the city of Albi in Southern France.

Ellul gives an interesting reading of the Dominican friars’ history, explaining how the Order came about and successfully puts its foundation within the historical context of the time. Its existence is related to the appearance in Europe of new urban structures during the 13th century. The south of France and Northern Italy were at the centre of a new cultural and economic revival. Besides discussing the history of the Order and examining its theological ethos, Ellul also tells us what this religious institution stood for. This analysis forms part of the first two chapters of the book. The third chapter is dedicated to the special devotion that the Dominicans have towards Our Lady. Perhaps, very few know that the rosary was created by a Dominican, Alan de la Roche. The author explains why and how this prayer came into being, in particular, after a Dominican became Pope; Pope Pius V.

Yet, if one thinks that Ellul is only interested in history and in explaining how the religious institution, to which him belongs, came into being, one is mistaken. Ellul is far more interested in the future rather than in the past of his Order. He is worried about the state of Catholicism in Malta.  He is one of those who believes that one cannot build a secure and successful future without first knowing the past. I concur with him on this historical premise.

The first, second and fourth chapters are full of reflections which are not only pertinent to an institution, like that of Dominicans, but to any other organization, including political parties that wish to construct a brighter future within the framework of a Christian ethos. The success of St. Dominic, who was the first leader of this community, is to be found in the fact that he surrounded himself with individuals ready to understand and acknowledge his thoughts. But this is not enough for someone to become a successful leader. Those around a good leader need to understand his ideals, aspirations, hopes and pains.  When these qualities are lacking, the leader’s personality is destined to crumble.

Yet, Ellul recognizes that even at the time of St. Dominic, there were those who made use of the Bible to achieve their personal and political aims. More importantly, the medieval politician was interested in interpreting the Bible in order to control the masses.

Despite what many may think, sexual deviances were not an issue at that time and age. The real issue was heresy. Heresy was the sole concept that was not tolerated. It was considered a political element; one that leads to anarchy and brings disruption to a community.  Perhaps, this would sound strange today, but in truth, no political organization in our time and age, accepts or tolerates dissenting voices within its fold. Dissenting voices were called heresies in the Middle Ages. But these concepts have remained the same. The only change was in the use of words. Dissenting voices are no longer burnt at the stake but political assassinations are still practised. As correctly noted by Tocqueville, when a physical death does not take place, those outside the established circles are still destined for political margination.    

Dialogue today is a buzz word but very few are aware that it was also a political concept at the time of St. Dominic. Successful dialogue is based on reciprocal respect but respect does not mean that one reaches the point of having to compromise on his or her beliefs. This is where modern society and political parties are committing the gravest error. The truth is that just as at the time of St. Dominic, we are still discussing politics with much passion but with little or no logic. Personal interests and political agendas were then and are still the order of the day.  

Ellul is in favour of tradition. Unlike what many may think, when tradition is alive and kicking, it is not tied to time. Only when tradition dies, is it relegated to history.  Ellul sees in tradition the answer to the chaotic way of life that is lived by contemporary society. The term ‘liquid modernity’ was used by ZygmuntBrauman to show that modern life in “ambivalent” and “uncertain”. According to Ellul, this has led modern men to new responsibilities that our ancestors did not have. ‘Liquid’ means that our society is in a continuous process of uncertain transformations and ambivalent change.  

The local Catholic Church is not immune to these changes: Ellul strongly believes that the Church was caught unprepared. The manner in which modern concepts are being introduced in Malta are in themselves an expression of an aggressive battle in favour of secularization. In fact, from the introduction of divorce onwards, Maltese society has experienced a split: the divorce referendum has brought on a new wave of anti-clericalism, which was not even present in the 1960s. It was after the introduction of divorce in Malta that we started to hear public speeches wherein it was officially declared that Catholicism is no longer the religion of the majority of the Maltese. Worse, there was the rejection of Christianity as part and parcel of the Maltese way of life. Therefore, Malta is not only facing a process of secularization but is moving fast towards the dechristianisation of the Island.  These battles, Elluladds, start with an appeal to sentimentalism. One needs to care for the feelings of others, we are always being told. In these situations, one knows the point of departure but not the point of arrival. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about true suffering. Most suffering is kept hidden by the media and real pain is rarely placed on the national agenda. Modern society is not prohibiting religious persons from preaching about Christ but it is not allowing them to preach about what Ellul defines as the religious truth.

Totally against the mentality that one needs to adapt because the Church is losing its followers, Ellul argues that the Church is not a multi-national company. The Church is not in the market selling or buying ideas. Ellul wants to stick to the message of Jesus Christ. His message is one and unique and cannot be changed or adulterated. Besides, any religion that does not offer challenges to humankind but is ready to accommodate, does not deserve to exist.

More importantly, as a priest, Ellul admits that Malta is in need of a new evangelization. This goes to show that the past efforts made in the pedagogy of religious education have all misfired. I know it for a fact that priests were sidelined because they disagreed with the way the teaching of religion was being endorsed and pushed forwards in the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, we are now reaping the fruits sown at the time.

There is a link between the dechristianization of Europe and the political decline of Continent of Europe. Ellul discusses Europe’s decline at the end of the fourth chapter. I will not discuss it here, but Europe is a Christian construct. The fact that Europe is no longer a world protagonist, and is showing  all the symptoms of fatigue, is linked to the way this Continent has looked at Christianity in the recent past. The truth is that Europe finds it difficult to think optimistically. Malta’s economic future still looks bright and this may explain why extreme modernity is still so appealing. But I am sure that even Malta will realize eventually that without religion, we, the citizens of this island, risk being considered a mere statistical figure. There is one cardinal Christian principle that made Europe great: the observation of law can never replace the supreme law of charity. The dismissal of Christianity explains why modern humankind, with secularism, has ended up enslaved by its own laws.