Living Mission — Feudalism still survives

Father Charles Dittmeier

Feudalism still survives.

In 1555 the treaty called the Peace of Augsburg ended various religious conflicts that had erupted in the Germanic states after Martin Luther protested against abuses he saw in the Catholic Church.

Working from the principle it developed of Cujus regio, ejus religio (Whoever is the prince of a state can determine the religion of that state), the treaty created a compromise and ended, at least temporarily, some of the religious turmoil.

In so doing, the treaty made a significant advance in the development of the concept of religious freedom, at least for a group if not for individuals.

The treaty also was a strong reflection of the feudal system of the 16th century.

The peasants, the serfs, lived under the mastery, the control of the lord of their area. Basically uneducated and without rights, the peasants depended on the lord for protection from bandits and marauding armies, and in return they fought in the lord’s army and paid a portion of their crops as taxes.

That feudalist dependence on a protecting lord still exists in many parts of the world. I first ran into it in India where, while I was serving at a school for the deaf, I was often approached by local people to write letters of support. Most often the letter would accompany their child’s application to gain admission to a Catholic school. I would protest that I didn’t know the people asking, the school didn’t know me and the letter would not have any influence. But the parents would insist they needed the letter.

Now I run into the same scenario in Cambodia, especially among the Pakistani refugees who have made their way here. I am frequently asked — if not to accompany the refugees — at least to write a letter of support. My letters are to bolster applications to a school for their children; to obtain a visa; to recommend them for a job; to lobby embassies for help. Making me appear like a feudal lord, they even ask me for permission to emigrate or to marry!

I have found that in some of their home areas some priests are in the office all day and “hold court,” listening to the supplicants who make their way to the rectory and wait to be seen, the priests then offer what aid they can. It is good the church is known as a helping agency, but the system can certainly support clericalism and patriarchy while pointing out the failure of the government to respect and care for its citizens.

The Cambodian church, with so many of us foreign priests, doesn’t support that type of feudal dependence, but the feudal model is not uncommon in Cambodian society. In a country where the legal system is weak and easily corrupted, and where there are few social service agencies or other helping resources, the only recourse is to go to the person with power.

People with real grievances — for example, their land has been taken by tycoons — don’t go to the police or hire a lawyer. The whole village walks to Phnom Penh and marches to the prime minister’s home to sit with cardboard signs until the police disperse them.

Those of us in Maryknoll and all of us serving as missionaries must certainly be cognizant of the dangers inherent in our positions. As foreigners and with our project funding, expertise and access to resources, we can certainly be seen as people of power. But rather than enable dependence and subservience, we need to always put forward Jesus’ emphasis on the dignity and worth of each individual and show the love and respect that Jesus offered to all God’s children, and especially to the poor and needy.

Father Dittmeier is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and also pastor of the English-speaking parish there.

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