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Pope Francis and the tug of values

Written by Minabere Ibelema - Nigeria. 

Minabere Ibelema 
During his visit to the United States last week, Pope Francis addressed a joint session of the United States Congress. It is an honour that is extended to just a few people who are distinguished in some way. That is, people such as Popes. Yet, Pope Francis is the first pope to be accorded that honour, and that is not an accident.

Sure, the United States is one of the most religious countries in the Western world. Virtually every member of the U.S. Congress has a religious affiliation - mostly Christian - and about 69.4 million Americans are Catholic. Still, in a sense, the Pope is the antithesis of what the United States formally stands for. The political revolution that became the United States is in essence the culmination of the revolt against papal authority that began with Martin Luther's 95 theses in 1517.

Now, however, the US Congress-the formal representation of the American people-now share considerable bond with the pope. Perhaps, more than any other institutions in the world, they embody the tug between tradition and a moral order on the one hand and modernity and freewheeling values on the other. It is a tug that is at the heart of modern history, and it shows no signs of easing up.

For share convenience, let's begin with the Protestant Revolution, otherwise known as the Reformation. When Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of a theological seminary in Wittenberg, Germany, where he was a priest and professor, he was doing the unthinkable: taking on the most powerful authority in the world at the time.

During the periods of the inquisitions - lasting from the mid-13th century to the early 19th- the death penalty or long-term imprisonment was the fate of heretics, people whose beliefs deviated from church doctrines. Meanwhile, the church raked in much money from the sale of "indulgences" as the means of forgiveness of sins.

That, more than anything else, was what infuriated Luther and led to his courageous call for reform and an improbable standoff with the Pope. The resulting schism engendered the Protestant movement, the breakaway of congregations from Catholicism and papal authority.The Church of England did so on and off between 1534 and 1555, when it permanently established its own separate identity, incorporating the ethos of the Reformation while retaining much of Catholicism.

But the reforms were not enough for many. Religious dissenters included the Puritans, the Quakers, and the Pilgrims. Their quest for religious freedom and reforms, along with the commercial interests of merchants, led to the establishment of the first European colonies in what came to become the United States.

When Pope Francis visited the United States last week, he was still grasping with some of the issues his predecessors grappled with centuries ago and some new ones.History has it that the Church of England initially broke away from papal authority in 1534 because Pope Clement VII wouldn't grant an annulment to King Henry VIII. Today, Pope Francis is still grappling with the church's tenet on divorce among other things.
The Catholic Church has traditionally seen marriage as indissoluble. The only option is annulment, which is predicated on the logic that the marriage never happened in the first place. That is, that God never put it together and therefore man may put it asunder. That tenuous proposition necessitates a long and tedious process, which divorcing Catholics find vexing.

Pope Francis's solution is typical of his approach to the other points of tension, and that is to keep the doctrine but ease the alienation.He has urged parishes to welcome back parishioners who divorced and or remarried contrary to Catholic doctrine, even if they are still excluded from taking sacraments. For those seeking annulment, he seeks to simplify and shorten the process.

That should be easier than the many other issues that he is grappling with. Should priests be allowed to marry? Should women be admitted into the priesthood? Is abortion acceptable? What is the place of homosexuals in the church? How about same-sex marriage?On most of these and similar questions, the Pope takes a more accommodating stance than his immediate predecessor, Pope-Emeritus Benedict.

On women as priests, for example, he applauds nuns for assisting with pastoral duties and encouraged them to do even more. But he doesn't call for the end of the ban. The one issue the Pope takes a firm stand on is same-sex marriages. Even then, he was tepid on the issue during his address to the U.S. Congress.That is in keeping with his advocacy that the church should be less obsessed with condemning vices and more pre-occupied with pastoral mission. He expressed his rejection of same-sex marriages rather obliquely.
"I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened perhaps as never before, from within and without," the Pope told the assembly. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."

In so saying, he was largely preaching to the choir. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. But that law was overturned by the Supreme Court, in a decision that presaged the court's decision earlier this year to grant same-sex couples the right to marry.
There was a time that such a decision would have engendered a revolt, to the extent that the decision was even thinkable. Today the ethos of democracy has deeply sunk in, and that is to abide by the outcomes of due processes, regardless of one's personal position on them. But there is no question that a majority of the members of the Congress continue to seethe over the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision.

Back in Italy, Pope Francis has to deal with the same reality. The Mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, has "legalised" same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere though such marriages are illegal in mostly Catholic Italy.
Rome, of course, used to be the city from which papal authority radiated all over the world. Today the Pope's statutory authority is confined to Vatican City, the small enclave carved out from Rome.

Like the U.S. Congress then, the Pope has to live with social developments that affront him and church doctrines. All he could do was to lambast Mayor Marino. "He pretends to be Catholic," Pope France said of Marino, according to the French News Agency. "It came on him all of a sudden. It doesn't happen like that."
In times past, affronted Popes did a whole lot more than lambast.

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