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Pope Francis: The Great Reformer

Pope Francis: The Great Reformer

Will Pope Francis Be Assassinated?

Perish the man, or perish the thought? The first part is not entirely improbable, and the second is most desirable. What is the probability of Pope Francis being assassinated? Going by some trends in the church, and the history of the papacy, I would rate it as pretty high.

Pope John Paul II, the 260th pope, was attacked by Mehmet Ali Agca, an operative of the ultra-nationalist Turkish Grey Wolves, on 13/5/1981. He survived the shooting. His predecessor in office, John Paul I (259) was pope for just 34 days. Conspiracy theorists of Vatican palace intrigue, like Dan Brown, would have us believe that he was surreptitiously put to death because of the ongoing probe into the Ambrosiano Bank in which the Institute for the Works of Religion (commonly known as the Vatican Bank) was a major stakeholder. The bank collapsed in 1982, just four years after the death of John Paul I in 1978.

However, there are multiple instances of popes being murdered. I will quote extensively from “A Compact History of the Popes” by Rev P.C. Thomas, published by St Paul’s. The numerals in brackets, after the name of the pope, indicate his number in succession. For example Pope Francis is 262. Get set for a horror story.

Pope Formusus (111) had his papal garments removed, and his fingers cut off before his body was thrown into the river. Stephen VI (113) was strangulated to death in his cell in August 897. John X (122), who had a mistress, was murdered, and his successor Leo VI (123) also met a violent death. John XII (130), an 18 year old, was made pope by his influential father. He was murdered by the husband of his mistress. Benedict VII (135) became pope by murdering his predecessor Benedict VI (134). I may have to ask wordsmith Shashi Tharoor if popicide is an English word like patricide!

The danger then is real. John Paul I was a threat to the floundering bank. John Paul II was a threat because of his support for Solidarity in his native Poland, and thereby the entire Eastern Bloc of communism. Who feels threatened by Pope Francis?

The war clouds are gathering ominously. This 5th October Francis is elevating 13 new cardinals. His detractors feel that he is “stacking the deck” with his own kind that are liberal reformists. This is perceived as a threat by the conservative lobby. Led by Italian journalist Marco Tosatti (the same one who had earlier attacked Francis over alleged cover up of clerical sexual abuse) they are organising a worldwide prayer campaign on the same day at Largo Giovanni XIII close to the Vatican because “the church is going through its Passion”. Comparisons are already being made with a gherao (encirclement) at a papal conclave in 1378 to ensure that an Italian, not a Frenchman, got elected as pope. The similarities are frightening.

Why is Francis perceived as a threat to the rich, articulate, influential and conservative lobby in the Catholic Church? I have already elaborated on this in my previous article “Is Pope Francis a Heretic?” For the purpose of this sequel I shall focus on just one aspect – his all out assault on clericalism, and its umbilical cord with sexual abuse.

Australia’s Royal Commission that probed into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse arrived at a startling finding in the matter of clerical paedophilia. It concluded that “clericalism is at the centre of a tightly interconnected cluster of contributing factors”; a view with which Abp Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, the President of the bishops’ conference, concurred.

One of the interconnected contributing factors that the Royal Commission identified is the Catholic theological contention of ontological change that supposedly occurs when a normal human is ordained a priest. The premise is that the ordained person’s very nature changes. He becomes a sacred super human who can by his very nature do no wrong! This is a frightening premise that both permits the crime and then covers it up.

An allegory is again required to debunk the myth of ontological change. Does the sacrament of baptism transform the recipient from a sinner to a saint? Does reception of the Eucharist transform the recipient’s body into the holy temple of God that can do no wrong? Does a church marriage guarantee smooth sailing in one’s marriage? The answer to all these questions is an emphatic “NO”. The same yardstick applies to priestly ordination. That is why Natalia Imperatori-Lee, professor of theology at Manhattan College says, “Clericalism is isolating and insular – it cuts off the oxygen of genuine solidarity and sharing of life with lay people by erecting a separate class, even a separate caste, within the church … The laity, told repeatedly that the priest is special and uniquely holy – ‘ontological change, indelible mark’ – is not inclined to believe the clergy capable of sin”.

As a member of the Catholic Church I do believe in the sacramental priesthood. I have met and learned from many holy and wise priests. It is not the priesthood that is the problem, but the type of clericalism that Francis has rightly drawn attention to. I feel that there are 5 Ps that contribute largely to clericalism. They are Paternalism, Privilege, Power, Pulpit and Pride. Allow me to elaborate.

Paternalism is when we bow and scrape like little children before the Fathers. We have already seen how the priesthood is sought to be portrayed as an ontologically distinct and privileged class. This sense of paternalism and privilege is further accentuated in India because, pre-Independence, the clergy was identified with the gora sahibs, the colonial ruling class. In our culture the priest was also the Brahmin, the head of the body, and the top of the social ladder. So privilege came even more naturally to the Indian priest.

Power followed privilege. Prior to Vatican II all power vested in the clergy. The passive laity only prayed, paid and obeyed. But in a poor country like India, in many areas, the laity didn’t have anything to pay, so they got paid. This is because the clergy had all the land, the institutions and the recourse to funds, including readily available foreign funds. It is only in the post Vatican II era that we are seeing the laity in leadership roles, largely outside the hierarchical church structure. They are now able to hold their heads high in temporal affairs – socio-economic and political.

The fourth P is the Pulpit. Prior to the advent of social media it was the cheapest and easiest means of communication. So the priest had easy access to his target audience in a one-way diatribe. In contrast, lay groups or organizations would struggle to communicate their message. Think of the logistics in making a simple announcement from the pulpit, as against printing hundreds of handbills to convey the same message. I therefore see the mainstream and social media as a great leveller; an effective means of restoring parity against pulpit power and hegemony.

The next P is the deadliest of them all – Pride. As the old saying goes “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Or as the Book of Proverbs says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16:18).

If I correctly recall it was St Thomas of Aquinas who identified three levels of pride – Pride of the Senses, Pride of the Intellect and Pride of the Spirit. That of the Senses is based on physical attributes like strength, beauty, voice etc. They are relative and time bound. Somebody can always be stronger, better looking or a better singer. Such stars vanish or diminish with time. That of the Intellect involves knowing more than others; the coign of vantage that establishes superiority over others. With their many years of seminary studies priests are easily prone to pride of the intellect vis-à-vis the ignorant laity. Here again a more knowledgeable person is always to be found.

The Pride of the Spirit is the most dangerous, because it is internal, not external, and cannot be compared or measured against another. It leads such a person to believe that he is “ontologically different”, a superior being, that can do no wrong, and cannot be challenged or questioned. Of such the psalmist says, “He sees himself with too flattering an eye to detect and detest his guilt … he has turned his back on wisdom” (Ps 36:2). Jesus’ own teachings are replete with the dangers of pride, and hardly bear repetition.

How can we counter pride in the church, especially in its clerical manifestation? Francis counters privilege by living in a humble apartment. He avoids ostentation. On his recent visit to Mozambique he travelled in a KUV 100 car, one of the smallest made by Mahindras in India. For him, washing the feet is not a one day ritual; it is part of his spiritual journey. Priests should voluntarily surrender their privileges, and a fawning laity should stop adding to them. Power can either be snatched or matched. I believe that the laity must match clerical fire power with knowledge, especially of scripture, Canon Law and Vatican II teachings. They should also restore parity by reducing their financial dependency on the clergy, and be financially independent. Pulpit power, as I said, should be countered by increasing use of the media. Paternalism has absolutely no scriptural foundation, and has no place in the social praxis of the church.  

As for Pride, I would like to propose an outrageous solution. Priests are proud in their isolation because they are surrounded by sycophants with nobody to prick their egos. They have nobody to tell them “Who do you think you are?” Let them get married, they will soon be shown their place! As a married man myself, I speak from experience. Let those in Religious Orders like the Jesuits and Franciscans voluntarily opt for celibate priesthood. Diocesan priests should have the option to be married.

If we study the history of the papacy we find that several were married, and certainly not celibate. Peter, the first pope, was obviously married. How else could Jesus heal his mother-in-law (cf Mat 8:14)? Of the twelve apostles we are told that only John, the youngest, was not married. Now to later day popes.

From what we know for sure St Hormisdas (52) was married. His son Silverius (58) also became pope in 536. Hadrian II (106) was the son of a bishop, and had a daughter. The papal treasurer’s daughter was the mistress of Sergius III (119). John X (122) also had a mistress. John XI (125) was the illegitimate son of Sergius III above. John XVII (140) had three children before becoming pope. Pius III (206) and Innocent VIII (209) had two illegitimate children each. Alexander VI (210) had a harem of mistresses as did Paul II (216), the one who convened the Council of Trent in Austria in 1545; to counter Martin Luther and the Reformation. At Trent, Cardinal Reginald Pole of England (a cousin of King Henry VIII) in his inaugural address said that “it was clerical sin that had brought all these calamities to the church”.

Trent is still trending. It is history repeating itself. We need far reaching reform in the Catholic Church. I would not want to see Pope Francis assassinated because of his courageous attempts at reformation and renewal of the church. Character assassination, garbed as a prayer campaign by Marco Tosatti and his ilk of conservatives, is but one step in that direction. Thinking and concerned Catholics need to be shaken out of their slumber and comfort zones. For Jesus came not just to comfort the disturbed, but also to disturb the comfortable. Let us awake, arise and act, before it is too late.

(The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum, and an Advisor to Catholic Church Reform International)

(Published on 16th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 38)