When Pope Francis ascended the throne of Saint Peter, to perpetuate the institutionalised succession to the office of pontiff, to preside over the destinies of about 1.2 billion faithful, spread across the globe, both believers and non-believers alike were full of hope and optimism. A Jesuit from Latin America, obviously, made him an interesting choice. That it was not a straightforward one was obvious from the time it took for the final proclamation of the new pope’s election. Speculation has been rife in some sections of the print media, that cardinals had tenaciously jostled with one another for leverage, to install a man of their choice to the highest ecclesiastical office in the Roman Catholic Church. Conservative elements among them, speculated ardent church watchers, must certainly have left no stone unturned to scuttle any move made by ‘progressives’ to elect somebody like Pope Francis to the high office of the ‘Vicar of Christ’.
Historically, the highest echelons of ecclesiastical power in Rome have viewed Jesuits with a degree of consternation. The radical and man-centered theology formulated and tested in the crucible of the volatile Latin American social milieu, which came to be known, somewhat controversially, as ‘liberation theology’, disconcerted a predominantly conservative and orthodox clergy all the way up to presiding popes themselves. That is why the Society of Jesus, to which Jesuits belonged, was sought to be suppressed and their activities circumscribed from time to time. It was in this context that most people found the elevation of the current pope nothing short of historic. That his immediate predecessor, chose to retire to a quiet life of contemplation, after an uninspiring stint in the top job, meant that the new pontiff had his task cut out.
Pope Francis did not disappoint. He made all the right noises as soon as he assumed office. His open condemnation of pomp evidenced in extravagant lifestyles of clergymen brought cheer to the underprivileged relegated to the back pews of church congregations. His Christ-like tolerance of children even while celebrating mass or making important pronouncements in ecclesiastical assemblies warmed the cockles of the hearts of the faithful. Catholics, the world over, waited for major announcements, signalling reform in church organisation and revision of its doctrinal positions. If the statements of intent, which were made in the beginning of the two-week synod of some 200 Roman Catholic bishops from around the world was anything to go by, it seemed like the hopes of millions was not going be belied after all.
The preliminary 12-page report signalled flexibility on homosexuality, marriage and divorce. It explicitly stated that homosexuals had “gifts to offer to the Christian community”. It suggested that pastors recognise “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation”. The landmark report also conceded that “situations like divorce were often imposed and not chosen”. Pope Francis himself was quoted as having said, way back in July 2013, “If a person is gay and seeks God and His good will, who am I to judge?” The tone seemed to have been set for robust debate on burning topics of today. The liberal pope seemed to have come out of the closet (no pun intended). Sadly, those who got swept off their feet by the initial euphoria failed to comprehend the constricting stranglehold conservatives had on the Catholic Church. Alas, subsequent events proved this beyond a doubt. The two-week secret synod of bishops failed to reach a consensus on the two most divisive issues: on welcoming gays and, divorced and civilly remarried couples.
Perhaps it best exemplified the age-old antithetical adage: ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. While the Roman Catholic Church can potentially blaze a new trail and change overnight, given the overarching authority it reposes in the office of pope, in practical terms, it is easier said than done, given the sizeable presence of powerful lobbies with vested interests that would not allow a liberally inclined pope with a radical agenda to rock the boat easily. Sadly, this is precisely the reason why the Roman Catholic Church has had to battle increasing irrelevance in the modern age. Dwindling church attendance in predominantly Catholic countries, especially in Europe and America, coupled with a serious dearth of talent available for priesthood has failed to shake ‘no-changers’ out of their complacency.
Is it any wonder that even practising Catholics seem to have conveniently compartmentalised their lives into the religious and the secular? While they may attend mass regularly and say their prayers at home, whenever the situation demands it, their faith seems to have an ever-diminishing influence on the choices their make in their personal lives—from being in a live-in relationship to divorcing their spouse, and from pre-marital sex to the use of contraception for birth control, are all clearly not in conformity with church doctrine. This may well have resolved the dilemma faced by thinking adherents of the Catholic creed in this day and age. However, it has pushed others with unresolved self-conflict over the precipice of disbelief, as some of them have failed to come unscathed from such a protracted crisis of faith.
The choice before the Catholic Church is clear. It can either change with the times or become totally irrelevant. First and foremost, it needs to set its house in order. Allegations of sexual abuse levelled against priests, some of whom have gone on to become bishops, have tainted the church. Its treatment of gays despite overwhelming medical evidence, which suggests homosexuality is inborn and not adopted as a way of life, exposes the inhuman underbelly of the Catholic Church. Its stubborn refusal to recognise the spiritual potential of women, by not ordaining them to priesthood, relegates half of the community to the sidelines lending gender discrimination religious sanction.
The Church’s views on family planning and contraception are so out of touch with current realities, not to mention their inherently anti-women orientation, that they are justifiably observed more in their breach. Let alone modern-day challenges, sadly, the Catholic Church has not even been able to resolve an age-old concern—priestly celibacy. Ironically, the Bible makes a mention of the apostle Peter’s mother-in-law, which clearly indicates that the disciple of Christ whom the Catholic Church considers its first pope was not a bachelor or celibate! Isn’t it time that the Roman Catholic Church came to grips with modern trends and did itself and its adherents a favour by examining its own practices and ushering in reform? Otherwise, it stands the risk of being fossilised into a relic of the religious history of mankind, irrespective of its contribution to the spiritual evolution of human beings through the ages.