The F-word: Don’t give the pope power that’s not his
Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin once famously asked: “How many divisions does the pope have?”
The context might have changed, but the answer is still the same. None.
For all its many faults, the Catholic Church cannot be accused of imposing its will on society.
The influence of its leader is exaggerated.
It is blown out of proportion by those within the church who irrationally believe in the church’s exceptionalism and by its most strident critics who believe it is irredeemable.
In case anybody has forgotten, the pope is a leader of a voluntary movement.
Nobody is forced to be Catholic or submit themselves to the authority of the pope.
The irrational fear or hatred of the Catholic Church that finds its best and loudest voice with every historical event, such as the election or abdication of a pope, is informed by a mind-set steeped in medieval ages where the pope once had armed divisions to call on.
The pope is today as irrelevant to one who is not Catholic as the Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, the Dalai Lama or Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is if you are not a member of the faith communities they lead.
At best, he exercises moral authority.
There is a huge difference between holding a view, expressing it and imposing it on others who have opted not to follow or take membership of your movement.
If in doubt, ask yourself what the consequences would be for you if you went against his views.
The pope is like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, but on a much grander and universal scale.
If things go against him, he can at best threaten to pray for the downfall of those who have let him down.
In South Africa, where the church is active and vocal, one may, for example, still terminate a pregnancy or marry one’s homosexual partner despite
the church and the greater organised Christian and other faith communities’ stance on these issues.
In the US, where Vice-President Joe Biden is Catholic, there is no evidence of how Catholics in power use their influence to subvert society’s interests.
In a secular society, it is up to members of faith communities not to go against the teachings of their own creed or their consciences.
Furthermore, Christian theology is heavily contested.
There are as many views about what Jesus Christ, Moses and Paul the Apostle taught as there are Christian denominations.
This is further complicated by the many schools of thought on how to live the Catholic traditions.
There are dozens of Orders of Priests and intellectual traditions, some of whom differ radically with each other.
There are so many, “one priest said he doubted even if God knew the right number”.
For example, the liberation theology encouraged by The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, priests in South America has put this order in conflict with the Catholic Church leadership intolerant of all forms of violence.
The Jesuits have openly questioned official church teachings on disputed issues such as abortion, birth control and the ordination of women as deacons.
It has been pointed out that in many predominantly Catholic nations, laws pertaining to abortion, and gay, civil and human rights, tend to coincide with official church position.
This argument, however, pretends that laws elsewhere exist in a vacuum.
The mores of a society make up what later becomes lawful or unlawful conduct.
Sometimes these mores are informed by traditional custom and other times by legal philosophy derived from present or previous political establishment (Roman Dutch law) and other times by religious traditions (sharia).
Any establishment that has been around for 2 000 years – like the Catholic Church – has and must have its fair share of critics and fans.
Each set has enough to draw on to make its case.
The child sex abuse scandals by the clergy are well documented.
The church’s active role in promoting education, health and social justice is too.
The straw-manning of the pope on the grounds that he is a world dictator is therefore unnecessary or unhelpful to anybody’s cause.