Bravo, Pope Francis

By Johan Galtung

The Catholic–meaning universal–Church matters to all of us as a major part of Western civilization. And the Pope lives up to both his Jesuit heritage and that of his great namesake St Francis–see this column six months ago, 18 Mar 2013, when he was elected.

We shall permit ourselves to extrapolate a little from what he told in an interview to the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica (IHT, 20 Sep 13). The Roman Catholic Church had become “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. The church should become a home for all and not a small chapel. “We have to find a new balance”, the Pope says, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the gospel”.

Turn the page of that issue of the International Herald Tribune and on p. 2 Muslim Salma Yacoob, a former Birmingham Council woman, raises the same type of question: “Is this (the veil) the biggest issue we face in the U.K. right now?” Maybe there are other issues, like ending the “special relation” of subservience to a USA with no other answer to international conflict than violence, the US obsession, increasing inequality, misery, loneliness, unsettled relations to Scotland, Wales and Ulster–a culture that cannot live on the past cashing in on Shakespeare but has to be in search of renewal?

“The freshness and fragrance of the gospels”. Jesus had answers to deep problems beyond some aspects of human sexuality; to violence, to misery. His answer to violence was non-retribution, taken up by the Quakers and by Tolstoy in his The Kingdom, and developed much further by Christ-inspired peace movements. And his answer to misery was to live among the poor, driven by his compassion, his conscience and his Samaritan ministry-and developed much further, also by the Church, by the Western State, by countless NGOs.

A major concerns today, climate change, was not on Christ’s agenda. But here the Pope has another source of inspiration, the saint he chose as his namesake, St Francis of Assisi. He besouled the universe – wolves, death and all – made them brothers and sisters, all his concern, all his Thou, not It. Pope Francis knows this better than most; no doubt behind his choice of name.

He also has recent predecessors like John XXIII, the otherwise doctrinaire John Paul II, both very explicitly denouncing war and promoting dialogue. And his immediate predecessor, devoid of any critique of war but filled with that “obsession” Pope Francis has denounced, was sidetracked into early retirement; better than the assassination that may be a threat for the present Pope.

There is much social power involved. We can read the earliest history of the Papacy as sidetracking a Jesus who had ascended and retired to Heaven on the 40th day, having the Father send the Holy Spirit ten days later to take his abode in what was to become the Pope, with apostolic succession, infallibility and all that. The Church took on its own life, indeed. The road to salvation no longer passed through the faith in the Son in John 3:16, the Little Bible, but through the church, extra ecclesiam nulla salvus, outside the church no salvation. What a tool for controlling people! But then you need something where most invariably will go wrong according to some doctrine, one way or the other: sexuality. The obsession was there from the beginning, other issues soon paled in comparison.

Imagine they had chosen food instead of sex and held people against current norms for healthy eating habits. And people would confess excessive intake of salt and sugar, fat and fiberless foods, or other more updated lists. There would be enough sinners for control purposes, enough forgiveness for those who repent and change. Good food habits might have been the result, not very limited sexuality.

There is much world power involved. The Roman church was the center of a Western world emerging from the Roman Empire, on a planet that was the center of the universe with the Sun paying its tribute by circling the earth as everybody could see. In comes not only the heliocentric universe with the planet paying tribute to the sun by obediently circling it, but also the demotion of the whole solar system to one among countless in one of countless galaxies, with the possibility of life everywhere. Giordano Bruno reduced the central position of the church even more than Galileo Galilei, and was treated accordingly.

It is all about Center-Periphery, perennial western themes – and not only Western. The history of the Church is about being dethroned, losing one center after the other, clinging to the obsession with sexuality as the ultimate control. When the present Pope challenges that, History is unfolding for our eyes.

But he does not do that to make the church lose its last hold on power, but rather to make it regain its universality by addressing universal issues. Why not? Imagine a church with cardinals, archbishops, bishops, arch-priests and priests all addressing the concerns of those leading popes, the light-houses, demoting the annual liturgy cycle with Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun (Pentecost) and all of that to a secondary role? Inspired by Jesus and the greatest, and there are many, like Theresa of Avila, Meister Eckehardt.

That neo-Roman church would inspire religious institutions all over, turning churches, temples, synagogues into shelters for the poor and the asylum-seekers, into “hospitals in a battlefield” as Francis says. But it would also threaten powers that be, the Curia, unless they are wise enough to see the new openings: less Center-Periphery, more equity between world views religious and secular, Church and non-Church, between social classes and world classes. In dialogues for a better world for all–inspired by the greatest among us.

First published at Transcend Media Service

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