Does this question shock you? It should! Over the last couple of years I have been in regular correspondence with Rev Dr Valson Thampu. After retiring as Principal of the prestigious St Stephen’s College, Delhi, he is now settled in Kerala.
But he is terribly unsettled by recent events in the church. Many like him are appalled at the mounting cases of paedophilia, rape, murder, financial misappropriation etc being levelled (and in some instances proved) against priests, bishops and even a cardinal. So he has concluded that the Christian community, is in dire need of shock therapy, to shake it out of its complacency and stupor.
Before I attempt to answer the shocking question that I have posed I need to clarify what is meant by the word “heretic”. It comes from the Greek word haeresis, which etymologically means to pick and choose, usually what suits one. However, the Dictionary of the Bible by Rev John McKenzie SJ states that in the New Testament the word is not used as a denial of dogma (Pg 353). In the course of centuries, though, heresy and heretics assumed the connotation of enemies of the church or faith; because of their erroneous beliefs.
These in turn led to the most horrific, debased and inhuman acts in the name of the Inquisition. In Spain it lasted from 1478 to 1834. The target was the neo-converts from among the Muslim Moors from North Africa and Prosperous Jewish traders, and to a lesser extent the Protestants; whose Christian faith was deemed to be erroneous, and therefore dangerous.
In other parts of Europe there was the witch-hunt, where poor illiterate women were deemed to be agents of the devil. Even a mole on their bodies was considered an indelible mark of the diabolical. To ascertain that, a woman suspect was stripped naked and even all her hair was shaved off. These witch hunts were not limited to the Catholic Church and had more to do with male chauvinism masquerading as Christian faith. I will not go into the gory details of how women were tortured and abused.
What has all this got to do with Pope Francis in Rome and Thampu in Kerala? Much more than meets the eye.
Pope Francis has in turn been labelled a heretic and a “modernist” (whatever that means) by conservative Catholics, both lay and clerics, especially in Europe and the USA. Ironically, these are the very territories that were scarred by the Inquisition and witch-hunts. So is there a lingering residual effect (like atomic radiation) where a rich and influential lobby resists change, and mistakes tradition for faith?
Pope Francis, by any standards, has broken many traditions. Personally, he has left the papal palace to live in a two room guest house, uses a small car, and calls for simplicity in church life. In mid-air he solemnized/ regularized the marriage of a live-in couple that was his flight attendants. He has repeatedly taken a non-judgmental approach on sexual morality. He emphasises the quality of mercy (compassion or empathy would have been better English words).
Nevertheless, I am reminded of Portia’s famous words in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. She pleads with Shylock, the usurious Jewish money lender: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven on the place beneath. It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (Act 4, Scene 1).
Are the conservatives that are gunning for “heretic” Pope Francis or Thampu, not very different from Shylock demanding his pound of flesh? Vatican observer Christopher R Altieri wrote on 9/3/2018 that “Pope Francis seems neither to know nor care enough about doctrine to be a real heretic”. This observation needs elaboration.
Why is he allegedly soft on doctrine and strong on compassion? Remember that he comes from South America that has had an overdose of political oppression and social injustice. His only sister is a divorcee. So he has seen pain at close quarters. Even when he was a cardinal in Argentina he lived in a commoner’s apartment, used public transport and had the “smell of the sheep”, as also of the ghettoes.
He is therefore primarily a pastor (shepherd) rather than a doctrinal, dogmatic, religious head. I use a simple analogy to distinguish between the pastoral and dogmatic approach to real life situations. The dogmatist says, “Thou shalt not jump into the water, you will drown in the depths”. The pastoralist says, “That man is drowning. I must save him, even if it involves risking my own life”. Francis’ life conditioning has made him a pastor.
Perhaps one of the real reasons that the conservative traditionalists have been gunning for Francis is his multiple tirades against clericalism. He considers that one of the greatest evils in the church today. A major consequence of that is the cover up of sexual abuse by sacrosanct clerics.
A few papal quotes should suffice to prove my point. I will here limit myself to the compilation done by Kathleen N. Hattrup on 23/8/2018. I quote:
One of the dangers that Pope Francis regularly singles out as most threatening the Church is “clericalism.” It could be defined as a false or sycophantic respect and esteem for clergy. It lends to the persons of priests, in view of their clerical office, an excessive deference and acquiescence. In a clericalist culture, the clergy often stand above and aloof to their flocks, to which distance the faithful can respond in a childish spirit of obedience and false reverence. Francis points out that clericalism can be a sin for both clergy and laity: for clergy, if they demand to be treated as superior to the laity; and for laity, if they resign themselves to the status quo - “Let Father do everything” - and shirk the responsibilities proper to their own vocation as baptized Christians.
Clerics always say: “This should be done like this, like this, like this, and you – go away!’” It happens “when the cleric doesn’t have time to listen to those who are suffering, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned: the evil of clericalism is a really awful thing ; it is a new edition of this ancient evil [of the religious ‘authorities’ lording it over others].” ~ Homily in Casa Santa Marta, December 13, 2016.
Clericalism is a perversion of the Church. ~ Meeting with young Italians, August 11, 2018.
The lack of consciousness of belonging to God’s faithful people as servants, and not masters, can lead us to one of the temptations that is most damaging to the missionary outreach that we are called to promote: clericalism, which ends up as a caricature of the vocation we have received. A failure to realize that the mission belongs to the entire Church, and not to the individual priest or bishop, limits the horizon, and even worse, stifles all the initiatives that the Spirit may be awakening in our midst. Let us be clear about this. The laypersons are not our peons, or our employees . They don’t have to parrot back whatever we say. “Clericalism, far from giving impetus to various contributions and proposals, gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belongs to all the faithful people of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, 9-14), not only to the few chosen and enlightened.” ~ Meeting with the bishops of Chile during apostolic trip to Chile, January 16, 2018.
I may also add the comments of Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service on 23/8/2018. She reports:
I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions. I would end by saying that Pope Francis is not a heretic, and Thampu is not a terrorist. To the contrary, the terrorists in the church are those that “terrorise” the people into submission; and the heretics are those who today pick and choose statements, usually out of context, to protect their fiefdoms, their money, their institutions and, yes, even their male chauvinism.
A case in point is that of the minor girl who was raped, impregnated and subsequently procured an abortion. The girl was ex-communicated latae sententiae (without an opportunity to be heard) as per provisions of Canon Law (No 1398) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No 2272). Here the heretical and hypocritical male chauvinist authorities chose to pick on the hapless girl, while claiming that the crime of the rapist was less than that of the aborter! If this isn’t heresy, hypocrisy and terrorism, what is?
* The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum and an advisor to Catholic Church Reform International.
(To be continued...)(Published on 09th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 37)