Stanely Mushava : Features Correspondent
Pope Francis’ encyclical on marriage, “The Joy of Love,” was anticipated in various circles to stamp liberal letterhead on controversies surrounding the family institution. The Vatican is one of the last remaining fortresses of family values in a morally evolving world but Catholics are also caught in the tension between conservatism and change.Contraception, divorce, cohabitation, remarriage without annulment, homosexuality and sexual abuse of minors by priests are among the issues dividing opinion in the church.
The papal encyclical was expected to break the loud silence the Vatican has maintained on some of these issues and to put paid to the controversy.
The community of faith, with a global membership of 1,2 billion and perhaps the largest following for Zimbabwean denominations, presents a morally polarised map.
While Sub-Saharan Africa, the fastest-growing Catholic territory, concurs with most of the church’s moral teachings, the West, increasingly upended by the secularisation of the public square, seems out of touch with every last iota of the church’s family blueprint.
Across the sea of faith, attitudes are now starkly contrasted over definitions of morality and sin.
For example, fewer than half of Catholics in the US say homosexual behaviour, cohabitation, remarriage without annulment and contraception are sins, according to the Pew Researcher Centre, this against clear-cut doctrine.
Other mainline churches, traditionally conservative vigilantes and bastions of family values, have shifted along with evolving moral standards and now accept practices such as homosexuality, cohabitation and abortion.
This was the range of controversies awaiting Francis’ stamp following deliberations and ballots at the synod which sat a year after his accession to the papacy to determine the way forward on these issues.
It hardly gets more intriguing than now, when a pontiff cast as overtly liberal heads a church which has long stood on the rock of conservatism.
Francis, whose accession marked the passing of the mantle from God’s Rottweiler (Pope Benedict XVI) to the People’s Pope (the current pontiff), has earned this at once endearing and controversial reputation as a liberal, populist even, pope.
The intervening question, therefore, from the two-year synod to the 264-page encyclical entitled “Amoris Laetitia” in the original, was which side of the ideological gap Pope Francis would place the papal seal.
A papal encyclical is a pastoral statement from the Holy See addressed to the worldwide denomination on issues relating to doctrine or morality.
Landmark decisions binding on the Catholic clergy and laity, including the controversial prohibition of artificial contraception, have been determined through the medium.
An encyclical can calibrate doctrine in relation to the tenor of the times, affirm tradition or effect sweeping change hence the fascination generated by Francis’ latest document for a church at a moral crossroads.
To his diplomatic credit, and to the frustrations of some in both camps, Francis’ pastoral letter is anything but a disruptive missive.
There is little to indicate departure from tradition: the papal tenor is indulgent of human weakness and emphasises compassion without moving the ancient landmarks.
The synod deliberated several moral questions but the question of communion for those divorced and remarried without annulment was pre-eminent.
The papal recommendation on the matter is neither a liberal overhaul nor a propagation of tradition. The Holy See neither endorses nor repeals the rule discouraging the unprocedurally remarried from taking communion.
However, in the spirit of the Catholic theme for 2016, “The Year of Mercy” respect and compassion is encouraged, and the power to decide for unique cases diffused afield, from the Vatican down to local parishes.
The recommendation goes beyond communion and addresses issues of pastoral care, healing, restoration and, where possible, reconciliation for the divorced.
Francis confirms the Synod Fathers’ recommendation that special discernment be central for the pastoral care of the separated, divorced or abandoned.
“Respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together,” Francis cites synodical recommendations in the encyclical.
“To forgive such an injustice that has been suffered is not easy, but grace makes this journey possible. Pastoral care must necessarily include efforts at reconciliation and mediation, through the establishment of specialised counselling centres in dioceses,” the pope says.
The post-synodic recommendation extends to the divorced people who have not remarried, who are urged to the spiritual nourishment of the eucharist.
“The local community and pastors should accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when they are in serious financial difficulty,” observes the pope.
As far as doctrinal issues is concerned, the pope cannot be exactly classified as disruptive.
The distinctive feature of his papacy is perhaps his empathy for human weakness and emphasis that on account of God’s mercy, the sinner is not alienated forever.
While the pope has not substantially reviewed traditions set in stone for ages, his outlook on the church seems to differ from his predecessors’.
Given increasing deviation from the traditions of the church, even the scriptures, in the attitudes and lifestyles of both the clergy and the laity, the pope seems to be rethinking the rock-hippopotamus nuances observed by the poet in relation to the church today.
“The broad-backed hippopotamus/ Rests on his belly in the mud;/ Although he seems so firm to us/ He is merely flesh and blood,” observes T.S Eliot in “The Hippopotamus”.
“Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,/ Susceptible to nervous shock/ While the True Church can never fail/ For it is based upon a rock,” the poet notes.
The church is feeble in its carnal form but even as it approaches apostasy there is hope for it in the truth and compassion available in the finished works of the cross.
“Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean/ And him shall heavenly arms enfold,/ Among the saints he shall be seen/ Performing on a harp of gold./ He shall be washed as white as snow,” the poet sounds a note of hope for the feeble church.
This is the recurrent message of the pope. Unlike his predecessors, he does not see in his flock an army of iron and steel, but broken human in need of forgiveness.
While he has not assailed tradition, he has advocated mercy as the means by which frail humans can measure up.
But the pope’s assignment was demanding beyond the question of divorce and the eucharist. And he does little to endear himself to some sections of the church in the rest of the document.
The Vatican has maintained a controversial prohibition of artificial contraception without demonstrating a plausible alternative for sustainable modern communities.
Most Catholics even in strongholds such as Latin America and Africa have paid no attention to the rule, raising questions as to why the rule should be maintained, having neither an observable biblical motivation nor modern applicability.
Some expected Francis to be the man to lift the rule, but the encyclical is a blank space where the matter is concerned.
For some observers, though, the pope’s silence on the issue is strategic support for contraception. A theology professor tells the Washington Post that: “The Catholic Church never said the world is round but just stopped saying it was flat.”
One group of Catholics has, however, taken on the pope on the other loud silence in the encyclical, his lukewarm address of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.
According to IBT’s Julia Glum, clergy abuse survivors feel that they have not been given enough recognition by the pope.
“They said Francis, who’s been hailed for tackling everything from climate change to Cuban diplomacy, again skipped over the international scandal that’s implicated thousands of suspects in sex crimes and cover-ups. Before writing policy documents, they argued, he needs to solve the ongoing crisis in the church,” Glum reports.
One victim is singularly disappointed: “It’s very tough for us to understand how seemingly every other issue takes precedence — especially because on everything else, the pope really is powerless,” David Clohessy, a childhood victim tells IBT.
“But instead of taking real action that makes a real difference, he’s content to do, and, in fact is masterful at, these meaningless feel-good gestures that are essentially public relations manoeuvres,” he says.
Pope Francis’ papal encyclical shies away from the issue which haunted his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to retirement.
“The worldwide crisis includes more than 17,200 Americans who have alleged they were abused by more than 6,400 clerics from 1950 to 2013, according to a review of data by BishopAccountability.org, a website and nonprofit that tracks reports of sexual misconduct in the church,” reports IBT.
Another statement sure to flare up controversy is Pope Francis’ implicit support for gay rights. The pope urges respect for “every person regardless of sexual orientation” and condemns “unjust discrimination” against homosexuals.
On the other hand, he affirms the long-standing Catholic tradition that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
Such double-speak, however, is not helpful at a time proponents of homosexuality have gone on the offense, savaging the church’s draft of its morality from the Bible, and proponents for scriptural morality are diminishing.
The essential problem may be mainline churches’ failure to elevate the Bible as the primary authority on moral questions.
Regulatory documents to revise moral questions are ironic, considering Christ’s insistence that His teaching, upon which the church was originally based, does not evolve. All said, the Vatican has fared exceptionally as a mainstay of family values and Papa Francesca will do well to stand guard for this tradition.