Decoding The Pope

In this age of clashing civilisations and rattling religions, Pope Benedict’s message is clear: what is mine is mine, what is yours should be free for evangelisation. Asia is the fertile ground for harvesting new souls, and Indian clergy has his backing…
 Outlook India, Jun 07, 2006 Image

Decoding The Pope

In this age of clashing civilisations and rattling religions, Pope Benedict’s message is clear: what is mine is mine, what is yours should be free for evangelisation. Asia is the fertile ground for harvesting new souls, and Indian clergy has his backing.



So first you had Pope Benedict XVI’s patronising sermons to India about anti-conversion laws and how they were “unconstitutional” which raised the blood pressure of not only the Sangh Parivar but of many ordinary Indians, who take pride in the country?s secular credentials. By berating a sovereign government and asking that the laws be ?firmly rejected?, the Pope had only reduced the political space to address the matter intelligently. Stung to the quick, India had, predictably, responded frostily.

And soon, even before the ensuing uproar that followed had subsided, came the news that Cardinal Ivan Dias, the archbishop of Bombay, had been appointed chief of? ‘Propaganda Fide’, the department in charge of the evangelisation. Under this Pope, it is perhaps the most important department in both power and promise. Dias will control a big budget which finances more than a thousand dioceses from Asia to Africa, from Latin America to Australia. He will select bishops, thereby shaping future debates with other religions. His will ensure obedience to the Pope and trim rebellion.

The two moves — the public admonition of New Delhi and Dias? appointment — are related and wrapped with the message: what is mine is mine, what is yours should be free for evangelisation. It is a grand project of revival of the Catholic Church, and anything seen as remotely hindering the collection of the faithful must be opposed. So what if India?s internal commissions and inquiries resulted in laws to curb mass conversions sometimes obtained with financial and other incentives? The Vatican?s chief concern is: spreading the word.?

In this age of clashing civilisations and rattling religions, the Pope is slowly but surely drawing lines. He is guarding his shrinking flock of Catholics, fighting against secularisation and falling birth rates in Europe, surveying Asia as fertile ground for new recruits, sternly watching any dilution of the church?s conservative creed and putting other religions in their place, as it were.

Dias, who last year was thought to have a shot at becoming the pope, is in reality Benedict?s comrade in arms in the big drive. Both are against ‘relativism’ where other faiths might be seen as equally valid stairways to heaven. They see it as a deviance from the Christian path. Another Indian, Francis Chullikat, has been appointed the Vatican?s new nuncio to Iraq, a country from where the few remaining Christians are fleeing. Pope Benedict has faith in the skills and persuasive powers of the Indian clergy.

It is important to understand the history behind the hard line push to recapture old ground and claim new territory. Pope Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he assumed the highest seat of the Catholic church and changed his name. He was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where his job was to maintain the purity of thought, curtail free-wheeling debate and bring liberal theologians back to the line. As the guardian of orthodoxy for 20 long years, he denounced deviations from traditional teachings as error. In that avatar, he issued an entire directive in the year 2000 called ‘Dominus Iesus’, which proclaimed the supremacy of Christ.

The highly controversial directive declared that Christ is the only saviour of mankind, thereby shutting the lid on romancing with other religions.The inter-religious dialogue, which liberals in all religions believe is necessary for peaceful co-existence, was essentially deemed a dialogue of unequals where the Catholic church was superior while beliefs and practices of other religions and even those of other branches of Christianity were seen as inadequate pathways to the ultimate goal: reaching God. In short, all other roads to nirvana were blocked except that guarded by the pope.

Behind Dominus Iesus was a fear that Hinduism and Buddhism were proving too attractive to many westerners tired of the consumerist culture and hankering for spiritual solace. The church saw the secularism already rampant in Europe as a perfect fit with the philosophical dexterity of Hinduism. It feared contamination. Liberal Christian theologians were even experimenting with actual ‘co-existence’ by creating ashrams where they lived observing some Hindu practices and discovering another level of truth. This was seen as dangerous by the church. Pope Benedict — should he ever travel to India — would probably not allow a traditional Indian welcome of a ‘tika’ on his forehead as John Paul did.

Ratzinger?s absolutist doctrine sparked outrage because he was seen as squelching religious pluralism. Those who advocated it were silenced and punished over the years. One of the most famous theologians, Hans Kung, called it “a combination of medieval backwardness and Vatican megalomania”. Clarifications had to be issued by the Vatican to calm tempers. Kung, who was born in Switzerland, is an eminent scholar. At one time he was considered a bright and rising star in the Roman Catholic Church. He stood out for challenging the idea that Christian authority can be absolute. His book Infallible? An Enquiry (1978) led to Pope John Paul withdrawing permission for him to teach theology. He and Ratzinger did not agree on much.

After becoming pope, Benedict merged the Vatican?s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue with the Council for Culture and packed off its head, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam and the Arab world, as his ambassador to Egypt. It was a demotion with another stern message. Further deliberations with representatives of other religions will be held only in the context of culture and civilisation, not in the context of religion. The Catholic Church doesn?t have anything to negotiate with other faiths because it considers itself complete. The entire truth has already been revealed to Christ went the logic.

Apart from changing or what might be called downgrading the inter-religious dialogue, Pope Benedict has taken extremely conservative positions on a host of social issues — gay marriage, abortion, condom use for HIV-infected people and induction of women priests. On political issues, he has questions about the inclusion of Turkey into the European Union. He considers Turkey different from the rest of Europe. The Vatican?s draft treaty with Slovakia on restricting abortions has created a conflict with the European Union. In general, the Vatican hierarchy is questioning the classical meaning of secularism as understood by governments but Europe can?t really heed his call when million of Muslims live across the continent.

The Pope says everything must be done to prevent a clash of civilisations but then all religions have to become more accommodating not more militant.