Is Pope Francis about to become a new Henry VIII?
Finally, this dynamic Pontiff is starting to make a real difference
Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30
Is the Pope still a Catholic? Up until a week ago the answer would have been a definitive yes. Regardless of the fact that liberals worldwide have gone slightly potty for this, admittedly likeable, Pontiff, not much has changed on the doctrinal front within the Catholic Church. It's not supposed to. That's the point.
When Bertrand Russell dismissed Thomas Aquinas, one of the Church's most brilliant thinkers, by saying that there was "little of the true philosophic spirit" in him, he was referring to the fact that Aquinas could not follow an argument wherever it led. Catholic dogma determined in advance where he could and could not go. So far, ditto with Pope Francis.
Despite his modest comments about not being in a position to "judge" gay people - his admission that even atheists could be saved (the Vatican, appalled, was quick to point out that he didn't mean this literally); his charming habit of washing the feet of prisoners and calling total strangers up for a chat or his admonition that the Church had become "obsessed" with abortion, gay rights and birth control and risked becoming a "house of cards", Catholic dogma is still determining in advance what Pope Francis can and cannot do.
Even his recent pronouncements on climate change were very much in line with those of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who in a 2009 encyclical proposed a kind of super-UN to deal with the world's economic problems and injustices. Over-population is a major threat to our ability to live in harmony with nature on this planet, ergo any fool would have to concede that birth control is an environmental necessity - Francis refrains from doing this and Francis is no fool.
Francis has always, up to this point, managed to toe the Catholic line. Where female priests are concerned, he has said, "that door is closed" and he echoes Pope Benedict's determination that "openness to life" is a necessary part of Catholic doctrine. "Openness to life" is code for being not just against abortion no matter what the context or the threat to the mother, but also against any type of contraception at all.
He has warned against "female machismo", and would prefer that women, instead of wanting to engage with the real world, try to imitate the Virgin Mary - a task thankfully beyond the vast majority of us.
So far, so Catholic. And then this week something changed. Despite the fact that the Church insists that its all-male priests live a life of celibacy, the role of marriage - between a man and a woman - procreation and the unity of the family is a central plank in Catholic doctrine. And, as we heard repeatedly during the recent referendum, it cannot be re-defined. "What God has joined, men cannot break" and all that.
Separation and divorce are anathema to Catholic teaching. Marriages do not break down, couples who make bad or wrong choices have made their bed, now they must lie on it. Yes, occasionally there will be annulments, but not when they interfere with what is best for the Church. Sometimes they won't even be granted for the most powerful and loved of Catholic sons. Ask Henry VIII.
But last Wednesday Pope Francis said that it may be "morally necessary" for couples to separate in certain circumstances. Speaking to crowds at St Peter's Square, Francis said that separation was justifiable "when it comes to saving the weaker spouse, or young children, from more serious injuries caused by intimidation and violence, by humiliation and exploitation, by lack of involvement and indifference." He said; "When the father and mother harm each other, children's souls suffer greatly, feeling a sense of desperation. And they are wounds that leave a life-long mark."
Even a cynical old soul like myself has to admit that this could be big. Granted, Francis has not gone so far as to say that second unions will be blessed by the Church, but the whole debate about how (or whether) to re-admit separated or divorced Catholics back into the fold is one which some fear may ignite a civil war within the Catholic Church.
The issue of whether divorced Catholics could participate in all sacraments was discussed at last year's extremely contentious Synod of the Family, but there was no consensus reached. However, earlier this month, the man known as "the Pope's theologian" (though he denies this as being "too arrogant") German Cardinal Walter Kasper reiterated his decades-old proposal to allow divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive holy Communion after a period of repentance.
In the past he had claimed to be promoting what Francis "wants to see happen", (though recently he has backed away from saying that he had pontifical approval). The liberal-minded Kasper has hinted at a Vatican II-style strategy saying: "I get a lot of agreements, but also a lot of critiques, and there are tensions there.
"Now I propose to those who prepare the [next] Synod to prepare a text which can get the agreement of the whole, of the great majority. It's the same method also we had in the Council [Vatican II]."
Last Tuesday the guiding document for the coming 2015 Synod discussions was published. It has been noted by Catholic experts that "some passages in this document secure a path for the 'Kasper proposal' in favour of remarried divorcees to be accepted by the Synod", leading one commentator to ask: "Will the 'Kasper hypothesis' be smuggled into official Church discipline under the cover of extremely vague and clever language? Will it indeed? Whether Francis could end up as this century's Henry VIII is now a conversation actually under discussion. This could be the start of something big.