Interplay between Catholicism and liberalism

By Rekpene Bassey

In a recent development that underscores the intricate relationship between Catholicism and Liberalism, the Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops of Africa and Madagascar issued a firm declaration against the blessing of homosexual couples.

This reaffirmation emerged as a prominent point in a comprehensive communiqué following the latest symposium of the Episcopal Conference of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).

Signed by the metropolitan Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Fridolin Ambogo, who also serves as the President of SECAM, the communiqué unequivocally, settled the ongoing controversy surrounding the question of whether Catholic priests should bless homosexual marriages.

According to SECAM, not only do they view same-sex marriages as immoral, but they also consider them unethical in the context of the Christian Bible, citing scriptural references from Genesis 19:4;11, Leviticus 18:22-23, and Romans 1:26-33. Their stance characterizes homosexuality as a ‘Sodomic’ abomination against God and His word.

It’s noteworthy that even before the latest SECAM symposium, certain Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops from various African countries, including Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, had distanced themselves from the 2023 ruling by Pope Francis.

The ruling, issued by the head of the Catholic Church, permitted priests to bless same-sex unions or homosexual couples, albeit not as part of the church’s liturgical ceremonies. This papal endorsement aligns with the principles of Liberalism.

This clash of ideologies reflects a broader global tension between conservative religious values and the more liberal societal shifts, with the Catholic Church finding itself at the crossroads of tradition and evolving perspectives on human rights and equality.

The resistance to the Pope’s ruling by certain African clergy members showcases the deep-seated values and convictions within the church, rooted in centuries-old doctrines.

As this conflict unfolds, it raises crucial questions about the role of religious institutions in navigating the evolving landscape of societal values. The tensions between traditional dogma and progressive ideals underscore the complex interplay between religion and liberalism, leaving both the faithful and society at large grappling with the challenges of coexistence in an ever-changing world.

At its core, liberalism epitomises a willingness to embrace one’s own beliefs and an openness to novel ideas. Predominantly a political and social ethic, it champions individual rights, civil liberties, and free enterprise. This ethical framework encompasses fundamental liberal tenets such as freedom of speech, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state.

The bedrock of liberalism rests on the premise of respecting the consent of the governed, ensuring political equality, upholding the right to private property, and advocating for the rule of law. Central to these principles is the conviction that the law should be impartial, applying equally to all individuals irrespective of their societal status—be it gender, wealth, age, culture, or religion.

The genesis of these liberal ideas can be traced back to 1689 when the English philosopher, John Locke, articulated and unified them as a distinct ideology. Revered as the father of modern liberalism, Locke introduced the profound notion that governmental legitimacy hinges on the continuous consent of the governed. However, it was in the late 18th century that classical liberalism emerged, pushing the boundaries further towards the promotion of a free-market economy.

The liberal ethos advocates for a society where individuals enjoy the freedom to express their thoughts, practice their religion, and live without unwarranted interference from external entities. It stands as a beacon for the consent-based legitimacy of governance, emphasizing the equal application of the law to all members of society.

As liberalism evolved, classical liberalism, with its emphasis on a laissez-faire economic approach, gained prominence in the late 18th century. This shift further reinforced the belief in limited government intervention, promoting the idea that a free-market economy could best serve the interests of individuals.

In the contemporary context, liberalism continues to be a dynamic force, adapting to the changing tides of societal values. It navigates the delicate balance between individual freedoms and the collective good, embodying a philosophy that resonates through the corridors of political, social, and economic discourse.

The legacy of John Locke’s foundational ideas endures, reminding us that liberalism is not just a historical artefact but a living, breathing ideology that shapes our understanding of rights, liberties, and the pursuit of a just and equitable society

Rooted in its original ideals, liberalism is theoretically poised to embrace a spectrum of beliefs and behaviours, including diverse sexual preferences. In the context of religious liberalism, which emphasises personal and group liberties within the framework of modernity, the recent stance of Pope Francis on LGBTQ issues has ignited a profound conflict within the Catholic Church.

Beyond the scriptural authorities cited earlier, those who oppose Pope Francis’s ruling also draw attention to cultural perspectives. In Africa and among Aboriginal peoples, there exists a cultural taboo against same-sex relations, deeply ingrained in societal norms.

Moreover, proponents of traditional views emphasise the biological aspect of procreation, arguing that, as of today, modern science has not altered the fundamental nature of human reproduction. The contention is that a woman cannot impregnate another woman and the same holds for men.

At the heart of this debate lies the Catholic sacrament of marriage, the sixth among the Seven Sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ Himself. Considered a divine endowment to the church, marriage symbolises the grace to dispense life and replenish the world. The theological underpinnings of this sacrament add another layer of complexity to discussions surrounding LGBTQ relationships and the sacrament of marriage.

Pope Francis’s ruling on gay marriage has spawned a multitude of interpretations and arguments. One perspective suggests that priests can indeed offer blessings to same-sex couples, provided these blessings do not resemble a traditional marriage ceremony or coincide with a civil union ceremony for gay couples. However, critics, particularly scholars, and staunch Catholics, dismiss this interpretation as mere apologetics and a contradiction to established doctrine.

Amidst the theological discourse and doctrinal debates, a segment of the LGBTQ+ community views Pope Francis’s ruling as a welcome development, encapsulated by a spirit of benevolent liberalism. For these individuals, it signifies a potential bridge between tradition and progress, acknowledging their existence within the folds of the church.

As the conflict within the Catholic Church unfolds, it lays bare the intricate intersections between religious doctrines, liberal ideals, and the evolving societal attitudes towards LGBTQ rights. The tension underscores the ongoing struggle to reconcile deeply ingrained beliefs with the imperative for inclusivity and acceptance in an ever-changing world.

As the debates surrounding LGBTQ issues within the Catholic Church persist, a dilemma looms over the global Catholic community, surpassing 1.376 billion believers, with a significant portion—over 256 million—residing in Africa.

While Pope Francis finds himself embroiled in a contemporary theological controversy, it’s essential to recognize that he is not the first head of the church to stir such fervour. Throughout centuries, the Catholic Church has witnessed controversial popes who left an indelible mark on its history.

One notable example is Pope Leo X, who, in a stark departure from established doctrines, convinced believers that they could secure salvation by purchasing indulgences to mitigate their sins. Another polarising figure, Pope Paul IV, perpetuated anti-Semitic acts, including the creation of a Jewish Ghetto within the Vatican or Roman city. Under his reign, Jews were compelled to wear yellow hats, marking a troubling chapter in the church’s history.

The current controversies rocking the Catholic Church could potentially trace their roots back to historical antecedents like those of Leo X and Paul IV. Such conflicts might have played a role in birthing the Reformation challenge spearheaded by Martin Luther in 1517. Known as the Protestant Reformation, this movement swept through Europe in the 1500s, culminating in the emergence of Protestantism. Luther’s pivotal role in challenging established practices, symbolized by the publication of the 95 Theses, highlighted issues like the power of indulgences.

In contemplating the ongoing debates, it is crucial to reflect on the potential implications for the Catholic Church. While parallels can be drawn to historical conflicts, it is hoped that the current disputation does not escalate to the extent of past challenges.

In navigating these turbulent waters, a fundamental proposition emerges: any conflict between the church, believers, cultural norms, and the Word of God should be resolved in favour of the WORD. This approach parallels the resolution of legal issues within a country, aligning with the provisions of its constitution. The enduring Catholic sacraments, deeply embedded in the church’s traditions, carry significant weight. Even St. Peter, a direct disciple of Christ and the first head of the Catholic Church could not have fathomed, in his wildest imagination, a deviation from the union of a man and woman as boldly enshrined in the Christian Bible.

As the debates unfold, the Catholic Church finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with the tension between tradition and a rapidly evolving world. The echoes of history reverberate, urging the faithful to navigate these complexities with wisdom, empathy, and a commitment to the enduring values that define their faith.

*Rekpene Bassey is the President of the African Council on Narcotics (ACON). He is also a Security and Drug Prevention Professional.

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