We had a visit from the Pope recently, here in Istanbul. His Holiness doesn’t live too very far away, but he’s not a regular visitor, so there was good media coverage of the event, here and abroad. According to Wikipedia, Christians in Turkey account for a mere 0.13% of the country’s 75 million people – and RCs are so few they don’t even warrant a mention. There are, however, a couple of quite grand 19th century churches in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, and several prestigious schools sponsored by the French government with beatific names like St Benoit and St Pulcherie dating from times when West European states had their imperialist eyes on the declining Ottoman Empire – so the Vatican feels obliged to show the flag from time to time, I guess.
Anyway, there he was, Pope Francis, joining local Muslims in prayer at the 17th century Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I (known to tourists as the ‘Blue Mosque’), visiting the 1,500 year-old church of Hagia Sophia (these days a museum), and meeting with Bartholomew, ‘His Most Divine All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church’. According to a BBC report, ‘Francis and Bartholomew have a strong personal relationship’, and the two were expected to discuss, amongst other matters, the possibility of patching up the differences that led to the two churches going their separate ways amid great bitterness and mutual excommunications a thousand years ago, back in 1054 CE. The matter is further complicated, of course, by the fact that the Patriarch’s city was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, since when, as the BBC article notes, it has been known as Istanbul.
Well, I can’t tell you whether those inter-communal discussions bore much fruit, but if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople to reach an amicable arrangement of revolving leadership or some such compromise. There are too many issues of critical importance to the future of the planet, such as what kind of bread should be used in celebration of Holy Communion, and who did (or did not) sneak an extra word into the basic statement of Christian belief back in the 6th century. There is also the matter of a document used by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century to justify his claim to universal supremacy. The document was subsequently shown to have been a forgery, but this small inconvenience does not seem to have in any way undermined RC doctrine that their Pope is the latest in an unbroken line of succession going back to Jesus Christ himself.
Still, it was nice to see those two old guys making conciliatory noises, and rubbing shoulders with their Muslim cousins-in-faith in an Islamic place of worship. To be fair, Pope Francis seems to place less importance on anachronistic fancy dress costumes than his predecessors, and has made some public statements about inequalities of wealth distribution. This may have something to do with the fact that he hails from Argentina – the first non-European Pope, so they tell me, for 1,272 years. He is still, however, holding the line on abortion, artificial contraception and homosexuality – issues on which God Him/Herself apparently has strong views. We know this because the Pope has a direct hotline to God via St Peter and Jesus, and any time he speaks with the full authority of his office he is deemed to be infallible – by virtue of a dogma laid down by the First Vatican Council in 1870.
Well, it must be nice to know that, whenever you open your mouth, 1.214 billion people, or 17.5% of the world’s population are obliged to accept what you say as gospel truth. On the other hand, when a guy gets to be 78 years of age, there’s always a chance that he may blurt out something in his role as Pope which is really just an opinion of plain old Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Something of the sort happened just the other day during a general audience at the Vatican when Pope Francis apparently suggested that humans might be reunited with their beloved pets in heaven. Other Popes before him have held out similar hope – but unfortunately it flies in the face of official RC doctrine that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.
As a result, Vatican officials have been at pains to point out that Father Jorge may occasionally say things that are not to be construed as official RC dogma – which opens the door for some confusion as to when the Pontiff’s pontifications are to be considered infallible and when not. The current Pope took the name Francis, on assuming office, after St Francis of Assisi, whom he is said to admire. The earlier Francis was a monk of the 12th/13th centuries best known as the patron saint of animals – but he is also said to have visited the sultan (which sultan?) in Egypt in 1219 with a view to converting him to Christianity and putting an end to the Crusades. Which may have been another reason for the current Francis’s visit to Turkey – but I haven’t heard that President Tayyip Erdoğan was influenced to that extent.
In the end, I’m not sure what shocks me most about these papal characters: their jaw-dropping self-righteous arrogance, or their determined literal-minded espousal of a belief system rooted in a culture that died out more than a thousand years ago. In fact, I question whether the Popes themselves truly believe the stuff they expect their flock to swallow without question. These are highly educated guys, remember, and yet they can, we assume with a straight face, make assertions like the following: ‘We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.’
Our Francis, despite, we are told, bringing personal experience of Third World poverty to the Vatican See, continues to assert that Catholics who remarry after getting divorced cannot take Holy Communion. Just last year he excommunicated an Australian priest for deviating from official doctrine. Possibly his most outrageous claim would be ‘It is absurd to say you follow Jesus Christ but reject the Church.’ Of course, you can understand why he’d say it. You can’t have too many people thinking they can be Christians just by following the words and example of the founding prophet – otherwise all those cardinals, bishops and whatnot would be out of a job.
And the sad fact is, they probably deserve to be. Just take a look at so-called articles of faith on which that ‘Church’ is founded. After Christianity became, first accepted by, and shortly after, the official religion of the Roman Empire, seven ‘Ecumenical Councils’ were summoned to determine exactly what ‘orthodox’ Christians should believe. At various venues in the Byzantine Empire (now modern Turkey), bishops gathered together to lay down crucial precepts such as that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. . . who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,’ and that further, ‘he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead. . . We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’
To tell you the honest truth, I used to wonder about some of that stuff when I was a little fellow sitting in church surrounded by devout adults mouthing it all dutifully and, I assumed, believing it in their hearts. What was wrong with me, I wondered. It was a great consolation when, after coming to live in Istanbul, I realised that most of the mumbo-jumbo had been formulated by committees of bishops and priests whose main purpose was to get rid of colleagues who refused to toe the party line. There were seven of these councils up to the end of the 8th century. Most present-day mainstream churches accept their decisions, and insist that their members affirm their belief out loud on regular occasions.
The Roman Catholic Church, after setting out on its own, subsequently held fourteen more such councils, the last of which, known as the Second Vatican Council, was held in 1962-5. Each of these councils added further conditions required for membership of the true Church:
- The Fourth Lateran Council in 1213 formalised the doctrine of Transubstantiation – which states that the bread and wine used for Holy Communion is actually and mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Much of the mystery seems to consist of the fact that to all appearances the bread and wine still looks pretty much like actual bread and wine. That same council also stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians.
- The First Vatican Council of 1870 was the one that laid down the doctrine of papal infallibility (mentioned above). The Holy Fathers might have done a lot more besides, except that the Franco-Prussian war intervened, and the Number One Catholic power of the day, and defender of the true faith, France, was given a serious beating. This opened the way for Italians to unite themselves into a country for the first time since Roman Imperial days, annex Rome and threaten the integrity of papal power. There was a brief time when it looked as though the Holy See might have to move to Germany for protection. Wouldn’t that have been interesting!
Well, at least Pope Francis seems to be doing his best to heal wounds and promote meaningful inter-communal dialogue. Prompted by a vague nostalgia for Christmases past, I took myself along to a carol service at the Anglican Christ Church in Beyoğlu/Taksim on Christmas Eve. I could have got over the sad lack of organ accompaniment or any kind of choral grandeur in the service, but the chaplain’s sermon was an appalling anti-Muslim tirade hiding behind platitudes about ‘ours’ being a religion of peace and love focusing on the birth of an innocent little baby – in contrast with the ‘barbarians’ who were now murdering Christians in the lands where ‘our’ faith was born. As I walked out of the building I was sorely tempted to call out something about Tony Blah’s conniving in the slaughter of innocent Iraqi babies not so very long ago – but I swallowed the words and left the faithful to get on with their business. Anyway, I remembered, their ‘Tone’ had subsequently converted to Roman Catholicism taking the burden of his sins with him.
 The Pope’s actual birth name