Recently The Pope went on a visit to England. This might not be of any interest to Indonesians but I wish I were there to cover the event all the same. The last time England had anything to do with the Bishop of Rome was over five hundred years ago during the reign of Henry VIII, and this happened to be the favourite period in my school history lessons.
Henry VIII was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church when he tried to break off with his wife Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, for failing to bear him a son and so that he could marry another woman, Anne Boleyn.
As it happened Anne Boleyn bore him a daughter and subsequently beheaded and Henry VIII went on to marry Jane Seymour who managed to bear him a son but then she herself died. Henry went on to marry, annul and behead a few more wives during his long reign as King of England, all in all totalling six unfortunate women.
He could have done none of this, of course, had he remained a Catholic and subservient to the Vatican but by then he had broken off from the Roman Church and no longer needed the Pontiff’s approval for his actions. He held both the keys to the country’s temporal and spiritual authorities. It was not clear whether he went to hell when he died, but as it turned out, England was not exactly cursed for getting rid of the Pope.
Anne Boleyn’s daughter was Elizabeth who became the Queen of England and who, as we all know from Cate Blanchett’s film, ‘Elizabeth, The Golden Age’, made England great, defeated the Spanish Armada while her sailors ruled the seven seas and her bards wrote Shakespearean plays. God was not kicked out with Catholicism but kept alive in the protestant church that later evolved into today’s Church of England.
Those were the days when the Monarchy and the Church wielded great power over the subjects, often vying with each other for influence. When the line between Church and State was blurred, with both desiring power and authority not only over the people’s faith but also their wealth.
Today, the sight of Pope Benedict XVI paying a visit to the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, is almost surreal. There is the Pontiff whose unshakeable belief in God does not protect him from his own kind, ensconced in a bullet proof Popemobile, meeting the Queen who wields not a sceptre, but a handbag.
What are we to make of these two silvering octogenarians, manifestations of temporal and spiritual powers that are anachronistic in today’s age of secularism and democracy? At a time when the Royal family is seen more as an unnecessary burden on the country’s tax payers and the Catholic Church increasingly notorious for its scandals and sex abuse?
It is a cause of some excitement to the people and the media to be sure. Pomp and circumstance rarely fail to ignite the ordinary person’s desire to be in the proximity of grandeur and the aura of the otherworldly. Already the media are scouting for possible evidence of miracles that God’s representative on earth might bring to the area.
More than that, however, the visit highlights his desire to revive religion in a country the Pope laments as increasingly beset by ‘aggressive forms of secularism’ and atheism that eradicates God from society and denies our common humanity. He would like to see the Catholic Church not side-lined but playing a greater role in society and whose values are adopted as a way of life.
This is not surprising. He is after all, the Pope and the head of an institution whose influence is diminishing in a world of competing influences, whether from secularism, capitalism, atheism and other religions.
Many religious leaders like to see their religion play a greater role in people’s lives. As a matter of fact, lately it seems that all around the world religion and religious issues seem to dominate our lives more and more. Whether it has succeeded in bringing God back to society however, is questionable. If anything what is evident is the facility of religious extremism and bigotry to use God as an excuse to attack our common humanity.
Often the source of this extremism is absolutism in a belief: The idea that God, religion and virtue are intertwined and manifest solely in a particular religion, with anything outside it seen as undesirable. But truth is relative and beliefs are many. Imposition of an absolutism could only lead into institutionalised tyranny whether based on religion or other forms of ideology. The idea of a utopian ‘big society’ could easily translate into an intolerant society and totalitarianism of some sort.
Moreover, if we look back through the annals of history, what after all are religions other than the products of history and the results of institutional power struggles for authority, hegemony and influence? Oftentimes a faith that is not consciously chosen but accidents of birth relative to where one is born and raised. Where perhaps even God itself ceases to have a place.
One thing is for sure. History would have been very different if Henry VIII didn’t break off with the Pope.
(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)