Political dogmatism could do worse than religious dogma has

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By Barack Muluka

According to the Catholic faith, when he speaks ex cathedra, the Pope can never be wrong. The Pontiff speaks in this fashion when he discharges his office as a pastor and doctor of all Christians. Now, this dogma is not open to question. For, it derives from Jesus Christ’s promise to Simon Peter, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 16: 18 – 19, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter. And on this rock, I will build my Church. And the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

This is the divine promissory note that undergirds the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Accordingly, the Catholic Holy Father is a direct heir of the seat of St. Peter, which enjoys the authority to bind and to loose. The Holy Father as the ultimate priest can make no mistake in matters of faith. When he speaks on such matters, it is no ordinary mortal we behold. He exercises supreme apostolic authority and makes declarations without the slightest possibility of error on Christian faith and morals. Every Christian must, therefore, accede without demure. The flock follows him in the spirit and letter of the late 19th Century Christian poet, John H. Sammis, when he composed the canticle that says in part:

When we walk with the Lord, in the light of His Word,

(Oh) What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will, He abides with us still,

And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey. There is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey. Trust and obey, especially, every doctrine that has come to you from the Pontifex Maximus. The Doctrine of Papal Infallibility was formally defined by Pope Pius IX. The occasion was the First Vatican Council (1869 – 1870), which also marked the origins of the Ecumenical Movement that sought to bring a disintegrating Christendom together as one universal body of faith. Among the most outstanding spinoffs of Papal Infallibility are the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and the Doctrine of the Assumption of Mary.

Pius IX, in exercise of Papal Infallibility, declared that Mary was born without the taint of the original sin, which is the crux of all the evil and challenges in the world, according to the Christian faith. A special holy assignment having been identified for her from early on, she was spared the taint of the Original Sin. Meanwhile, the Doctrine of Mary’s Assumption was defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Accordingly, the Virgin Mary, having come to the end of her life on earth, was assumed into heavenly glory without having had to go through the process of death. She was simply lifted into heavenly glory, body and soul together.

There are many other doctrines, all neatly ordered together in line with Pius IX’s Infallibility Doctrine, as the parent doctrine. Some predate Pope Pius IX. Others came after him. The critical thing is that they remarkably give the Holy Father scope for dogmatic cogitation without question. Yet, equally remarkable, the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility also recognises that the Pope may not always be right. Hence the Catholic Primus Inter Pares’ infallibility has limits. It only obtains “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

In contexts outside definition of doctrines of faith or morals, even the Pope may not be above board. Religion, for all its own blemishes the world over, easily inclines towards the very best attributes in humankind. If it is true, as Plato avers in Conversations that an angel and a beast are locked up in a vicious competition in every person, the holy shrine will easily be the representation of the angel. It unlikely, accordingly, that much good could come out of us in a spiritual free context – although Bertrand Russell, Sören Kierkegaard, Thomas Paine and kindred philosophers would disagree. Their case is lent significant credence by the ills that religion itself has afflicted upon society.

Emerging democracies must beware political leaderships that claim infallibility. The reason political parties, for example, have many party organs is that no one person can know everything or be right all the time. You, therefore, need to listen to other opinions and collectively form what now becomes the universal opinion, owned by the fraternity.

The dreaded Catholic Inquisition in the last four centuries of the Medieval Age easily represents the worst offering from the Church. Beginning in France and spreading virtually everywhere in Europe, this formal religious institution within the government system killed hundreds of thousands, in the name of combating religious sectarianism.

Even in very well meaning contexts, the Church too has made mistakes. Among some of the outstanding errors are remembered the condemnation and burning alive of the reformist priest John Huss in 1415 and similar treatment of the French Saint Joan of Arc in 1431. Others are the massacre of 60,000 Roman Catholics in Constantinople by the Eastern Orthodox in 1481 and selling of indulgences in the 16th Century. Buying an indulgence meant that, for a sum of money, the Church gave you exemption from punishment for some sin. So, if you had money, you simply sinned knowing that you would buy redemption. And there are many other examples of great errors in the Catholic Church, to say nothing about other religions. Mercifully, the Church has over the centuries acknowledged these errors and made good.

Now the question arises, if the very best in our midst can recognise that he has limitations – even the Heir to the Throne of St. Peter has limitations – is it possible that lesser mortals could be infallible? Can the political class, anywhere, be infallible?

Invariably, most ecclesiastical errors are opinion-based. Arrogating to itself exceptional authority to define doctrine, the faith-based institution will become intolerant of converse opinion, or even alternative opinion. The ultimate way to end the contrary view is to physically eliminate the proponent of the view. This will usually be presaged by circumscription of the individual’s freedom to hold or consider a fact, a viewpoint – or even just a thought – that is independent of the group’s viewpoint. Going hand in glove with this is circumscription of freedom of expression. If you hold contrary opinion, please keep it to yourself. Yet, George Orwell has told us, it could get worse. In his dystopian novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Orwell introduces the twin notions of “thought crime” and “thought police.” The thought police can simply look at your face and tell that you harbour criminal thoughts. You should accordingly be arrested and sued for thought crime, although you have never shared the thoughts with anyone, nor have you rendered them in any material form.

Political dystopias begin with individuals who, like ecclesiastics, imagine that they have the last word on everything. They consider themselves to be revolutionaries, out to overthrow rotten political and social orders. They promise superior orders and begin movements that should lead to golden future times. In the words of Orwell in another story, their focus is captured and expressed in the anthem:

Beast of England, beasts of Ireland

Beasts of every land and clime

Hearken to my joyful tidings

Of the golden future time.

They herald a future of plenty, where the tyrant is overthrown. It is a fruitful world without the harness, bits and spurs in their multifarious guises. There is food aplenty and a sunshine galore amidst salubrious breezes. Even labour itself seems to belong to the past. To find that day, we must labour today, though we die in the process. Then we must agree to toil for future generations.

The fallacy of ‘either or’

The first spinoff is a false binary dilemma. Things must be exclusively seen in black and white. There are no grey areas. If you are not in one camp, you must be understood to be in the other. It is a perfect George W. Bush context when he said after the terror of 9/11, “Either you are with us, or with the terrorists.” Has Kenya reached this false dilemma?

The two main formations in the country are the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led Jubilee Party on the one hand, and the National Super Alliance (NASA) on the other. There is an attempt to squarely fit every opinion in the country into these two prisms. There can be no third opinion, let alone a fourth one. In effect, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto of Jubilee are perfectly right on everything they think, say or do – or demand that you should think, say or do.

In NASA, they are counter weighed by Raila Odinga. He, alone, is supposed to know everything. Like the Pope, the Jubilee duo and NASA’s Raila Odinga know everything. Like the lesser animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm, their mantra is expected to be, “Comrade Napoleon is always right.” The slightest shade of difference in opinion is treachery. You are a mole for the other camp. You are a traitor who must be resisted. Hence Johnston Sakaja may not bail NASA legislator, Babu Owino, out of police custody without his comrades in Jubilee berating him and calling him a NASA mole and a traitor. In NASA, one can only question the wisdom behind Odinga’s methods without being branded a traitor. For Odinga, like Kenyatta and Ruto, knows everything.

Elsewhere, a Kenyan politician prances about the place with an affidavit of obscure origins and ownership and insists that every leader of note in the political formation around him should sign. He says that this is the only way to demonstrate loyalty to the formation. If you do not sign or speak out in defence of the democratic principles at risk, you are a traitor. Likewise, a Member of Parliament who gets democratically elected to chair a parliamentary committee is removed through a motion of no confidence, without having breached anything as chair to the committee. Those removing him only respond to a call from above, as happened to Nandi Member of Parliament, Alfred Keter and three others, and his goose is cooked.

Know-it-all leaders will soon form around themselves rabid barking dogs whose work is to silence everybody. Orwell saw it all very clearly when he presented the barking dogs around Comrade Napoleon the lead pig in Animal Farm. They will come for you with tongs and harmers. They will demand an apology for expression of converse opinion, barring which you face unspecified consequences. Now this is a hybrid of fascism and McCarthyism. Senator McCarthy was the face of an American witch-hunt against suspected communists in the period 1946-47. All he needed to do was point his finger at you, and your life would never be the same again. McCarthy saw communists everywhere. He alleged that numerous Soviet Communists and spies had invaded America. They were in the Senate and in the House of Congress. He saw them in the universities and in Hollywood. The spy-ring was in the State Department, in the Voice of America and even in the US Army! He destroyed people’s reputations and livelihoods.

Going forward, emerging democracies must beware political leaderships that claim infallibility. The reason political parties, for example, have many party organs is that no one person can know everything or be right all the time. You, therefore, need to listen to other opinions and collectively form what now becomes the universal opinion, owned by the fraternity. Yet, even in such contexts, room must be left for the solitary dissenting voice. Ultimate salvation could very well be residing in that single lone-standing voice. Such are the kinds of voices that a country like Kenya needs in this age of false dichotomies and binary dilemmas. ^

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