Pope Francis incident, woman abuse or human behaviour, what does his apology mean?

By: Clyde Ramalaine

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the current Roman Catholic Church Pontiff Francis, recently apologised for what is widely publicised as him slapping a woman’s hand to free him from her jerk and grip as he was greeting bystanders in St. Peter’s Square on New Year’s Eve.

We know that the incident occurred as he was making his way to the Nativity scene in Vatican City. His apology a day later is in the admission of him losing patience with the worshipper. His New Year address was subsequently used to denounce violence against women. In his sermon, he advocated “women are sources of life, yet they are continually insulted, beaten, raped, forced to prostitute themselves and to suppress the life they bear in the womb.” In sending a strong message, Francis declared: “Every form of violence inflicted upon a woman is a blasphemy against God, who was born of a woman.” Do he, therefore, with this engaged in blasphemy against God?

This incident naturally attracted much commentary in social media spaces and of course took on many angles. I too thought it appropriate to attempt engaging a multiplicity of contesting and relevant themes that this singular incident combined in the finality of an apology as to what it could mean at the dawn of this New Year, decade and season. One commentator on CNN, John Allen, editor of Crux reminded us that it was not the first time Francis lost his temper. Allen remembered a time when Pope Francis scolded a young boy in 2016 who caused the Pope to stumble on someone who was disabled as the young man grabbed and pulled on the Pope. He then goes on to say the Pope is an 83-year-old Argentinian man with a temper. Naturally, this last comment smack of typical stereotyping on the part of Allen for its wild and perhaps untested assumptions of Argentinian men in mature age as short-tempered, impatient, potentially or naturally violent in their maleness of being. Not sure why the commentator thought it appropriate to go down this path, yet it is some of the debris we must engage as we try to make sense of what the incident and subsequent apology mean in our known violent global society where women are often the targets of perpetrated violence as the uncontested statistics attest.

Perhaps some critical questions may help us better understand ourselves through the actions of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. In no sequence of importance:  Did Francis’ behaviour towards the woman interpreted as angrily slapping her hand translate to a claim of women abuse or violence against women? What is the taxonomy of slapping? To what extent is what the Pope did simple human behaviour? Can we pardon him for his age? Was the Pope merely spanking his child in frames ‘do not spare the rod…’? Would we have experienced and understood his actions wholly different if it was a male who jerked or held him for which he had to resort to slapping his hand or arm? If so why? Shall we read more into the behaviour in justifying it in the age of a Francis; at 83 can we blindly arguing he is not a proverbial spring- chicken and the role, work, an assignment he executes daily comes with its own challenges. Especially when you lead an organisation that is as notorious for its child abuse scandals as its popularity of being the richest and largest section of the Christian Faith?

On my Facebook page where I raised this the first time, with a question, the RCC Pope Francis’ slapping of the hand of the woman who jerked him to her end translates to woman abuse or violence against women? If so why?

Tseliso Wa Mohlomi retorted the lady’s actions may have compromised the support for a real struggle, meaning a just claim that woman suffer violence at the hand of men. Phillip Musekwa agreed with Tsematse Tsematse when he asserts …but again it underlines the point that he [Pope Francis] isn’t Jesus but one of us. So judging him may probably be unfair as we may be judging ourselves. Lebogang Floyd Sebaka retorted, but Jesus got angry so the Pope is justified in his anger.  Interestingly the natural comparison of Francis and the Historical Jesus reverberates throughout our engagement.

In this instance I thought about the incident and if it was remotely possible to find a plausible similar incident in the juxtaposition of actions of Francis and that of a Historical Jesus. Naturally, the RCC Pope is not the historical Jesus Christ, yet he is for his stream of a Christian Tradition the representation of Deity in the earth hence references to him as the ‘Holy Father’. This gives sufficient reason for a justified comparison albeit in the singularity of incidents. In this sense perhaps the closest association one may draw is to look at a Biblically recorded incident where a woman equally reached out to Jesus. The Gospel of Luke generally accredited to introduce the Gentiles to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is unique for its perennial focus in emphasizing the plight of the downtrodden, the subjugated unlike Matthew, Mark or John when it takes time to engage in mentioning of at least seven instances where woman are named and actively the focus of the Text.  We read in Chapter 8:43-47 of the woman who suffered the condition of flowing in the unending menstrual cycle that lasted for at least 12 years as directed by the Holy Writ.  Here this woman pressed into the crowd in the desperation of being healed.

The woman touched or pulled on Jesus’ robe?  Could it have been annoying for Jesus?  Was it a violent jerk or a gentle touching in the last resort of desperation in the quest for healing?  We know the crowd was thronging and yet Jesus said somebody touched me, meaning it could not have been a mere brush-touch. Jesus brings the crowd to a standstill to find the person who jerked, pulled, and touched him who at the time was already healed. He stops as we understand from research and revelation to restore the woman in dignity since the ceremonial laws of that epoch considered her unclean therefore not fit to be in crowds or public gatherings.

Without belabouring the point, W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament words use at least 7 words to explain the meaning of touch. My preference in more appropriate usage lends it to use the first one Hapto which if interpreted speaks to “fastening”, cling” or “lay hold of” we see it in reference to John 20:17. Hence when we read of the woman who touched Jesus we may also understand it as clinging or holding on to. How different was that to Francis’ church member who grabbed a hold of her spiritual leader? While the Pope is not Jesus Christ it can be argued he could he have emulated the historical Jesus?

May I also remind us all of an incident in Orlando Stadium where the late Mother of the Nation Winnie Mandela was as usual late and came in amidst fanfare. Mandela wanted to hug President Mbeki than and her hand was angrily shoved away in what became evidence for some of women abuse claims exacted against Mbeki. Meaning these things are not uncommon in our daily sojourn.

This latest incident is however pregnant with so many crucial and relevant sojourning themes. Themes open for so many interpretations and misrepresentations as with so many things in our global society. However, we must engage the fact that it is automatically claimed as women abuse as perhaps the choice functional theme for some, given our chequered reality. We must be careful that we do not rush to easy conclusions of abuse or violence simply because we can, since victimology, as defined by John McWhorter in analysing blacks in America, may well be in attendance in this regard too.

Shall we consider that such a claim of abuse and violence against women is a serious one and warrants us to maintain  sobriety in its condemnation at all times? Can we accept that Pope Francis instinctively and in reflexes reacted plausibly in the historical reality of an earlier mentioned 2016 incident or shall we accept that Francis was merely being human? Can we argue he was violent in disregard of the woman? We until now do not know the reason for the woman’s actions we do not know what her health or mental state was, nor her desperation. We equally do not know what she believed for or hoped on for such touch. What we perhaps again find underscored here is the necessary acceptance that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in name of Pope Francis is wholly human and perhaps not any deity as some seek to portray of him.

On another level, if Francis injured her to whatever degree what would a court of law have found for or against the RCC Pope?  Would she have been forced to show him mercy in the withdrawal of the case because he is her religious leader? Would she have done the same to any other male figure equally accused?

Themes of humanity, claims of deity, women-abuse, human behaviour, justice and forgiveness in intermittence define this incident and we are in some sense not wiser yet we are in other areas more aware.  Perhaps the Pope will get a free pass since he apologised and admitted his error. What does his apology mean in a society where both gender definitions often have to forgive the same perpetrators given the closeness of association understood in family and proximity?

Despite all this, we must resist the cheap attempts to cry wolf when we compromise a just and necessary cause – the fight against human abuse be it in frames of gender.

Finally is the Pope’s adjusted homily with the new main theme of ‘woman-abuse fight” his internal conflict that blurts in the admission of challenge in temper that he seeks to address in hope of New Year’s resolution?  Whatever the message, we must fight against violence that evidence women as the target. We must champion the just cause against abuse of women with the same verve we need to rebuke those who lay easy claims of these atrocious acts in victimology when both perpetrator and cheap claimants compromise a very just cause.

Clyde N. S. Ramalaine
A Lifelong Social Justice Activist Political Commentator & Writer is a SARChi D. Litt.et. Phil candidate in Political Science with the University of Johannesburg. Chairperson of TMoSA Foundation – The Thinking Masses of SA

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