Catholicism's Conservative v. Progressive War May Be On Again - For Real

From Latin America, an early eye toward the coming Conclave, and the future of the Catholic Church after decades of fiercely conservative leadership.

All eyes on Rome
All eyes on Rome

Benedict XVI’s stunning resignation announcement has triggered the expected round of speculation about who his successor could be. There is a series of names already circulating – some with a certain connection to reality, some without any logic whatsoever – and the cards begin to shuffle.

The possibility about a non-European candidate is again getting plenty of attention: a Latin American, perhaps? African? Asian?

Nevertheless, the fundamental question of substance that is starting to emerge is the following: will the cardinals, after almost 35 years of two consecutive conservative papacies, in the middle of a world that is changing at breakneck speed, decide to change the orientation of the Church and opt for someone who embodies an authentic renewal -- someone who will, at last, make it more in step with our times?

While thinking about this, we must keep in mind an event that happened not long ago. It was after the 20-year papacy of Pope Pius XII, a pontiff similar to Benedict XVI, conservative, culturally refined, closed-off, in conflict with members of the Roman Curia towards the end of his pontificate -- then, in 1958, a cardinal who didn’t appear in the forecast was elected pope, the humble and down-to-earth Giuseppe Roncalli, who took the name of John XXIII. Dubbed “the Good Pope,” not only did he conquer Catholics with his kindness, but he triggered a revolution by calling, after 90 years, a new council, Vatican II, which pulled the Church into the modern world.

There is support both for and against a pope who would bring along change. Starting with the latter: of the current body of cardinals who are under 80, and thus eligible to vote for the next pope- all were chosen by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. It is therefore safe to say that conservatives dominate the scene.

The internal backstabbing in recent years in the Vatican seems mostly between conservatives and very conservatives, different than in the years immediately after Vatican II, where the progressive and conservative Catholics faced off directly.

Out of step with the faithful

Though they gained a substantial level of popularity among the faithful, the progressives did not manage to take power positions within the ecclesiastical structure, with some minor exemptions. And thus the internal debate of ideas with the leadership was bound to fade.

As a counterpart, it is worth nothing that Joseph Ratzinger did leave some doors open for change, but now we see that they were not meant for him, but for his successor, to carry them forward. For example, he never closed the doors on the leniency, in certain circumstances, for divorced and remarried Catholics to rejoin the fold.

Recently, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, appointed last year by Benedict XVI, mentioned that homosexual couples should have some rights recognized, such as inheritance and retirement pensions.

There are other topics where the gaps between the Church leaders and the everyday practice of Catholics are very large. For example, contraception: Isn’t it time to venture further than just natural methods and to accept new modern, non-abortive ones? Wasn’t Paul VI close to doing so 40 years ago? In the end, has the time come to open up the debate on the required celibacy of the clergy? Furthermore, there is the issue of women priests. The pressure on the Catholic world to deal with these issues is growing.

Finally, we must keep in mind that in his resignation, Benedict XVI alludes to the fact that he is not strong enough to face a world of large scale transformations and challenges for the Church. Is this a prologue for the new Church to come?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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