SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: The empires are back

MALAYBALAY CITY (03 May) – Two days after Britain’s Prince William married Kate Middleton, an occasion that, thanks or no thanks to TV, transfixed the world even before the actual ceremony, another event caught the attention of media and millions of Catholic believers – the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. The two events may appear too disparate for comparison, yet they provide interesting parallels as well as contrasts that are too glaring to ignore.

Seeing the William-Kate wedding was like opening a child’s storybook, what with the sight of enthralled spectators waving to the royals as they paraded along London’s most prominent streets on board gleaming coaches and guards garbed in uniforms that date back to the good old days of the empire. The sun never sets in the British Empire; it never did set until William kissed his duchess – not once but twice – on the same balcony at Buckingham Palace where his parents and grandparents had done the same ritual before an ecstatic crowd.

The beatification mass for the popular Pope on the other hand sought to bring the faithful back to the Church’s noble tradition of sacrifice, service and humility as shown by the lives of thousands of saints. Such tradition, however, slowly disappeared from practice as the Church [almost] totally reneged on its self-assigned duty as source of spiritual guidance and enlightenment and became more preoccupied with guarding the wealth and power it had amassed since the time that Constantine made Christianity Rome’s official religion. And from being the persecuted whose early followers hid in catacombs to escape death or punishment in the hands of Roman soldiers, the Church morphed into an institution that countenanced no dissent against its rigid dogmas and teachings. Sorry, Galileo, but the Earth is the center of the solar system, and Torquemada will see to it that you remember this.

Rome’s obsession to suppress freethinkers to the point of torturing, if not murdering, artists and scientists whose views ran counter to the Church’s alienated it from the best minds of Renaissance Europe. It chose blackmail over dialogue, torture over debate, power over reason in dealing with perceived threats to its well-guarded dogmas.

In contrast, Britain, chiefly England, took care of its artists, poets, writers, philosophers and scientists. It is said that Shakespeare was a great favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, the so-called Virgin Queen who founded the Church of England, which broke away from Rome in 1543 with the Act of Supremacy, although it likes to call itself both Catholic and Reformed. No wonder that the Westminster Abbey, built in 906, is the burial place not only of royals and clergies but also of the likes of Sir Isaac Newton. St. Peter’s Basilica on the other hand is exclusively for Popes.

Over the protestations of Spain, a close ally of Rome, Elizabeth condoned Francis Drake’s raids on Spanish-held settlements in the Americas and, to rub salt on wounds, made him a knight. She capped her achievements against Spain with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, although some historians would say that the Old World’s mightiest fleet lost more of its ships to storms than to English cannons.

But like Rome and the Papacy, the British Empire also lost grip of events at home and abroad, its colonies in both ends of the world gradually lost to revolutions and developments that were already beyond its diminishing power to control or contain. In the closing years of the 18th century, the North American colonies declared independence. The two World Wars further weakened the Empire leading to the loss of colonies in Africa and Asia.

For its part, Rome found itself confronting the rise of Islam as both a political and religious rival. Rich kingdoms in the East – including Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) – fell into the hands of Muslim rulers. When Constantinople was captured by Sultan Mehmed II, in 1453, and became part of the Ottoman Empire, many intellectuals were said to have fled to Italy, and some would conjecture that this migration led to the Renaissance. More importantly, the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire in particular, had come to an end. The Western Roman Empire had crumbled much earlier, in 476, with the defeat of Romulus Augustus by Germanic troops from inside the Roman Army.

So, are the two empires dead? Is the British Empire dead? Not if people still find it worthwhile to stop, line the streets that lead to Buckingham and Westminster, and wave to the tightly guarded descendants of monarchs whose imperial ambitions and policies destroyed the lives, cultures and future of millions of people across the globe. At most, however, the pomp that attended the William-Kate wedding made the Britons temporarily forget domestic economic ills. Not unlike Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe entertaining Elizabeth’s less privileged subjects with lines that had survived to this day.

But it would be wrong to think that Britain is content to have its famous writers remembered by the whole world or to see the media feast on the personal affairs of its scandal-prone royals. Back in 2003, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair revived the imperial appetite that had made his country a world power. He joined the US and other western countries in the invasion of Iraq, all eager to partake of the vast oil reserves that lie beneath the bloodstained desert. Never mind the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

So, is the Roman Empire dead? Not if the air still smells of threats of excommunication against government officials who find enough courage to collide with Church officials head-on over controversial policies. Not if Church leaders continue to resort to the same underhanded tactics of blackmail and labeling against groups and persons that challenge the validity and practicality of the Church’s stand on issues like the Reproductive Health Bill. After all this time the Church has not discarded the same arrogant, self-righteous attitude that negates the essence of honoring the saints and the kind of lives they had lived as servants of the Faith, the same attitude that breeds intolerance and contempt for nonconformists like the unfortunate Galileo. Never mind that the astronomer proved his tormentors wrong.

Britain and Rome (or the Vatican to be exact), two powers that think they still hold half of the sky even if they had long ago lost their territorial dominions.

Unfortunately for the Church, it now finds itself racing against time in trying to suppress the rising challenge to its self-anointed role as guardian of morality. Never mind that from time to time the Church itself has been rocked by revelations of scandals which it has had tried to cover up. Beatifying Pope John Paul II may serve to somehow restore waning confidence and trust in the Church as an institution. But until and unless the Vatican admits the fact that its teachings are not infallible it is always at risk of repeating the mistakes of the past.

But again, as William Faulkner warned, the past is not past. (Mindaviews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])