CAIRO – As Pope Francis gears up for a showdown over divorce and remarriage at October’s Synod of Bishops, marking the latest chapter in a polarizing debate that’s left some Catholics delighted and others disenchanted, he can take consolation that he’s not the pope in the hottest water over the issue.
The world’s other major Christian leader who holds the same title, Pope Tawadros II of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, is also facing stiff blowback related to a divorce debate. Unlike Francis, however, some members of his own flock don’t just want him to change course, but they actually want him fired.
“He’s one of the worst spiritual leaders we’ve had in recent times,” said Wael Eskander, a well-known commentator on Coptic affairs, applauding recent calls from Coptic activists for Tawadros to be removed and sent packing to the monastery where he lived prior to being named a bishop.
“He’s playing a game he will lose in the end,” Eskander said.
Copts form the vast majority of Egypt’s eight to ten million Christians, and while most observers regard the idea of removing their pope as a long-shot, they say the uprising reflects real discontent over the extent to which Church authorities try to assert control over the private lives of their followers.
“People don’t like him very much, because he has a violent temper and he’s seen as aggressive,” said Mina Thabet, a Coptic researcher on human rights. “There’s a real problem between the pope and the people.”
When it comes to the substance of the divorce question, Francis and Tawadros are drawing fire from opposite sides.
The Catholic leader is generally seen as a moderate, with conservatives alarmed that he might relax his Church’s rules banning communion to anyone who divorces and remarries outside the Catholic Church. Tawadros is seen as a hard-liner, staunchly opposed to allowing Copts to dissolve their marriages under virtually any circumstances.
That stance is controversial in this majority Muslim nation, where the government recognizes the authority of religious institutions to regulate matters of personal status such as marriage.
There’s no civil marriage in Egypt, so Christians are obliged to marry through the Coptic Church. Likewise, they must ask the Church if they want a divorce. And while they can appeal to a civil court if the Church refuses, those courts generally side with the religious authorities.
Not so long ago, the Coptic Church had a more relaxed stance.
Under a 1938 Church law, Copts were permitted to divorce for nine reasons, including insanity, sexual aversion, and abandonment. The list also included “irreconcilable differences,” an elastic term that made obtaining a divorce fairly routine.
That changed in 2008 under Tawadros’ predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, who restricted divorce exclusively to cases of adultery and conversion to Islam or another Christian denomination.
Some Copts have been protesting ever since.
In 2011, a movement was founded called “Coptic 38” to campaign to go back to the earlier, more permissive rules. When he took office three years ago, Tawadros rejected that suggestion out of hand.
Despite the criticism, Tawadros appears to have the backing of other Coptic leaders.
On June 25, a traditional Church body called a “millet council” in Alexandria rejected calls for the pope’s removal, calling the selection of the Coptic leader a “divine choice” that cannot be undone.
Certainly the generally conservative ethos of the Church’s leadership suggests Tawadros won’t find much resistance for keeping reformers at bay.
On Sunday, for instance, Bishop Rafael, a runner-up in the selection process for pope three years ago, called homosexuality a result of a “perverted upbringing or sick desires” in response to the recent US Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
Likewise, although other Christian denominations in Egypt won’t take sides on an internal Coptic dispute, most of their bishops would undoubtedly back Tawadros since virtually all churches here have the same line on divorce.
Copts are a defiant bunch, however, and there’s no telling how their dissidents might push back.
In the early 1950s, a group of Coptic youth actually kidnapped the pope at the time, Joseph II, and took him to a monastery to force him to sign a letter of abdication over charges of corruption and simony, the selling of ecclesiastical office. Police rescued the pope and returned him to power, but a year later he lost the support of his own bishops and stepped down.
There’s little indication any such putsch against Tawadros is in the cards, yet there are signs his stance is driving a few Copts away. Estimates provided by Peter Ramses El-Naggar, a lawyer who’s part of the “38” movement, are that since 2008 some 1,200 Copts have converted to Islam, which permits divorce, and that 4,000 more have tried to pursue a civil divorce or joined another Christian denomination.
Aside from the coincidence that another pope is wrestling with the same problem, Francis may want to take note of the Egyptian debate for another reason. If he relaxes the Catholic position on divorce and remarriage, it could create ecumenical tensions with churches such as the Coptic Orthodox currently struggling to hold the line.
No matter what happens to Tawadros, the turmoil illustrates a hard truth which, by now, must be clear to his fellow pope in Rome too: When it comes to divorce and remarriage, somebody’s going to be unhappy no matter what you do.