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Power over Principle: The Catholic Church. Ivor Chipman

Updated: Apr 11

“The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth” -Gotthold Lessing

 

The Catholic Church is a fine representation of how revealed religion contradicts itself. It claims to be infallible by its possession of divine truth, yet is unable to prove it. That this can be exposed is largely thanks to the grand western tradition of free-expression, scepticism and the right to criticise that religion has often opposed. The pagan state expelled Protagoras from Ancient Greece for saying that he couldn’t be sure of divine existence, and killed Socrates for merely philosophical inquiry. Modern churches have consistently tried to undermine the work of doubters in turn, illuminating religion’s worst defects. It discredits itself by falling far short of ordinary morality and stifling the development of human understanding. Some concessions have been made- Pope John Paul II made 94 public apologies for papal crimes during his tenure. Yet this is just one of the many examples of how an ethically advanced society has beaten the papacy into reluctant contrition. The only way for the Church to keep any of its influence in a moral western world is to make some shamefaced revisions. Yet this appearance and that of most believers of moral progress is misleading. The moral zeitgeist of any given age influences which parts of the Bible Christians choose to accept and which they choose to ignore. Thankfully most people today who profess a belief in God and the truth of scripture only subscribe to those teachings and tales that can sit well with their 21st century principles. This is in reality an expression of human decency masquerading as religious faith, as it is the former that determines one’s sense of the latter. But unadulterated fidelity to Catholic teachings demands that the arrow is reversed. At its core, Catholicism is still as totalitarian in its claim to universal truth as its name suggests. 

 

The historical precedent


“Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum” -Lucretius

 

The most blatant attempts to hold on to power are through forceful opposition against dissenters. The history of the Catholic Church stands as a symbol of such oppression. In 380AD Emperor Theodosius I made Catholicism the official religion of the Roman empire and began to suppress paganism. From this early assertion of dominance sprung its supremacy as the world’s major religion. Humanist condemnation of such activity was negligible, allowing the Church free reign to commit atrocities to preserve its position. It is no surprise therefore that it reacted harshly to those who questioned its infallibility. The medieval Reconquista against Islamic conquerors in Europe as well as in the ‘Holy Land’ represented centuries of forceful religious conversion and murder in the name of faith. Depravities followed suit against Christian denominations. The Albigensian Crusade, initiated by Pope Innocent III in 1209, was a 20-year campaign to eliminate Catharism in France, that is deemed by many historians as a genocide[1]. This followed after the 1204 sack of Constantinople, in which Crusaders, despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, raped, pillaged and slaughtered innocent civilians and Orthodox Christians[2]. The aggressive impulse of the religious towards each other was a telling sign that the apparently Christian virtues of humility and charity could be relinquished to maintain ascendency.  The fight for spiritual power in this period is complemented by temporal struggles. Papal attempts to wrest control of Church appointments from the Holy Roman emperors provoked 50 years of civil war in Germany. That this bloody conflict, known as the ‘Investiture Controversy’, was initiated and perpetuated by Catholic reformers in support of Pope Gregory not for spiritual rights but political power discredits the Church as a moral institution. The Church thus deemed itself much more than an institution of faith but as a totalitarian ruler, an attitude that Pope Benedict VIII encapsulated in 1302: “He who denies that the secular sword is in the power of Peter does not understand the word of the Lord”. The credulous certainly did not hesitate to draw this sword from the scabbard during other troubled times. It is impossible to determine the number of people who were killed for the sin of not being catholic during the Counter-Reformation (although we do know that the non-existent crime of witchcraft, decried in Exodus 22:18, killed 50,000 people from 1580-1630 during inquisitional heights), nor the number forced through torture to convert to Catholicism.


Yet the lack of numerical certainty, owing in part to their attempts to cover up their depravity[3], cannot save the Catholic faithful from reprisal. The manner in which heresy hunts against Jews, Muslims and Protestants were conducted was horrific. It is known with some accuracy that over 2000 people were burned at the stake during the tenure of the first Spanish Grand Inquisitor Thomas de Torquemada alone. That same believer also expelled over 40,000 Jews from Spain for their refusal to be baptized in 1491, most of whom went to Portugal only to be persecuted again in 1497. In the case of the latter, many of the victims were ‘conversos’, Jews who had formally converted to Catholicism but were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism still. Not even the acceptance of forcible conversion could guarantee the protection of original ‘heretics’ from the Catholic faithful. An equally revealing evil was the widespread burning of books deemed heretical. The Spanish Inquisition was particularly intent on impeding the spread of such ideas, publishing six vast indexes of prohibited books between 1550 and 1640. For these centuries of violence John Paul II did ask forgiveness at the turn of the 21st century, yet the half-hearted manner in which he did so, namely by saying that only ‘some Christians’ fell into these errors is not only a discredit to the apologies themselves but an obfuscation of the truth. With regards to the Crusades, almost all the major expeditions were initiated by the Popes of the time. Likewise, one of the three major inquisitions (the others the Spanish and Portuguese), was based in Rome and developed by the Holy See itself. Even if this were not the case, the Vatican and senior Catholic figures in their indifference to such actions were equally in error as the perpetrators themselves. Although these kinds of evil are thoroughly in the past, they must be noted to some extent to demonstrate the lengths to which the Catholic faithful, both the Vatican itself and its worldwide representatives, would go to remove any threats to their supremacy when they could do as they pleased. If actions such as these were the Catholic definitions of an ‘auto da fé’ (act of faith), then the moral justification for faith can only be an ‘argumentum ad absurdum’. 

 

Faith over reason


“We sacrifice the intellect to God” -Ignatius of Loyola

 

Holy war and persecution have certainly tainted the Catholic Church’s history. Yet some of their most ardent adversaries have come not from opposing religious origins but from the intellectual domain. As an institution that has always placed faith over reason and doctrine over evidence, it is no surprise that scientific discovery has persistently posed a threat to its credibility. The suppression of it is pernicious yet predictable. Intellectual discovery is a vital part of human development and understanding. Indeed, one can rationalize the route of the religious urge itself by inspecting this human tendency. In earlier ages of scientific ignorance, the supernatural was the only explanation at hand for natural phenomena. As such, deities representing then mysteries were made[4]. Lucretius recognised that it was fear of the unknown that strengthened religion in antiquity, as mortals ‘see many things happen that they cannot determine by any known law, so their occurrence they ascribe to supernatural power’. The endurance therefore of religious answers to natural questions relies upon scientific obscurity. However, considering religious rational was our first attempt at making sense of things, it is naturally our worst. The German writer Heinrich Heine allegorized religious explanation as only being as good as a blind guide at night. In ‘dark ages’, men are best guided by religion, as in a ‘pitch black night a blind man is the best guide’, but ‘when daylight comes’ it is ‘foolish to use blind old men as guides’. The Catholic Church seemed to recognise this and desperately tried to keep people unenlightened[5]. This was not least demonstrated with its attack on Galileo Galilei, whose advocacy for the Copernican idea of heliocentrism was denounced by the Roman inquisition in 1615 for being ‘foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of holy scripture’. It subsequently banned the idea’s endorsement in literature and even in personal opinion. After mounting a courageous defence of the theory, Galileo was put under house arrest (where he stayed until his death nine years later) in 1633 by the same inquisition for being ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’[6]. It took the Church until 1835 to remove all traces of the heliocentric idea from its lists of prohibited literary indexes.


This was by no means the first case of Catholic intrusion into free inquisition. Giordano Bruno was deemed a heretic and burned at the stake by the Church in Rome in 1600. As the founder of cosmic pluralism, he first proposed the notion not only that the stars were other planets surrounding their own suns, but that they might foster life, beginning the vast inquiry into such a possibility that continues today. His legacy as, ironically, a ‘martyr for science’ is fitting considering the bravery of his scepticism in an age of religious persecution. Johaness Kepler and Isaac Newton round up a formidable pantheon of scientific minds that were all deemed heretical by a Church that cared more about their ownership of truth than the pursuit of it. Papal opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution, after enlightenment critique, was slightly less direct but no less subtle. Pope Pius IX’s 1864 ‘Syllabus of Errors’ attacked 80 philosophical statements representing the developing liberalism of the Italian Risorgimento. It outright rejected such concepts as religious freedom, church and state separation, civil marriage, democracy and popular sovereignty[7]. It even banned freedom of thought, the most blatant mark of totalitarianism that finds precedence in the tenth commandment[8]. Darwinism certainly falls under such prohibited concepts. Yet a century later, the Church addressed the issue by claiming that evolution and religion were mutually compatible, and indeed only showed the greater intelligence of divine design. This attempted loophole is a perfect exemplar of the Church changing its tone for the sake of relevancy. It might be called a weak argument for the very reason that it can’t be disproved; the excuse that all scientific discovery only reaffirms the complexity of god’s creation is infinitely reusable. This form of retrospective defence of design needn’t be made. The theory of evolution, as with all scientific phenomena, works without a divine influence[9].

 

Doctrinal depravity

 

“It [The Church] has difficulty catching up to what ordinary people regard as common moral and ethical sense” -Christopher Hitchens

 

The Church no doubt has spent much time trying to assert itself over science. Yet after centuries of fighting, it has lost. The majority of people favour the disciplines of biology and physics to ideas such as creationism and miracles, just as they prefer chemistry to alchemy and astronomy to astrology. The Church’s doctrine on morality therefore is ever more important to sanctify and defend. One can easily find the deplorable in what the Church preaches without even having to explore the teachings of bygone ages. Much of this is antithetical to normal standards of human decency today, not least with regards to homosexuals. Stemming from biblical sanction ("If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable." Leviticus 20:13), hatred and repression of homosexuality has always been a Christian staple. Deemed the ‘crimen pessimum’ in 1917, it is still today denied as an act of love since it is unprocreative. This is an abashed attempt to make this position less obviously repulsive. To condemn the expression of homosexuality is to condemn the orientation in itself, and although Pope Francis has attempted to make the Church appear more accepting of such a state, there still lies a deep-seated homophobia in the institution. In 2005 the Vatican refused homosexuals admission to the priesthood despite the fact that, according to Donald Cozzens, between 23% and 58% of priests were gay. Catholic representatives are exposed when they often prevaricate in public on this notoriously controversial issue. In an Intelligence Squared Debate in 2009, Archbishop John Onaiyekan simply said people should allow the Church to ‘propound its own doctrines’ after having been questioned on what Jesus’ teachings were on the matter (which he called a ‘wrong question’). One wonders what he might have said in more private domains, considering that this was a televised event with a gay man on the debating panel (Stephen Fry).


This ambiguity appears in the Vatican too. Pope Francis, the most liberal Pope there has been on the matter, said in 2018 that he was ‘very worried’ about homosexuality existing in the Church. He further urged ordained gay priests and nuns specifically to be ‘exquisitely responsible’ not to ‘scandalise your communities or the holy faithful people of God by living a double life’. He went so far as to say that they should ‘not be accepted into the ministry or the consecrated life’. Even in the midst of a radical and forceful social justice movement, the West has not been able to turn the Church on this matter significantly enough. It cannot see the hypocrisy of claiming that all are made in the image of God while denying ones supposedly divinely-inspired nature. Other teachings have disappeared but only far too late, to the embarrassing exposure of Catholicism’s fallibility. Limbo, the post-mortem prison of the unbaptized, was a staple of Catholic doctrine since 418 yet was effectively revoked in 2007 by Pope John Paul II. As it was where grieving parents believed their deceased infants were kept until the final judgement, it seems callous to treat the matter with a flippant sense of unimportance. This is not to mention the sheer wickedness of the concept in itself, what Hitchens aptly considered “Saint Augustine’s cruel and stupid disposal solution to a non-existent problem”. This concept ran alongside the idea of Purgatory (of which there is no Biblical mention), which surely was profitable to Catholics who would promise mourners that through clerical prayer, they would ensure their loved one’s escape to heaven- should they pay. The Church even shames itself in the medical sphere. It has always fervently opposed any form of contraception even in trying to prevent the spread of STDs, with Pope Ratzinger notoriously teaching that condoms can even increase the chances of the HIV infections. These pseudo-scientific positions have certainly had pestilent repercussions in the many Catholic dominant African countries that are most plagued by the disease. It should probably be expected that religious institutions are still scientifically far behind modern standards. Yet this ought to be cause for ridicule and contempt rather than blind acceptance.

 

Slavery


‘The Devil can cite scripture for its purpose’ -William Shakespeare


The political atrocities of the Church follow suit. It is important to note that moral relativism cannot be used as an excuse. To claim infallibility from divine inspiration is to be held accountable to the highest ethical standards. The Church cannot simply say that its shortcomings were the moral norms of the time, as this contradicts their own claims that their teachings are divinely inspired and begs the question of what its usefulness is. This applies therefore to acts both in the early days of the Church and those today. In this light therefore there are two political issues of modern times that scar its reputation. The first is its association with slavery. Even members of the Church themselves have admitted its past affinity with the practise. Cardinal Avery Dulles observed that Popes held slaves themselves, while no Father or Doctor of the Church was an unqualified abolitionist, nor did any senior figures ever make a truly sweeping denunciation of slavery. He even noted the influence of leading Church thinkers in laying down the precedent for this; Aquinas taught that the practise was appropriate in a world of original sin. Where Dulles seems to become more apologetic is in his assertion that the Church frequently sought to alleviate the ills of slavery through denouncements of such institutions as the slave trade. Yet if these protests ever came, they were evidently too weak to turn Catholics away from the institution who would even use Biblical warrants to legitimize their slaveholding[10]. In any case, the Vatican proved a much quieter voice in the call for abolition than abolitionists themselves in the Western hemisphere. Rather, the actions of Catholic representatives were morally condemnable, particularly with regards to the African slave trade. They were reticent and even complicit in it- in South America most nuns and priests owned slaves, while in Mexico City the largest Catholic convent bordered the slave market. In Brazil, child slaves were even auctioned off from a Catholic charity, the Santa Casa da Misericordia. The observations of contemporary abolitionists expose this ethical inferiority. Joaquim Nabuco is quoted saying “No priest ever tried to stop a slave auction; none ever denounced the religious regimen of the slave quarters. The Catholic Church, despite its immense power in a country still greatly fanaticized by it, never raised its voice in Brazil in favour of emancipation.” Contrary to Dulles’ claim, the Church seemed to use its authority not to undermine but to even support the peculiar institution. In fact three of the most major countries that dominated the slave trade in the New World were Catholic dominant (France, Portugal and Spain). Even in the Catholic countries that abolished slavery relatively early, author John Francis Maxwell makes the credible assertion that emancipation was due ‘mainly to humanist influences’. Indeed, the French National Convention of 1794 that abolished slavery across its territories represented a godless country of the most radical kind[11], preferring its Cult of Reason, a deistic concept based on Enlightenment principles of virtue[12]. Rather with the return of a religious ruler in Napoleon came the repeal of this act in 1802. In the US, Christian representatives exploited slavery for their own ends. In 2016, Georgetown University offered an apology for the actions of Jesuit priests in 1838, who had sold 272 slaves to protect the Catholic institution from financial ruin. While there were religious figures in the North who were leading abolitionists (in particular William Lloyd Garrison, editor of ‘The Liberator’), a believer was much more likely to use Christian doctrine as a defence of their slaveholding. Even the biblical Abraham, the patriarch of monotheism, had owned slaves. A letter canonised as written by St Paul (though likely written by his followers) had ordered slaves to obey their masters with impossible levels of earnest: ‘Do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord’[13]. Nor is there surely a more racist idea than the one enshrined throughout holy scripture: that a chosen people[14] may escape bondage by divine aid, while being allowed to submit other ethnicities to the whip[15]. American slaves who found solace in the story of Exodus, quite understandably, must have ignored the fact that Moses became as much an enslaver he’d been an emancipator. As with other moral issues, religion failed to approach the question of slavery with the ethical heights to satisfy its claims. 

 

Fascism and Anti-Semitism


‘Gott mit uns’ (‘God is with us’) -The slogan on the belts of Nazi POW camp guards.

 

The term ‘Clerical Fascism’, which first arose as a label for Catholic support of Benito Mussolini’s regime in the 1920’s, is a useful reminder of a perverse truth. One can plainly see the support of the faithful in almost every country that embraced this new totalitarian ideology. The Church and fascism united to empower each other, and to advance its ideologies. States’ leaders granted privileges to the faithful in return for support, while the latter helped the former in its aims. This reality was blatantly shown in Catholicism’s alliance with Hitler’s Germany. There were opponents of Nazism that existed within the Church, and Pope Pius XI always held a contempt for the regime. Yet his weakness and deference to his future successor Eugenio Pacelli undermines his apparent reservations. To the contrary, the first treaty Adolf Hitler ever made was with the Vatican under his tenure, on July 8th 1933. The Church gained, amongst other rights, unchallenged control over education of Catholic children in Germany and the maintenance of Catholic property and universities, in exchange for the continued endorsement of the Nazi regime. Indeed, every Sunday and Holy Day the Church prayed for the prosperity of the 3rd Reich, while even celebrating Hitler’s birthday every year until his death. Yet worse, the Church never excommunicated a Catholic during the Final Solution, whose involvement was prodigious (50% of the Waffen SS were practising Catholics). Joseph Goebbels was earlier expelled, but for marrying a divorced Protestant rather than for his crimes. This coalition did not end after the war. Catholic clergymen and, according to historians such as Michael Phayer, the Vatican itself, aided Nazi war criminals to flee from justice to South America through various ‘ratlines’. Indeed, known Nazi sympathizer Bishop Alois Hudal was given permission by the Vatican Secretariat of State to ‘visit the German speaking civil internees in Italy’, a vague and suspicious statement in itself. Whatever the Papacy intended, this led to the creation of a ‘Nazi Grapevine’, a clergyman who in his memoirs thanked God, in shockingly ironic terms, that he was allowed ‘to visit and comfort many victims in their prisons and concentration camps and to help them escape with false identity papers.’ It is even more revealing that Hudal claimed his work was ‘charitable’.


The Catholic involvement with fascism stretched past its decline, while at the time of its heights it defied borders. In Slovakia the authoritarian ‘Slovak People’s Party’ was led by Father Tiso, a Catholic priest who was executed in 1947 for war crimes such as aiding in the Nazi deportation of Jews. The first treaty Mussolini ever signed was with the Vatican (the 1929 Lateran Treaty). In countries across Europe, from Spain and Britain to Slovenia and Austria, the name of Catholicism was used with papal impunity (if not active support) to promote the ideology. When the Church did step in, it was in collaboration. The Catholic Church was a persistent ally of Ante Pavelic’s Ustase party and its pursuit of a ‘Greater Croatia’. The Pope himself assisted in Pavelic’s flight to South America, and was a long-standing supporter of Croat nationalism as he believed the country was the ‘outpost of Christianity’. His knowledge and frequent contact with Pavelic and Croatian clergy aggravates his failure to excommunicate any of those involved in their appalling activities. The policy of the Ustase, delineated by its senior ministers in May 1841, was to kill a third of Serbs, expel another third, and convert the rest to Catholicism. At the concentration camp of Jasenovac alone, it is estimated that up to 100,000 Serbs were killed. 32,000 Jews, at the time 80% of those in Croatia, were also exterminated. These crimes were abetted by the very top. Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, head of the Croatian Church, issued a public letter on April 28th 1941 in support of the movement, even asking the clergy to pray for Pavelic. At this point, he was well aware of the Ustase’s actions and intentions, and two days later Pavelic signed Nazi style racial laws with Stepinac’s full knowledge. While the Archbishop did not support all of Pavelic’s policies (about which he made several appeals), he continued to comply with the movement’s operations and publicly supported the state. He was even given a medal from Pavelic in 1944 as thanks for his fidelity.


Stepinac’s subordinates did not dissent. Edmond Paris estimated that over 50% of clergy in Croatia were active supporters of the regime, acting in the name of Catholic expansionism[16]. Indeed, the priest Ivan Guberina served in Pavelic’s personal bodyguard, while the Franciscan friar Tomislav Filipovic acquired the moniker ‘the devil of Jasenovic’ for his running of murder squads at the camp. This complicity continued in the Croatian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Ustase put many priests in charge of party operations. Bolzidar Bralo served as chief of police in Sarajevo, while others expressed power through media and writing. Mate Mugos called for clergy to put down the prayer book and seize the revolver. In the Croatian daily newspaper Novi List, Dionysius Juricev wrote that to kill children of even 7 years was not a sin when helping the party. Archbishop of Vhrbosna Ivan Saric insisted in his diocesan newspaper that ‘omniscient and omnipotent God stands behind this movement’. In fairness, there were always those Christians who bravely defied their dictators’ edicts. In the Nazi puppet state of wartime Hungary, priests frantically issued baptismal certificates, with the knowledge that to be caught would mean death. In Romania, papal diplomats pressed the government not to deport their country’s Jews, and the trains were hence halted under the pretext of ‘bad weather’. Even the same Pope Pius XII who helped Pavelic escape justice shielded 500 Jews in his summer residence. Yet to excuse the Catholic Church and their representatives on these accounts would be to exonerate a murderer for his crimes on the ground that he once gave to charity. Stepinac himself was beautified in 1998 by John Paul II, and the silence henceforth on the significant Catholic collaboration with fascist and National Socialist activities is not accepting fault in any mature sense. If the Vatican’s reservations had been held sincerely, then it should have had the courage to speak out properly, like many other far more vulnerable Christians managed to do[17].

 

The Church’s actions in this are also heavily linked to their longstanding Anti-Semitism that deserves individual attention. Christianity has always had a stake in this form of bigotry beginning from its inception. The injunction for it can be found in simply one verse of the New Testament, Matthew 27:24-5, in which the Jewish race is charged with the killing of Christ: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!’”. Throughout the centuries, this passage has been the warrant for all manner of hatred towards the people. This activity is by no means confined to Roman Catholicism- Martin Luther’s book ‘On the lies and their lies’ dehumanises Jews and calls them ‘devils incarnate’, even saying that one would not be at fault in killing them. Some of the worst anti-Semitic attacks in history were perpetrated by the Russian Orthodox Church after the partition of Poland, when the Christian autocracy inherited vast swathes of annexed Jews. In fact, it was Russian authorities that published the 1903 text ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a fabricated anti-Semitic hoax claiming knowledge of Jewish megalomaniac plans[18].


Yet the Catholic Church has always had its own share. The reforms and ultimatums of Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century and then Innocent III in the next demanded a Christendom cleansed of corruption: ‘extra eccelesiam, nulla salus’[19]. The quest for purity ushered in a new climate of intolerance that spread to all supposed rivals. Following the persecution of the Albigensians were a series of laws attacking what was now seen as the ‘Jewish perfidy’[20]. In 1267 sexual relations between Christians and Jews were banned by a Vatican Council, and 8 years later in Germany a Franciscan priest made it a capital offence. In 1290 King Edward I expelled all Jews from his kingdom indefinitely, and in 1306 the King of France followed suit. Just as malicious were the public perceptions of Jews that began to breed across Europe. The most common rumours popularised included their poisoning of the wells, and a conspiracy that they were capturing Christian children to use their blood in archaic religious rituals. Yet the fact that Christianity was formed from Jewish matter was unavoidable, and one that had to be confronted. Indeed, the hypocrisy of belittling those in whose traditions the Christian religion was anchored was openly accepted by many. In elite circles, there festered in the aether a gnawing sense of cultural homage to the ‘People of the Book’. Innocent III, in his attempts to elevate the Church, scrambled to cast Judaism as a mere prefiguration of Christian truth rather than its estimable forefather. He said that through the ‘Jewish perfidy’, the veracity of the Catholic faith was proven. On the other hand, prominent thinkers went so far as to openly regret the disrespect shown to a venerable tradition. The French theologian and natural philosopher Abelard is quoted plaintively imagining a hopeless Jew: ‘We are confined and oppressed, as if the whole world had conspired against us alone’. One pupil of his even acknowledged that ‘A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons would put them all to letters, not for gain, as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law- and not only his sons, but his daughters’. So obviously false were the slanders against Jews that Church authorities, aching deep down about the debt their religion owed to Judaism, had to step in at times- in 1253 the Papacy condemned as libel the accusation that Jews mixed children’s blood into their ritual bread. Yet they persisted still, and anti-Semitic laws with them. It was official Church doctrine until 1964 that the Jewish people collectively were responsible for deicide, as adumbrated in Matthew’s Gospel. The timing of the doctrine’s removal is discrediting considering that it took place nearly 20 years after the Nuremberg Trials. No doubt the reservoir of anti-Semitism that still remains in many Eastern European countries can trace its origins back to this precept.


Sexual repression and its consequences


‘The only people obsessed with food are the anorexic and the morbidly obese, and that in erotic terms is the Catholic Church in a nutshell’ -Stephen Fry

 

Celibacy is a central Christian virtue, enshrined since the reforms of Pope Gregory VII as law for the clergy, that has long been used to suppress the natural urges of its followers. They thus claim a higher form of purity that they encourage others to seek. It is a mark of unfettered devotion to Jesus Christ and dedication to God’s work. Yet this is merely the veil for what is a highly unhealthy form of sexual repression. It is hardly a surprise that such a neurotic, inhuman way of living leads to ghastly transgressions. Apologists will often demand that the abuse and rape of children is merely the work of a few bad apples. Yet the sheer number of cases should give one cause to doubt the innocence of the orchard itself. Predatory priests appear to have been a problem as early as the 11th century, given the writing of a book condemning such offences by the Benedictine monk and cardinal Peter Damian. It is only in modernity however that these crimes have been properly exposed. In 2002 the Boston Globe launched an intrepid investigation into the rumours about salacious wrongdoings in the Archdiocese of Boston. It eventually found that 159 priests had been involved in sexual misconduct with minors. The vast majority attacked more than once- John Geoghan was accused of preying on over 130 children.


This was a watershed moment for a society that began to suspect its religious institutions. In the wake of newfound pressure and inquiry, it was revealed that the horrors of Boston were not isolated incidents but rather commonalities in churches worldwide. Two years later a research study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that between 1950 and 2002 4392 priests had been plausibly accused of underage sexual felonies by 10,667 individuals in the US. In Ireland alone 1300 were indicted in August of that year, and similarly high figures can be found across the continents. What is yet more deplorable however is the response of Catholic seniors and the papacy itself. The 2009 Murphy report in Ireland that investigated scandals in Dublin stated that "The Commission has no doubt that clerical child abuse was covered up by the Archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities", also finding that "The structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated that cover-up." It said in addition that "State authorities facilitated that cover-up by not fulfilling their responsibilities to ensure that the law was applied equally to all and allowing the Church institutions to be beyond the reach of the normal law enforcement processes”. Indeed, it was only in 2019 that sexual abuse was removed by the papacy from the ‘pontifical secret’. This privilege essentially implicated the Holy See in the perpetuation of paedophilia, as to avoid public obloquy offenders were merely moved to different parishes. One Gerald Risdale, who had repeatedly molested 65 children, was transferred seven times. These examples are unexceptional and constitute a common tactic, another being the payment of victims to ensure silence. In fact, the Associated Press estimated that the value of settlements made between 1950 and 2007 totalled more than $2 billion. Fresh public accountability and inquiry has yielded shocking results. In October 2021, the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the French Catholic Church published a report revealing that between 1950 and 2020, as many as 330,000 minors were victims of sexual abuse by the clergy or laypersons within the Church. This is merely one report, in only one country, on the largest and oldest religious institution in the world. It is terrifying to imagine the true scale of these grotesque activities.


After 2001 the Vatican took a more active role in management, demanding that cases be reported to Rome, insinuating an attempt to clamp down on local lechery. However, the Holy See failed even more blatantly to dispense justice, as is shown by their treatment of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. He was the figure most responsible for the obfuscation of his archdiocese’s perversions and the protection of perpetrators. Yet after the Globe’s painstaking exposure of this scandal led to his resignation, he was not laicised but rather personally appointed by Pope John Paul II as archbishop of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. A year later he was one of those voting in conclave to decide on the Pope’s successor. The problem is endemic in the institution. In 2003 the future Pope himself Joseph Ratzinger wrote to bishops that on pain of excommunication they must not talk to police or legal actors about sexual crime in their dioceses, demanding it be managed ‘in the most secretive way, restrained by perpetual silence’. As Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith[21], he shielded mass offenders such as the notoriously prolific Maciel Degollado[22], about whom he said ‘one cannot put on trial such a close friend of the Pope’. This kind of reprobate later became the infallible Vicar of Christ on earth. Such a catalogue of crimes, for which sufficient apologies have still not been made, is a shrill denouncement of the repressive ethics of Catholicism. In condemning homosexuality, pre-marital intercourse, and other perfectly normal expressions of the human sensual impulse, clerics are led to seek the filthiest of undercover escape routes. A revolution in sexual morality is long overdue.

 

The Proof of the Pudding


‘When it (scripture) becomes intelligible the nonsense becomes more transparent’ -Richard Dawkins.


In 1383, an Oxford dissident finished a text with a unique power to expose the Church. John Wycliffe had never been one to quake before its authority before. Just three years earlier, he had called monks the pests of society, enemies of religion, and patrons and promoters of every crime, while observing that friars were motivated neither by moral or theological concern but ‘temporal gain’[23]. Throughout a vitriolic career, he had also rejected the concept of purgatory, scorned the practise of clerical celibacy, and denounced the exploitative sale of indulgences that would later provoke widespread religious upheaval across Europe. In many ways, Wycliffe was centuries ahead of his time. A scholar whose sole authoritative guide was scripture itself, he had no time for the makeshift dogmas of the medieval papacy. They were often predicated on material gain, as represented by the refulgence of St Peter’s Basilica and of other grand church edifices. The reality however is that the majority in Wycliffe’s society was more exposed to Catholic laws than the scriptures from which they were supposed to derive. Uneducated in the classical tongues, European communities were banned from reading the Bible in their own languages by a Church that insisted on only producing it in Latin or Koine Greek. Wycliffe’s attempts to literally rewrite this wrong earned him the title of heretic, posthumously assigned to him in 1415. His Bible, the first major translation of holy writ into English, towered high atop the mass of literature that the Church condemned to the flames.


Everyone can understand why. The absence of English translations effectively gave a human institution a monopoly on the souls of their subjects. Priests, monks and nuns from the pulpits had the power to manipulate scripture for their advantages because their audiences could not access the books required to question them. So increased the omnipotence of a Church that was already capitalising on the relative illiteracy of their times. In 1450, some 70 years after Wycliffe’s death, it is estimated that a mere 7% of citizens in Germany and Britain could read and write. Indeed, the connection between increased literacy, Biblical translation, and clerical criticism testifies to the insincerity of the Church’s preachments. It is no coincidence that the pervasive spread of the Reformation across Europe in the 16th century occurred in tandem with a startling rise in education. By 1550, over twice the number of people in Germany and Britain could read their religious texts for themselves as could 100 years previously. The Duchy of Wurttemberg, on whose churches Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, had 89 schools in 1520 and as many as 400 by 1600. Sceptics were also aided by the prodigious use of the printing press, through which Luther sold 100,000 copies of his Bible translation. The faithful were now equipped with the proper tools with which to question their leaders. It was all too easy for societies to reject the Church that they realised were frauds. Christians merely needed to flick through the Bible to find that the concept of Limbo did not exist. Previously grieving parents, unschooled in scripture, were hoodwinked into believing that their unbaptised child would escape this prison if they paid the church a portion of their yearly wage. Now they had the capacity to recognise the sale of indulgences as theft, as Wycliffe had earlier insisted. In the same way that the Church resisted scientific advancement, so was its theological legitimacy threatened by widespread exegesis. The history of the institution is essentially a story of secrecy. It was imperative that God speak only through its authorities, castes of specially chosen decoders of heaven’s mysteries. The work of Wycliffe anticipated a movement that informed a generation, liberating thousands from the ignorance that the Church demanded of them. Although to question religion entirely was too far a stretch, questions had at least begun to be asked.

 

One may argue that the Catholic Church now is a far more likeable institution than it used to be. Certainly, it no longer has the power to perform the wretched actions it could in the past. Yet the sinister beliefs that have always facilitated its immorality continue to be upheld. The religious psyche, while servile and degrading, is simultaneously arrogant. Revealed religions make the impossible claim that they possess a higher truth. This delusion makes all wrongdoing possible, as the credulous need only say that they have God on their side to justify themselves. It is true that the Catholic Church has been strong-armed into some compromise with the modern world. This is an improvement- the enlightened morals of today far outshine the superstition of bygone ages. Yet until the obsession with power and pre-eminence is renounced, the Church will never be able to match the standards of its era. It remains a benighted institution discredited by a great deal of sins, and despite its attempts to moderate itself it cannot disguise its true nature. To this day, it has only protected itself. 


[1] Up to 1 million Cathars were killed

[2] The atrocity was so great that Pope John Paul II twice apologised for the 4th Crusade, in 2001 and 2004. 

[3] For example, almost all inquisition records in Goa were burnt by the Portuguese Inquisition when it was finally abolished in 1820.

[4] Nature Gods are important figures in polytheisms such as Greek Paganism and Aztec religion.

[5] One might recall, with a wry chuckle, that the tree from which Adam and Eve were banned from eating was a tree of knowledge.

[6] Galileo nonetheless supposedly said under his breath ‘epur si muove’ (‘it still does move’) during his recantation.

[7] Typical of mid-19th century papal attitudes. The 1832 encyclical ‘Mirari Vos’ of Gregory XVI condemned free press and thinking as well. The Errors was a more vigorous reconfirmation, in the face of even greater threats, of their illiberal approach to enlightened ideas.  

[8] ‘Thou shalt not covet’ incriminates thought. It interestingly includes women as one of the items of property that should not be desired. No wonder in 2000 Vatican spokesman Bishop Piero Marini apologised in corroboration with the Pope, for ‘injustices towards women’ amongst many others. 

[9] This idea is best represented by the French scholar Pierre Simon Laplace, who presented the Emperor Napoleon with his orrery. In response to the Catholic ruler’s question of why a divine figure did not appear in his model of the Solar System, Laplace said ‘I don’t need this hypothesis’. 

[10] See Leviticus 25:44, Ephesians 6:5-8, Matthew 18:25, Matthew 24:51, Luke 12:47

[11] It had eradicated the Catholic monarchy, nationalized Church land, exiled over 30,000 priests and closed down Catholic places of worship, seeing the institution as a symbol of economic privilege and entitlement. It should be clarified that in its extremity the Revolution increasingly symbolised despotism and cruelty, and its example is not one to follow. Nonetheless, its more favourable acts were not divinely inspired. 

[12] As advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 book ‘The Social Contract’, which was the inspiration for the Cult’s primary champion, Maximilien Robespierre. 

[13] Colossians 3.22

[14] Indeed, the very notion of a ‘chosen people’ is blatantly racist, a fact perhaps lost on many today owing to its secure Biblical heritage and its origin in often celebrated stories of piety and emancipation.

[15] The hypocrisy in Exodus between the Jews before and after their liberation and divine blessing is most revealing.

[16] Michael Phayer corroborates by highlighting the admissions of Evelyn Waugh and Italian writer Corrado Zoli, both Catholics, who attest the involvement of the clergy in Ustase activities.

[17] The bravery of Dietrich Bonhoeffer springs to mind.

[18] Hamas still today claims that the document is true- Antisemitism is one of many common themes of monotheism.

[19] From the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215

[20] Innocent III Register 2.276

[21] Founded in 1542 to defend the Church from heresy- a highly undervalued principle.

[22] The Founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi movement.

[23] Objections to Friars


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