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  • Ivor

The Catholic Church and its lesser known sins. Ivor Chipman

Updated: 7 days ago

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 mere 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. It is the former that determines one’s sense of the latter. But unadulterated fidelity to Catholic teachings demands that the arrow is reversed.

Here I choose to highlight what has received no contrition and has been largely brushed under the papacy's floorboards. For a church that professes to care for the family and the weak so much it is regrettable that primary targets of its exploitation are the weak and familial. Limbo, the post-mortem prison of the unbaptised, 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 is the ghastliest, not to mention most unimaginative incarnation of human fantasising. We create an empty pit of nothingness until the end times to deal with complications that don't exist. Unborn babies are simply cast into the void. This concept ran alongside the idea of Purgatory (of which there is no Biblical mention), both of which were profitable to the Church who promised mourners that, through clerical prayer, their loved one’s could escape to heaven - for a price. Not only does this conflate the laws of heaven with the material world - supposedly transgressive in itself - but it does so by profiting off parental grief and their desperation to feel secure about the unknowable. This consideration has ruined St Peter's Basilica for me and indeed the Vatican as a whole. These grand edifices lose their lustre at the thought of the weeping mothers who were duped into funding them.

The Church even shames itself in the medical sphere. Everyone knows that it has always fervently opposed any form of contraception even in trying to prevent the spread of STDs. But what is less appreciated is that, perhaps in order to consolidate their falsehood with hyperbole, it is still Catholic doctrine that condoms can even increase the chances of HIV infection. These pseudo-scientific positions have certainly had pestilent repercussions in the many Catholic dominant African countries that are most plagued by the disease. It's the strange paradox about the Catholic Church that, as sterile as it is, it is obsessed with sex. Neurotic ideas about natural impulses give rise to a status quo where the Church's relationship with sex is either oppressively restricted or oppressively harassing. If the only people obsessed with food are the anorexic and the morbidly obese, then, so Stephen Fry iconically said, 'that in erotic terms is the Catholic Church in a nutshell'. Besides this point, it is curious that no scientific evidence has actually been produced to corroborate this insupportable claim. Then again, evidence has never been part of the Catholic Church's toy-box.

Moving from the spiritual to the temporal, it is odd to find an eery silence on the Church's sponsorship of fascism throughout the early 20th century. 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 this perverse but overlooked truth. 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.

The Church took this duty seriously. Every Sunday and Holy Day the Church prayed for the prosperity of the 3rd Reich, even celebrating Hitler’s birthday every year until his death. Nazi POW camp guards were permitted to bear the slogan 'God is with us' on their belt buckles. Yet worse, the Church never excommunicated a single Catholic during the Final Solution, though their involvement was prodigious (50% of the Waffen SS were practising Catholics). Joseph Goebbels was earlier expelled, but only for marrying a divorced protestant. At least the Church had standards. 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 sympathiser 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’, perhaps the only way in later life to ease his guilty conscience.

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 1941, 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.

This was a top-down arrangement but both highest and lowest clergymen were keen to obey. Edmond Paris analysed that over 50% of clergy in Croatia were active supporters of the regime, acting in the name of Catholic expansionism. 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.

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[1].

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’[2]. 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’[3]. 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.

I could go on forever about this stuff. I have no clarion note to end on. It is simply a gladdening thought that the Church no longer has the power to execute such depravity in the open. Yet it would be nice, at least as a token of their humility that it always alleges but rarely displays, for the Church to offer some sign of apology for these skeletons in their closet.

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

[2] From the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215

[3] Innocent III Register 2.276

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