The Commandment Bubble

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Not too long ago, I discussed Sarah Palin's inadvertent, but thought-provoking invitation to us to consider the viability of the Bible as a source for moral guidance. Yesterday, through a damning Christopher Hitchens piece, I learned that none other than Pope Benedict is doing the same thing regarding the absurd notion that morality is a simply a matter of following orders.

Discussing Cardinal Ratzinger's personal role in covering up allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen, Hitchens pulls no punches.

Very much more serious is the role of Joseph Ratzinger, before the church decided to make him supreme leader, in obstructing justice on a global scale. After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church's own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated "in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone ... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication." (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble. And this is the church that warns us against moral relativism! (See, for more on this appalling document, two reports in the London Observer of April 24, 2005, by Jamie Doward.) [emphasis in original]
This should come as no surprise to anyone who noticed, as I did when Ratzinger became Pope, that the same man who took time to condemn the Harry Potter series and non-reproductive sex between consenting adults also kept Bernard Cardinal Law safe from legal authorities.

What does it tell you that Ratzinger would level the kind of threat he did about reporting something that (as far as I can tell) is immoral even by the expressed "standards" of his church? It might mean that he doesn't really take hellfire seriously himself or that he regards the purpose of morality as something other than helping one live one's life. Perhaps both.

The question any Catholic should ask himself is, what's in this for me? The Pope has already told you through his actions. Why follow his edicts, or those of anyone else?

-- CAV


Mike said...

Yeah, this is more and more of what I'm seeing from the RCC lately. Since my family is overwhemingly Catholic, I still end up going to church with them occasionally, and it staggers me these days to see the coordinated barrage of guilt and altruist morality that had always been there if I had been willing to recognize it. But there is something even more troubling occurring since the ascension of Ratzinger to the papacy, and Hitchens' piece illustrates a small part of it.

With John Paul II, whether you agreed with his altruism or not, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he was following that morality consistently. Like Hugo's Bishop of Digne, he was a man with a set of beliefs and you knew where he stood, and they were in accord with the doctrines of the RCC. JP2 commanded respect even in secular circles as a result.

Well, one of the RCC's doctrines is that there are no secrets with God. Everything about God is truth and open and there for all to see, while everything about Satan is a lie and is hidden and masked and misdirected. This polarity is at the heart of the moral axis defined in RCC doctrine, and is part of why a devout RCC believes that any atheist must necessarily be a nihilist accomplishing the work of Satan whether knowingly or not. There is no room for such things as atheist freethinkers or secular humanists or deists or Jedi or whatever in the RCC "reality."

For a long time, that doctrine of utter transparency and openness of the deity has served the RCC well. For example, while fundie sects struggle to explain atomic dating out of a fairy-tale book that says the Earth is 6,000 years old, the RCC simply says "To understand the nature of God, one must accept the truth that science reveals. The biblical story of Genesis must be speaking in metaphor, not in terms of calendar dating." This is cognitive dissonance, to be sure -- I don't want this explanation mistaken for apologetics -- but it is a huge departure from the utter denial of other Christian sects of scientific evidence that is plain as day for anyone to see and recognize. (In the secular world, the timeframes in the Pentateuch have been found to coincide with known historic events, such as Babylonian dynastic successions. The oldest events described in the bible occur roughly when writing would be expected to reemerge after the most recent ice age. Given that so much else about Christianity is plagiarized from contemporary society, such as Christmas being coattailed from the pagan Festival of Lights, none of this is too surprising.)

Mike said...

Concomitant to the commitment to transparency, the RCC has conducted its business openly for centuries. To the extent that this has not been done, in fact, it is being remedied after the fact by the release of administrative documents and scholarship. Even a neighborhood Catholic parish publicly discloses its income and expenditures to the penny, and any adherent is free to audit those figures if he or she so chooses. This sort of openness is unheard of in any other religion pretty much ever. In fact, there are some other religions that keep their DOCTRINES secret until an adherent advances within the organization. Such esotericism marks the Mormons and Scientologists alike. Catholic doctrine, whatever its flaws, is at least freely published in its entirety for all to see and evaluate. There ARE NO "secrets of the Holy Office." At least, there aren't SUPPOSED to be.

Yet Ratzinger is ordering secrecy. He is concealing. Future popes will apologize for this and publish what really happened, but that's then and this is now. The public furor over the priesthood molestation scandal, already mostly blown over, will have disappeared entirely by then. This shows what has become evident all along anyway: where JP2 lived in accordance with his professed beliefs, Ratzinger is just another politician who gained power and is cashing in on it whatever way he may. He is not the first such pope, and he won't be the last. Indeed, how afraid of "hellfire" can he really be if he is so brazenly making such moves under color of papal authority?

The RCC has endured worse and survived, but one wonders how many genies it will have to somehow put back into bottles in order to continue to do so.

Snedcat said...

Boy, Gus, you can never tell among churchmen any more whether "Get thee behind me, Satan" is a reproach or a come-on...

Gus Van Horn said...


Your contrast between the last two popes reminds me of a point I considered, but had no time to make: Some of the priests I recall from my childhood, although they were wrong, at least meant well. Ratzinger obviously doesn't.


Good one. If you followed my link about Cardinal Law, you will see a similarly funny headline. I am not sure whether I meant it to be funny, but it sure is!