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The Church's glass house

25 May 2009

Where to begin? Perhaps to say that this post may polarise your opinion.

There have been certain events within the Catholic Church recently that have, well… baked my noodle. To that end, I’ve spent a number of hours researching, writing and re-writing this post to try to find the best way to convey its contents. I have no bias against Catholicism in particular, save for the fact it’s a religion with which I’m familiar. Should any Catholics reading this subsequently feel the need to don their victim hat, please be aware that I am not singling out your faith: I have the same level of respect for all religions…

There is no denying that the world’s major religions have inspired great works of art, kindness, love and majesty, and it can be a source of comfort to some. But there comes a point when one must ask if that contribution, knowledge and legacy sufficiently counters all the vile deeds done by, or in the name of, those religions?

It turns out that a sect of the Catholic Church in Ireland raped and brutalised (or worse?) children under their care and had been doing so with the knowledge and support of Church authorities for most of the 20th century, at least, in a time when the Church leader was still one of the highest ranking people within the social class system. Naturally when the facts were inevitably made public the Church did what all moral, ethical, pious, right-thinking organisations would do: first it threw its full weight behind covering it up and threatening the victims into silence, and then fought it in the courts. What’s more, some of the clergy claim to be unaware that such behaviour is illegal!

Yet, sadly, none of this is news. For those who may be unaware, that exact same sect did the exact same thing in Australia and Canada, news of which broke over 20 years ago. To underline how “not news” this is, this sect’s worldwide historical record of child abuse even has its own dedicated page on Wikipedia. Yet, despite the worldwide media coverage, a few words of apology from that nation’s Church head is all it’s taken for the media to go away, for the legal system to merely deal with those priests who haven’t been moved out of jurisdiction quickly enough, and it is allowed to go on as if nothing happened. Until it crops up again somewhere else.

Are we so frightened of a god we can’t see and are so scared of that god’s wrath that we sacrifice our children to it? What kind of god allows his sheep-herders to do this? Back to reality: why do we as a society permit it? We allow this to happen.

A friend’s father was a first-hand recipient of god’s love under that sect’s care. He is scarred for life, and it haunts him daily. I did know some others, but they chose to take their maker to task sooner than their natural lifespans would otherwise have permitted.

Yet according to the head of the Catholic Church in England, it is I who am not human. His exact words were (in this BBC interview excerpt; emphasis mine):

Whether a person is atheist or any other, there is in fact, in my view, something not totally human if they leave out the transcendent; if they leave out an aspect of what I believe everyone is made for. Which is a search for transcendent meaning — we call it “God.” If you say that has no place, then I feel that it’s a diminishment of what is to be human. Because to be human, in the sense I believe humanity is directed, because made by God, I think if you leave that out then you are not fully human.

One could see this as a poorly worded and delivered “they just don’t know what they’re missing.” I’ll concede that, but I think his track record and public speaking experience makes that extremely unlikely.

So we have this from the man who is the national representative of the organisation who gave the world such expressions of humanity and god’s love as this sample selection:

  • The Spanish conquest of the Americas with it’s convert-or-die theology. The current Pope considers this to have been a justifiable purification.
  • Collusion with the Nazi Party in the 1930s.
  • The Pope-driven military campaigns known as the Crusades, originally to take back Jerusalem from the Muslim Seljuq dynasty in the 11th century, and later extending to various religious, economic and political enemies for another 500 years.
  • The elite leaders of the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels were born and raised good Catholic boys. Despite popular pulpit fantasy, none of them were raised in a liberal or atheist household.
  • The Spanish Inquisition — a religious kangaroo court that ran for almost 400 years — was an era where exquisite forms of torture were finely tuned into an art form. They were only then outdone by the “Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele.
  • The unforgivable, systematic abuse of innocent children given to their care.
  • The saint of suffering, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mother Theresa, who ran her cult of cruelty with an iron fist and who believed pain and suffering were good and necessary, that such experiences would raise her glory and good works up to her sick and twisted god, and that the mountain of donations sat largely untouched because filth and impoverishment was more pleasing to her god of misery.
  • The previous Pope, stage name John Paul II, who chose to insist that contraception a sin and thereby accelerating the spread of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa (original article) with its population who have mixed their ancient superstitious tribal beliefs with the ancient superstitious tribal beliefs of the missionaries who came to “help” them.
  • The current Pope, stage name Benedict XVI, who not only kept contraception as a sin when he had a chance to alleviate needless suffering, but has recently gone on public record to emphasise the importance of this damaging point of dogma. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he chose to pour salt on it by saying that condoms actually worsen the spread of HIV and AIDS, which is about as reality-based as the belief that some African men have that raping a baby will cure AIDS. As if the previous Pope’s words and deeds hadn’t already sealed the fate of countless thousands from a preventable disease, this one goes a step further.
  • Bonus Points: Last but not least, definitive, unquestionable proof of god’s existence by appearing daily on toast, dog flaps, frying pans, potatoes, and countless other domestic items. (It couldn’t be pareidolia — that would just be too preposterous!) I’ve read a book where this god’s fanatics say he created the world, parted a sea, flooded the world, turned water to wine and even raised the dead. Times must be tough all round if gods are reduced to tiresome party tricks these days.

And this Cardinal… this self-aggrandising, deluded fool has the temerity to suggest that I am sub-human. Of course there have been atheists who have done awful things, but I challenge anyone to name an atheist who’s done even a fraction of that in the name of atheism.

Students of history will recognise dehumanisation as a necessary technique to allow normal, civilised people to kill other people without hesitation. All governments do it whenever they’re itching for war. In fact, Hermann Göring said something about it at his Nuremberg Trial:

Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  That is easy.  All you have to do is tell them  they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

I’m not suggesting that this buffoon is making a call to arms — modern evangelical Protestantism has been demonising even members of only mildly different sects for years — but rather pointing out the similarities between inflammatory public speeches and those used by propagandists to enable wars. It’s not just Christianity, of course — the media is filled with descriptions of that kind of behaviour by Christianity’s latest major competitor for bums on seats: Islam (knees on rugs?).

Perhaps we simply live in a time where many traditionally quiet religions are experiencing a surge of fundamentalism, which would explain the recent and numerous bizarre squawkings from the Catholic Church, the normally moderate Protestant sects (nutjob fundamentalist sects are a given), and the more recent inventions of the LDS Church, Sikhism and Scientology. Even the traditionally ambivalent or outright pacifist eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have made news recently for their growing fundamentalism, whose fanatics are, in some cases, beginning to target foreign visitors and tourists.

Part of me suspects this is related to some of the world’s loudest western nations being virtual theocracies — I’m looking at you, Mr Bush — or appeasers of theocracies — I’m looking at you, Mr Blair — and unashamedly proselytising not only their religion but their particular twisted, perverted and intolerant version of it upon the nations they chose to occupy against the majority will of their respective peoples. Nationalism is probably a natural reaction to such consistent transgression. The military rules may say that proselytising in a theatre of war is forbidden, but it clearly happens. Even non-believers are being victimised in these Christianised armies. Is it any wonder that many Muslims refer to the War on Terror as the new Christian Crusades, or the Tenth Crusade?

Having said all that, I won’t speak against allied troops who are on the ground in the countries they have occupied. They are just like you and me, and are doing a job for their country, their squad mates, and often for their families (military service often offers better future prospects). It’s a hard job that someone has to do, and will have to do for as long as we have governments, religions and resource imbalances. Particularly if those governments continue to use religion as a tool in their territorial or resource agendas.

The pillock and the peerage

On a related note, you may be surprised to know that the inspiration for this post — the former Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor — is being considered for a Peerage by the British government. If you find that as offensive, and indeed inappropriate in the tireless pursuit of the separation of c
hurch and state
, as I do, you may then be pleased to know that there is a petition that UK residents can sign to ask the Prime Minister that this peerage not be granted:

Number10: No Peerage for Cormac Murphy O’Connor

If opposing that honour is is something you agree with, then please consider signing the petition. It expires in March 2010, so you still have some time left…


It has not been my intention to insult or upset you, whatever your beliefs or lack of. Nor has it been my intention to suggest that all clergy, whatever their religion or sect, are guilty of such things. That is clearly not the case, but a partial complicity could be argued whenever a complaint is dismissed, sudden relocation of a member of the clergy is assisted, and any of a number of other possible scenarios.

Rather, is has been my intention to outline how unbelievable it is that the head of any church in any country could possibly consider atheists sub-human when the inhuman behaviour of his peers has resulted in permanent, irreparable damage to thousands of the most vulnerable members of our society. That anyone could say that absence of belief is more important — that it’s in the same ballpark, or even the same game — beggars belief.

Such statements and attitudes are indicative of a sense of priorities and reality so screwed and twisted that it belongs in the dank, darkened tribunals of the Inquisition, not in an age of western enlightenment where art can be created without fear of being tortured or killed, where life expectancy has doubled, where nearly all people have a roof over their heads (or have access to shelter), where life-saving operations can be performed without pain, where we look into space and realise that not only are we looking at faraway objects beyond our solar system but are also looking back in time, where we realise that the orbital motion of stars around galactic cores resembles the motion of planets around stars, moons around planets, all the way down to electrons around atomic nuclei, and that all life on this one blue planet — this pale blue dot — is made from star stuff and coded in a helical ladder combination of just 4 nucleotide bases.

We know all this through science. Religion has fought the discovery of this knowledge every step along the way.

So how — with such magnificent understanding and observation of the universe without and within (of which we’ve uncovered only the tiniest amount) — can we possibly sit by an allow such abuse to happen?

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