After day one of the Vatican series of Big Brother, before Jorge “Super” Mario Bergoglio won Pope Idol and launched his new career by taking the stage name “Francis”, I was feeling provocative:
I know what the answer would be, and even if I didn’t, a lifetime of belief has made me highly skilled at providing post hoc explanations of all sorts of things. God doesn’t speak like that, we’re only sinful, fallible mortals, speaking clearly and unmistakably would prove His existence (the Babel Fish Argument), and so on. Shame on me for betraying my ignorance and superficiality with such a slanted question.
Or not. Twitter’s not an ideal forum for a detailed discussion, but those predictable stock responses are very revealing in their own way. If God doesn’t speak in a clear, unambiguous way, even over such an important issue to a group of (you’d think) the holiest men in the church, when would He ever communicate His wishes clearly?
But if God doesn’t make a clear statement, so that even a gathering restricted to the very highest reaches of the church can’t quickly form a pretty clear opinion on what His wishes might be, how come those same people are always so very sure that they know exactly what He thinks about all sorts of other things?
This isn’t a problem restricted to Catholics, either. Every church experiences the same thing, with debate and divisions at every level about what God wants to be done, but united and firm in the belief that they know what He really wants in any number of different areas where they want to preach to the rest of us. Anyone who’s ever served on a Parochial Church Council will recognise the same thing. It’s just that Rome, like Texas, seems to do everything a little bit bigger.
If the cardinals who elect the next Pope can’t agree on who God would prefer, what are the odds that the Pope can do any better, once appointed? How is he meant to reliably (and occasionally infallibly) set out doctrine if God’s as clear and communicative as a teenager with laryngitis? Even explanations like scripture and tradition just move the question back a step, as they still ultimately rely on some form of divine revelation.
I don’t really care how they run their club – political considerations and deep divisions are par for the course in any organisation. But when God’s will is so hard to discern, even among people who believe in Him and share a common background and understanding, it would be nice if they could stop being so outspoken in using their interpretation of “God’s plan” and “God’s law” to deny others basic rights.
1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. The practice of professing standards, beliefs, etc., contrary to one’s real character or actual behaviour, esp the pretence of virtue and piety
Keith O’Brien, everyone’s favourite recently retired Scottish ex-cardinal, has issued a statement relating to the accusations made against him by four young priests, dating back many years. He admits to general failings, remaining uncommunicative on the specific allegations. While the statement is carefully worded, I think we can take that as an admission to the essence of the claims, if not the details. In his own words:
[T]here have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.
The reaction to this statement has been unsurprising. Ahead of the expected avalanche of comment, journalist and broadcaster Iain Maciver was quick to air what’s likely to be a common opinion, with a fairly pithy summary of his views:
This is proof, yet again, that the very worst religion-inspired homophobia comes from absolute hypocrites.
O’Brien would appear to be at the very least opportunistically homosexual, acting in ways that exploited his position of power in a highly dubious fashion. And he spoke out in colourful terms against gay people and any suggestion of gay rights. Add those together, and it’s easy to conclude that he’s a hypocrite, right?
Well, actually, that’s where it gets complicated. We know nothing about his private opinions, which makes it surprisingly difficult to pin this charge on him. We know that his behaviour has not always been in line with the doctrine he espoused from the pulpit, but this doesn’t mean that he didn’t genuinely believe in what he said. As Samuel Johnson argued in Rambler 14:
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
It’s possible to hold and profess beliefs that you yourself struggle to live by, without being a hypocrite. I believe that people should be patient and considerate towards each other, and generally not be jerks, but I can’t claim that I always manage to live by that ideal. I don’t think that makes me a hypocrite, but then, I don’t campaign to have impatient people disadvantaged and condemned by society.
O’Brien’s meddling in the political process certainly makes the picture more complicated, but I’m not aware that he’s ever campaigned for a position that would have caused him problems in the past, such as legal penalties for homosexual acts. His condemnation of gay sex is extreme, but while his manner falls short of what might be considered sensitive and pastoral, it may also be a genuine reflection of his views, despite (or even because of) his own personal weakness.
This probably looks like a desperate defence, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As my history shows, I have no love for O’Brien or his views, and if you want to call him a hypocrite you’re welcome to do so, but to me, the charge looks arguable at best on the available evidence, and makes the debate personal while letting both him and church off the hook.
If he’s a hypocrite on this evidence, so are just about all of us, but few of us have abused and exploited our positions for sexual gain, which makes hypocrisy pale in comparison. More importantly, the church as a whole is unrivalled for bigotry and heavy tax-exempt lobbying against basic civil equality legislation, and I think they’re more important than throwing names at an old, retired and disgraced man, however accurate they might be.
O’Brien is gone, but like Breech in The Outer Limits, another will take his place, and if you’re expecting to see any significant change in tone, you’ll be disappointed. The church’s teaching isn’t about to move a single inch, and you don’t become a cardinal without knowing how to toe the line. So why focus on the personal failings of one man, when the rest of the edifice (including a disciplinary system that warns whistleblowers they’ll damage the church) will stay rock solid?
The problem is still the church, and if that’s going to change, it’s the unwarranted influence of sectarian interests in public life that needs to be challenged, not one man’s failings. It may even be that Keith O’Brien was screwed up by the church’s teachings just as much as anyone else. Despite his position, and without diminishing the impact of the bad things he did, he can still be a victim.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien isn’t exactly one of my favourite religious thinkers, so it was a pleasant surprise yesterday to discover that he is capable of independent thought. I thought his statement that Catholic priests should be allowed to marry was a welcome burst of common sense, even if it was hedged about with caveats.
But the more I thought about what he said, the more irritated I became.
An obvious objection to his view is that he claims the church’s positions on certain issues (such as abortion and euthanasia) are “basic dogmatic beliefs” of “divine origin”. Even when advocating change, he’s bolstering the church’s right to interfere with civil legislation based on nothing more than “because we say so”.
There’s also the fact that he claims it’s fine for priests to marry because Jesus didn’t say they couldn’t. In fact, Jesus isn’t recorded as approving of the existence of priests in any way, and nor did he have anything to say about the topics of abortion, euthanasia or O’Brien’s current favourite hobby horse, same-sex marriage.
(How would that have gone? “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage, unless they have the wrong dangly bits”, possibly. Or maybe at the wedding at Cana, Jesus would have refused to turn water into wine until he’d checked that the happy couple were definitely of opposite sexes. But I digress.)
It’s clear that O’Brien’s own arguments show him to be woefully inconsistent, entertaining the idea of dropping one belief based on a particular reason, but clinging resolutely to other beliefs even though exactly the same reasoning could be applied to call them into question. But that still isn’t what’s really got under my skin.
What annoys me most about this is the effect of these beliefs, and how they’re targeted. However bizarre enforced priestly celibacy might seem, no one’s forced to become a priest – it’s a choice people make knowing what it entails. On the other hand, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia are all issues on which the Roman Catholic Church believes it has the right to tell everyone what to do, aggressively campaigning to align the state’s position with their own.
So despite the identical outcome of the Cardinal’s own argument, the only one of these issues he thinks warrants a second glance is the one which affects a small group of priests like him, and he positively endorses the status quo in the others, expecting people to be compelled to act in line with his views whatever their own moral or religious beliefs. I’m struggling to find a generous interpretation of these facts.
Unfortunately, I suspect this inconsistency is a product of personal influences. A Cardinal will know and speak to many priests, and will sympathise and identify with them and their struggles even if he himself has little interest in marrying. The other acts are all committed by “the other”, people who can easily be dismissed as sinners without further engagement, perpetuating the same pattern of thought that first created the doctrine.
And so the pattern continues. I say I’m annoyed, but maybe saddened would be a better word.
One thing everyone knows about the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world is that they are very hot on the sin of abortion, and asserting the humanity of unborn foetuses. Which is why it’s caused something of a stir that they’re now arguing in a case going through the courts that the unborn aren’t really people at all.
It’s hard to resist the comical and cynical vision of the church fighting aggressively to protect the unborn, right up to the point where they realise that if everyone agreed with them, it might cost them money. I imagine a priest getting a message from the lawyers in the middle of his sermon, and instantly denying everything he’s been saying. It’s a funny image. But while I have little love for Rome, I don’t think it’s entirely fair.
The church’s legal defence is naturally based on the law as it stands and the prevailing culture; the state is the arbiter of the legal rights and wrongs of different cases, and the church can lose out when their view of personhood differs. They would be expected to pay out if the state found them culpable for something the church finds acceptable, so why should they be expected to ignore the possibilities of a difference of opinion that may favour the church in this case? Is this difference just a one-way street?
Maybe that doesn’t convince you, but the argument that unborn foetuses aren’t people (for want of better terminology) is only one of several that they’re making in their defence of the case. Any decent legal team will be sure to raise any arguments that have a chance of winning the case, even if they’re fairly speculative, as I believe this one is.
Unfortunately for Catholics, “church employs professional legal team” isn’t nearly as grabbing a headline as “church defends case by denying own doctrine”, and it’s possible to cast this as the church denying that a foetus is a person when it becomes inconvenient, which sounds uncomfortably like their own criticism of mothers who have abortions.
It looks to me that the way they’re handling this case is good legal practice, but very bad PR management.
Photo by jessicafm, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0
Groupthink is a terrible thing, one of the greatest threats to critical assessment of the available evidence and one of the easiest to slip into. It’s all too appealing to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and to settle into self-perpetuating thought patterns that are increasingly extreme and complacent because dissenting voices are filtered out. And that’s why you have to give the Roman Catholic Church a lot of credit.
I think the invention of the role of Devil’s Advocate in the 16th century under Pope Sixtus V was one of the most impressive acts of critical thinking in history. It created a formal role purely to challenge and question the received wisdom. For someone to be considered for canonisation, opinions of them would have to be overwhelmingly positive, but the Devil’s Advocate would ensure that groupthink didn’t turn the process into a mere formality.
Sadly, the post was finally abolished in 1983, and it’s notable that the rate of canonisations shot up after this. It’s also interesting that many CEOs of major corporations now recognise how useful it is to ensure that dissenting voices can be raised at the highest level without any fear that it will damage career prospects. British Airways even went so far as to employ Paul Birch as an official Corporate Jester, although he was sacked within a couple of years for “taking the piss”.
It’s very important to make sure that we’re open to considering alternative views, and that we don’t just settle into a routine of affirming our existing views, or retreat to a virtual echo chamber. So with that in mind, I’m going to make an effort to periodically look for the positive in religion, and Christianity in particular. It’s not necessarily going to be easy, but I hope it will be a form of protection from narrow and self-justifying thought patterns.
Image by Marlton Green, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Disc jockey, TV presenter, charity fundraiser, knight of the realm, and now alleged rapist and paedophile, it seems everybody has an opinion on Sir Jimmy Savile. Or as I suppose I should call him, devout Catholic Sir Jimmy Savile.
That probably seems like a cheap shot, but it’s not. I don’t think his religious beliefs have anything to do with his behaviour. But Dr William Oddie, writing for the Catholic Herald, was very upset last year that Savile’s faith wasn’t generally a major focus of his obituaries, calling it a “conspiracy of silence”. He wanted to make the connection between Savile’s beliefs and his actions, so it’s only fair to take him at his word.
I confess that I haven’t been devotedly following every twist and turn of this story, but I’ve yet to see any reports which connect his alleged crimes to his Catholicism. Despite that, neither Dr Oddie nor the Catholic Herald have uttered a word of complaint. How peculiar, when they were previously so keen to insist that his beliefs informed his actions.
Having got the sarcasm out of my system, there’s an important point here. People are complicated and their motivations are always opaque, but while religions try to claim credit for good actions wherever they can, they always find a reason (or more cynically, an excuse) for distancing religion from the bad things done by believers.
The church often claims the credit for ending slavery, while studiously ignoring the fact that the Bible endorses slavery and the church was content to follow that line for 1800 years. Philanthropists are claimed as evidence of the good in religion, while crusaders and inquisitors are simply dismissed as sinners or even liars about their beliefs – a classic No True Christian argument.
And yes, this works the other way as well. Atheists who are only too happy to point the finger at religion as the cause of all sorts of conflict and suffering will suddenly become very careful and pedantic when discussing certain well-known totalitarian atheist regimes. It seems we’re all much better at examining the details when our own beliefs are under attack.
Given that the vast majority of people throughout history have had a religious belief of some sort, it’s no surprise that religion has a mixed record. The problems start when you start differentiating between the positive and negative acts by employing different criteria for determining the influence of religion. It might give you the answer you want, but it does nothing to determine the truth, which is surely what we’re all interested in.
So don’t just accept it when a claimed association between beliefs and actions matches your prejudices, and don’t just dismiss it when your prejudices are challenged. Otherwise, you might end up looking as foolish as Dr Oddie and the Catholic Herald.
Photo by Bryan Ledgard, used under Creative Commons Sharealike License
I passionately believe that most people are basically decent. I know from experience that people often disagree violently with the official views of their chosen denomination. I know what it’s like to be a member of a church which often stands for things you don’t agree with, and I know what it’s like to be caught in a difficult situation where you’re caught on the hop by a surprisingly unpleasant, reactionary comment in church. There are many times I wish I’d made a point of objecting to some form of ignorance or bigotry from the pulpit, but ended up sitting tight and quietly seething.
So I hope that Catholics in England and Wales are prepared for this weekend. We know that a letter from Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, is to be read out at every Catholic church, and we know what it will say. As a result, we are also in a position to check the facts and consider the issues beforehand, rather than having to assess the situation as it arises.
It is possible for every Catholic to verify some important facts. Many countries have gay marriage without any noticeable effect on their culture, marriage rate, or the wider nature of marriage. The church will not, despite some ignorant or dishonest claims to the contrary, be obliged to marry gay couples, nor will they be obliged to recognise these civil marriages, just as they are not obliged to recognise the marriages of divorcees, or even people married in other churches. And this is a simple question of equality, applying perfectly Biblical principles of treating others as we would like to be treated.
It is also possible to question why, if the church’s understanding of marriage is to determine the legal status of certain acts, there are no similar campaigns to ban the remarriage of divorcees, to abolish civil partnerships, or to make adultery a criminal offence. And to wonder what it is about gay marriage in particular that is causing such a vociferous reaction.
Make no mistake – when the letter is read out, it will be a declaration of war on equality. It will be a statement that the church believes it has the right to tell Catholics that some people should have lesser rights than others. And the church has the nerve to compare their opponents to advocates of slavery! I have no doubt that many decent Catholics will disagree with the church’s position. And those Catholics have the perfect opportunity to make their disagreement clear.
So here’s my plea to all Catholics – before attending church, examine your conscience. Ask yourself whether you genuinely support this letter. You may object on grounds of equality. You may object to the selective nature of this complaint, the way it is made, the interference of the church in a civil matter of administrative definitions, or anything else. But if you disagree, please make that disagreement known.
When the letter is read out, don’t sit there and allow yourself to be treated as a captive audience – stand up for your beliefs, and walk out. You don’t need to make lots of noise or create a stir. You know this is coming, so you can sit in a place where you can easily escape. You can leave with dignity, albeit pointedly, and you can return as soon as the letter is finished and the service proper continues. But please, do this to register your protest.
I understand that this may go against the grain. I understand that you may feel a strong connection with the church, even if you disagree with much of what it stands for. But if no one objects, the church will simply carry on doing the same thing. By remaining silent out of loyalty, you are damaging the church in the long run, just as enabling behaviour harms alcoholics. By way of contrast, imagine what would happen if everyone who disagreed with the church on this issue took this simple step to register their protest.
Even the longest journey begins with a single step. Please, take that first step.
Rick Santorum has done it again, getting into trouble while trying to pandering to his base. Here’s what he had to say on the subject of rape and abortion:
Asked by CNN’s Piers Morgan what he would do if his own daughter approached him, begging for an abortion after having been raped, Santorum explained that he would counsel her to “accept this horribly created” baby, because it was still a gift from God, even if given in a “broken” way.
“Well, you can make the argument that if she doesn’t have this baby, if she kills her child, that that, too, could ruin her life. And this is not an easy choice, I understand that. As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child. And whether she has that child or she doesn’t, it will always be her child, and she will always know that,” Santorum said.
“And so to embrace her and to love her and to support her and get her through this very difficult time, I’ve always, you know, I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life we have horrible things happen. I can’t think of anything more horrible, but nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation and I would make the argument that that is making the best.”
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are upset that he seems to be saying that rape’s a gift from God.
Now, I can accept the explanation that he isn’t saying it’s a gift to be raped, but is referring to the child as a gift. I can accept that he believes that life begins at conception, and that it would be murder to abort a foetus – I don’t agree, but I accept that he thinks that. I can even accept (with a grudging respect for his consistency) that if that’s the case, the circumstances of the pregnancy make no difference to the morality or otherwise of abortion.
What bothers me is that once again, he’s said something that sounds absolutely vile, but gives him just enough wiggle room for plausible deniability among those who are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt – the sort of people who’d even consider voting for him. Remember how he compared (or possibly didn’t) gay marriage to bestiality? The same thing is going on here.
Personally, I think this sort of weaselling is pretty damning, as it suggests Santorum is either deeply cynical or both a terrible communicator and pretty stupid not to realise how he was coming across. If he’s that stupid and bad at communicating, it should rule him out of the presidential race. If he’s that nasty and cynical, it should rule him out of membership of the human race.
But the reason I’m discussing this is that it’s a rare chance to see what flowery religious language actually means in the real world. It’s easy to glibly call children gifts from God, but in this example, that imagery is laid bare. If Santorum is saying this as an empty, meaningless platitude, as in “any time a life is created it’s like a gift”, then it’s irrelevant and everyone would have to agree that it has no place in rational discussion. If, on the other hand, he truly means that there is a God who would actually give such a “gift”, what does that say about God?
A God who would actually give such a “gift” is, if not implicated in the rape, at the very least guilty of making a woman’s ordeal infinitely worse by forcing her (because according to Santorum, He’ll condemn her to hell if she has an abortion) to carry her rapist’s child. Any good God who had the power to intervene in the world would surely do the opposite, if anything, and if Santorum thinks otherwise, either his theology or his moral compass (possibly both) is screwed up beyond belief.
I’ll give God and Santorum the benefit of the doubt, and assume that neither are actually evil – God’s just unable to do anything about it, and Rick’s prone to platitudinous rambling. But that “best case” would cast serious doubt on the value of this kind of imagery, and still mean that Santorum’s argument falls apart in tiny pieces when you actually examine it.
However you look at it, it doesn’t make “Frothy” Santorum look very presidential.
Pope Benedict XVI has been making news by stating (to no one’s great surprise, I would have thought) Rome’s opposition to gay marriage. It’s interesting enough that this unremarkable restatement of a Catholic doctrine qualifies as news, but what I found particularly revealing is the way this is stated:
He told diplomats from nearly 180 countries that the education of children needed proper “settings” and that “pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman.”
“This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” he said
Now, if I was a cynical, snarky type, I’d point out that if everything has to revolve around family units of one man and one woman as “the fundamental cell of every society”, the Catholic church should be sorting out its own beam of compulsory priestly celibacy before worrying about the mote of permitting people who are in gay relationships anyway to have some sort of legal recognition of that relationship. And as I just did, I suppose I must be a cynical, snarky type after all. Oh well.
But leaving the well-rehearsed arguments about gay marriage aside, here’s what I find so scary. Old Ratzi’s trying to ensure that the most basic rights and protections aren’t granted to gay relationships, directly challenging the secular, democratically elected authorities, with implications for millions of gay couples. But I can’t find a single argument as to why. He expects the nations of the world to do what he says on the back of nothing more than a few assertions which are shaky at best.
Obviously, you wouldn’t expect a scientific examination of the issue from him, but even so, he must have his reasons. He must have decided that the Bible, or church tradition or whatever clearly proves his various assertions, but we can’t know. Maybe it’s my Protestant background talking, or possibly my scientific mindset, but I expect to hear some proper reasoning, especially when the impact of this could be so far-reaching. I expect to be able to hear his reasons and say I agree, or don’t agree, or I’m not sure and will look into that a bit more later on. But when there’s no explanation given, there’s almost no room for rational argument – you can’t challenge unstated premises or hidden reasoning.
Lots of people do this – how often do you hear someone backing up a wild assertion with something along the lines of “it stands to reason”? – but they aren’t the head of a massive church, attempting to dictate global policy. Even if most Catholics are happy to do what he tells them without asking why, once he starts telling democratic government what they should be doing, he ought to be meeting a higher standard of evidence than “because I said so”.
Globally, even his Megachurchcorp brand is very much a minority. It would be nice if he acknowledged this now and again, but I won’t hold my breath.