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Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air, which doesn’t reflect well on the church

Pope FrancisBack at the start of the year, you’d have got pretty long odds on the Pope being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013, but that was before Ratzi hung up his blingtastic papal shoes and cleared the way for a younger (or rather, slightly less old) man.

Pope Francis has undoubtedly had a good year. He immediately had a profound impact on perceptions of the Roman Catholic Church with his obvious humility and simplicity in dress, and his softly spoken inclusivity in speech has also been very popular from the beginning. To be honest, though, he mostly benefits from comparison with his predecessor’s considerably more prickly character. Read More…

Pope Joan – Fact, fiction or something else?

PregnantMost people have heard the legend of Pope Joan, or a variation on the theme. At its most basic, the story goes that there was once a Pope who turned out to be a woman, generally held to have been discovered when she suddenly gave birth in the street. It’s often claimed that this incident led to subsequent Popes having to sit in a sort of privy chair with a hole in the seat, so that a cardinal could confirm their sex.

It’s an appealing story in many ways, depending on your inclinations. A woman who rose to the top by impersonating a man, in an age when women were rarely educated, is a common form of fable for good reasons. Add in the church’s foolishness being scandalously revealed in public and the delicious (if bizarre) mental image of the Vatican’s Groper-in-Chief fondling the papal scrotum before announcing “Testiculos habet et bene pendentes” (He has testicles, and they hang well), and I’d really like it to be true. Read More…

What’s in a miracle? – A scientific system of canonization

MiracleI recently wrote a summary of the process of becoming a saint in the Catholic Church. Well, now I want to pick up on something that’s been bothering me about it – it’s those miracles.

To head off any objections, I’m not interested in an argument about whether miracles are possible – such debates always get bogged down in semantics and evidence-free speculation. But it might surprise you to know that I think the definition of a miracle is fundamentally a scientific one, albeit with the thoroughly unscientific attitude that if we can’t explain it, we should just stop trying, give it a special name and say Goddidit. Read More…

So how do you become a saint, then?

Saint Maria(Imagine the title in the voice of Monty Python’s constitutional peasants)

If you’re not a Catholic or a religion nerd/tragic, you may not be aware that there’s a very specific qualification to be canonized by the church (in other words, to become a saint). It’s quite hilariously formalised and complicated, as only Roman Catholic doctrine can be, and consists of four steps.

First, once they’ve been dead for a while, a bishop may begin an investigation into the person’s life to make sure that they were good (for Catholic values of good), and that no heretical cult is currently worshipping them (as if that affected their worthiness). During this process, the candidate is known as “Servant of God”, and their body will be exhumed so that relics can be taken. Seriously. It’s not all beer and skittles being a saint. Read More…

Is the Pope chosen by God, or not?

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. Read More…

The hypocrisy of Keith O’Brien is too easy a target

Hypocrisy (n)
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

PriestKeith 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. Read More…

Why Cardinal O’Brien’s new-found progressiveness has got me annoyed

Wedding BouquetCardinal 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”. Read More…

Catholics denying that foetuses are people? There’s a reason for that

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.

Foetus

Personhood subject to legal advice

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. Read More…

Devil’s Advocate – What the Romans did for us

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.

DevilI 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. Read More…

The Curious Incident of the Herald in the Night-Time

“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. Read More…

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